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Winning hearts with social sponsorship


Science of Sponsorship Series

Social sponsorship has proven to be a relevant tool to express a brand’s values and to add a social dimension to a brand identity. It has the potential to improve brand image, generate better attitudes toward a brand and increase purchase intents. Besides, it is a more powerful lever for brand image than commercial sponsorship.

However, it can be more complex than it looks. There is the risk of consumers perceiving that a company has selfish motivations, which would not only prevent a company from benefitting from the partnership, but could also badly damage a brand image. You don’t want to give consumers the impression that you are exploiting a cause they care about for commercial reasons.

Audi was recently criticized for its “Daughter” ad, that aired during the Super Bowl. The ad promoted equality, in an elegant and convincing manner. The problem is that Audi has no women on its executive team and its board has only 16% women. It was not long before media and social media spread the word. Charity begins at home.

However there are a few examples of successful and inspiring collaborations. For instance, Disney and the Make-a-Wish® Foundation have been partners for over 35 years and have granted over 100,000 wishes, all over the world. Disney has been a generous philanthropic supporter of the Foundation and provided access to its theme parks to make dreams come true. Another good example would be the partnership between Hanes, the number one sock manufacturer in America, and The Salvation Army. It can sound trivial, but socks are one of the most requested items by homeless people. Since 2009, Hanes has donated over 1.9 million pairs of socks to The Salvation Army and helped raise awareness and donations during the holiday season by installing collection bins in 160 stores across the United States.

So, how is it done? We are going to look into the drivers of successful social partnerships. But first, let’s do a quick review to avoid any confusion between cause-related marketing, corporate philanthropy and social sponsorship.

Cause-related marketing aims at enhancing a company’s performance while helping a cause. The support generally depends on consumers buying a company’s services or products. One of the most famous examples of cause-related marketing is probably the restoration of the Statue of Liberty by American Express: for every purchase, an amount of money was given to the restoration fund. Lush, the cruelty-free cosmetic company, also uses this technique with its Charity Pot body lotion: 100% of the retail price is donated to charity (usually human rights, animal welfare and environment).

Corporate philanthropy was initially expected to be only about pure generosity. Companies still donate without worrying too much about the commercial returns. However, academics and practitioners increasingly value strategic use of corporate philanthropy. It still benefits a cause, but also a company and a brand. Now these budgets are being transferred to fill marketing and communication purposes. Enter social sponsorship: the sponsorship of an organization or an event promoting a social or cultural cause.

All of these can work together as part of a wider, fully integrated program, that nourishes a company’s strategy and objectives. They also can be used within one partnership, mixing different types of support.

Now, what do those successful and inspiring social partnerships have in common? Fit (or articulation i.e. “made up fit”) and commitment.

Fit between a company’s clients and a cause’s audience, or the relevance of a company’s expertise to what a cause needs are aspects to consider in order to enhance the perceived fit. A good fit will in turn increase the legitimacy of a partnership and generate positive outcomes in terms of brand image.

Commitment, in terms of time, resources or structure of a partnership (punctual sponsorship vs complete partnership), also has a significant impact on consumers’ reaction to an alliance. For instance, the impact of a social sponsorship on a brand image will more positive if the sponsorship is perceived to be philanthropic support rather than a punctual action. Philanthropic support paves the way to sponsorship.

What is interesting is that in a short-term partnership (mixing philanthropy and sponsorship), a non-congruent alliance generates better attitudes than a congruent one. Inversely, in a long-term partnership, a congruent association will have a more positive impact on consumer attitudes.

Let’s try to picture it. Imagine a company like L’Oreal, the cosmetics manufacturer, getting involved in a social issue. A short-term alliance perceived as being non-congruent, for example with L’Itinéraire, a newspaper created by homeless people, would generate better attitudes from consumers than an alliance with a congruent cause, for example the Breast Cancer Foundation (as L’Oreal’s main target is women). In the long run, however, it would be the opposite: the association with the Breast Cancer Foundation would generate better attitudes than an alliance with l’Itinéraire.


It can feel counterintuitive, considering that fit is a key success factor of a sponsorship’s effectiveness. However, in the case of a social sponsorship, the major risk lies in the potential perception of a company exploiting a cause for selfish commercial reasons.

Therefore, in a short-term partnership, where commitment in terms of time is limited, consumers are going to search for a reason or a hidden agenda. A non-congruent partnership can prevent people from thinking that a company has another interest in the association other than helping a cause. A non-congruent association would thus work as a bulwark against negative perceptions.

Inversely, when a brand has been committed to a cause for a long time, a congruent association will generate more positive attitudes toward the brand. Since the brand has proven its credentials for a certain period, the need to look selfless is less urgent. Instead, consumers are going to look for common points and positively regard the synergy the alliance is based on. They will tend to see it as a “win-win” partnership.

Here are the key takeaways for your future social partnerships:

  • In any case, you will get better outcomes from a social sponsorship if backed by some sort of philanthropic support.
  • To promote your company’s recent involvement in a social cause, you are better not to emphasize the similarities between your company and the sponsored organization, so that consumers do not see your brand as exploiting the cause.
  • To communicate a long-term association to a cause, you should highlight the common points and potential synergies in order to enhance the perceived fit, your legitimacy in the alliance and consumers’ attitudes.

Demonstrating your values and getting involved seem to be a long-lasting trend. Sponsorship is a great tool to do this, but must be handled carefully in order to make the most of it, for the brand and the cause. Fit and commitment are the essentials.


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Original article: Przybysz, Audrey. La philanthropie corporative : première marche vers la commandite sociale ? Étude de la réaction et des attributions des consommateurs face à leur utilisation conjointe. Master’s thesis, HEC Montréal, 2016.

d’Astous, A. et P. Bitz (1995), Consumer Evaluations of Sponsorship Programmes. European Journal of Marketing, 29, 12, 6-22.


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