Brands risk self-harm from ‘calculative’ sports sponsorship deals

football pr

11 September 2017

  • Sponsorship deals can feed loyalty, but can backfire if fans are suspicious of a sponsor’s motives, according to new research co-authored by Aston University
  • The price tag, contract duration and geographical connection of the deals clubs strike with business make a ‘massive difference’ to brand perception
  • Nearby sponsors are seen as committed, while high fees and large geographic distances between can fuel suspicion about a sponsor’s motives
  • News comes as English Premier League clubs earned a record £281 million from shirt sponsorship deals this year with predominantly international sponsors
  • Explainer video with Professor Christof Backhausavailable for republication

A high price tag sponsorship deal between a business and a premier sports club is not a guarantee of positive brand promotion, and can even backfire – according to new research.

A survey of thousands of football fans found that high-price deals between businesses and teams can actually cause harm to brands if the nature of the deal arouses suspicion, with the amount of money paid, contract duration and geographical connection making a massive difference to how a brand is perceived by sports audiences in the home country market.

The news comes as Premier League clubs earned a record £281 million for shirt sponsorship deals with largely foreign companies, according to the Daily Mail. Several international firms are among the brands who signed up for one of the newly available shirt-sleeve sponsorships, such as in case of the recently announced shirt-sleeve deal between Liverpool FC and US financial services giant Western Union.

But marketing experts from Aston University in Birmingham, University of Oregon and Technical University Braunschweig in Germany have found that big money deals are not a guarantee of positive brand perception for businesses.

Christof Backhaus, Professor of Marketing at Aston University, said: “In our study, we found that consumers are far more sensitive about the nature of these deals than brands perhaps realise. The amount of money paid, the contract duration, and whether the sponsor has a regional connection to the club can make a massive difference to how the brand is perceived.

“In the communication around the shirt-sleeve deal between Liverpool and Western Union, for instance, both partners emphasise their similarities such as a long history, a global audience and shared values, as well as how the club and its fans could benefit from the deal.

“By delivering on such expectations and by committing for a longer period of time, the potential negative connotations of being far-distant could be counterbalanced. In so far, there is hope also for sponsors with a relatively weak natural connection, but brands and clubs need to be proactive in managing this.”

Another key finding was thatsponsors that are in closer proximity to the club are seen more favourably due to the natural connection between the brand and the club, Backhaus said.

Christof Backhaus_pr
Professor Christof Backhaus

“For instance, if a club is quite far away the natural connection is not there, and then people are more suspicious about the motives of that partnership.

For the research, published online in the Journal of Marketing, the team looked at 44 sponsorships in the German football league, viewing existing deals through the knowledge that 2,787 consumers already had about brands and sports partnerships.

They found that sponsorships with high fees and distant international sponsors are seen to reflect calculative motives of the sponsors. To some degree, stadium naming rights deals also are seen as more calculative than perimeter logo sponsorships. Participants questioned whether such a pairing was a good fit — a show of support or just a deal that furthers a sponsor’s bottom line.

 “We also found that the longer that a sponsor commits to a sponsee via the contract duration, the more positive effects this has for inferred motives and for how the brand is seen. In a short term sponsorship, we found that fans can get suspicious that the brand is only in it for ‘quick win’ benefits, and could have a more hit-and-run attitude.”

A notable example came in 2012 with the announcement that US automotive brand Chevrolet was to sponsor Manchester United. Questions then were raised about why an American carmaker would support a British football team.

“It wasn’t about the sponsorship of soccer by an automaker; that is common enough,” said T. Bettina Cornwell, head of the Department of Marketing in the  Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon.

“Now the players were to have Chevy on their shirts. Before the shirts were even printed, questions arose about the deal characteristics.”

Team owners also need to consider that relevance, said Professor David Woisetschläger, Professor of Service Management at Germany's Technical University Braunschweig. "The clubs need to tell the story about how a sponsor is important to the team, the market and the area," he said. "They need to communicate how the money realized in a sponsorship will used – why the money is what it is and how it provides a good benefit."


Notes to the editor

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About Aston University

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