Karen Earl Revisits Sponsorship V Partnership

Karen Earl knows a bit about sailing sponsorship, but in a new interview she suggests that its an old fashioned outdated term that will be replaces with partnership. While the thinking behind the redefinition is sound; to make sponsorship a more central part of the marketing mix, we disagree with a wholehearted change of naming believing that it adds confusion and sets some very dangerous precedents for professional sport.

Last week, David Rachell in his highly reccomended blog – “The Best Kept Secrets In Sponsorship Marketing“, tried to define sponsorship saying:

The practice is fragmented so differently among companies – the idea varies from company to company. Is it a donation? Is it really a marketing or a PR initiative? Would it be a part of media planning , public affairs or even investor relations?

He uses the European Sponsorship Association (ESA), an organisation that Karen Earl is the Chairman of to start the discussion:

Europe’s Sponsorship Association defines sponsorship as “any commercial agreement by which a sponsor contractually provides financing or other support to establish an association between the sponsor’s image, brands or products and property in return for rights to promote this association and granting of certain agreed to benefits.”

I like this as a starting point as this defines how a company can market itself to a specific audience through a mutually beneficial relationship. But is that any different than how we can define traditional advertising on TV or radio, or reaching out to newspaper or magazine readers?

In an interview with Ed Kemp in MARKETING, Karen Earl is reported as saying:

Terms such as partnership will become the rule rather than the exception… So, I guess that means the ESA itself will need a rebrand in coming years. ‘It’s on the to do list!!’, says Earl.

In the future, Earl argues, rights holders will work even more closely with their partners than they do today and that how rights holders operate will fundamentally change. While for their part brands will increasingly look to create – and thereby own – their own content. Earl prefers to look forward rather than at the past, but reflecting on the past 25 years she notes how sponsorship has gone from being on the periphery to being a central part of the marketing mix. ‘I’m no longer trying to sell the idea of sponsorship to clients. Today it’s about helping people do it better.

We agree more with Kim Skildum-Reid who says on her site:

Clearly, the industry’s approach to sponsorship has shifted to one that is partnership-oriented. The problem with shifting to the word “partnership” is that a) it means something different to every department within a company; and b) it has a very specific legal definition that goes way beyond the relationship outlined in a sponsorship contract.

There are some complicated questions here and they go to the heart of professional sport. While it makes sense to give sponsors (let’s keep the old term for now), the best possible returns and work hand in hand with them to achieve their goals, questions have to be asked about the who sport exists for. Is it the competitors, the rights holders, the sponsors or the fans? It seems that in a redefinition of sponsors as partners, fans can find their sport changed to accommodate the promotional whims of a brand.

While you can argue that it is in the sponsors’ best interests to keep fans happy – after all, if no-one is watching, then what’s the point – sponsors can also alienate fans who are not in their target market.

Perhaps the argument is purely semantic, or perhaps it is something that makes sense at an Olympic level. If you are big and important enough to be able to command multimillion pound title sponsorship deals, then you have the luxury of being able to play around with the naming and definitions. How does the hierachy work? Is the word sponsor to be scrapped altogether, can you have supporting or associate partners? Do partners accept shares of losses?

Karen Earl suggests that brands will increasingly look to create – and thereby own – their own content, but does a company that, for example,  makes software really want to get into the nitty gritty of running a sports franchise or property? Some obviously do – brands like Louis Vuitton, Volvo and Red Bull take their sports promotion so seriously that they become the rights holders and own the event. This allows them to determine the format, the teams, supporting sponsors, the location of events and to control the experience from start to finish. But where does this end? Conceivably if  competing brands want to play, they have to develop their own show? Surely it is better for the fan to have brands compete against each other in the field of play rather than fragment an already overpopulated calendar of events.

The redefinition of sponsorship to partnership assumes that both sides have the resources, expertise, money and commitment to make such a venture work. Most sponsorship seekers haven’t worked out that they need to give something back to sponsors let alone joining at the hip. Partnership is a worthy goal for brands and sports properties who want to work in a co-operative way to achieve the golas of both parties, but to drop the term sponsorship altogether seems a bit premature.

We’ve asked the ESA for comment and we’ll keep following the story.