Beware of ghosts

Last week I caught up with the sponsorship team of an official sponsor of a Bundesliga club. We spoke about how long it takes to build sponsor recognition and the key factors in successfully growing recognition of your brand. Just to show how difficult this is, I asked them – as real experts in football sponsorship – to name the eight official sponsors of the UEFA Champions League.

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The four of them only managed to come up with five of the eight sponsors, while also mentioning at least five brands that are not or no longer involved in the Champions League. If experts like these don’t know the exact answer, how can sponsorship managers expect the average fan to recognise that fantastic sponsorship deal they have sealed?

Building recognition is clearly important. If you don’t reach anyone, you cannot expect your sponsorship to boost your sales or image. But sponsor recognition is not achieved overnight. It takes years for a sponsor to lodge itself in the minds of fans. And even after years of trying (the current Champions League sponsors all have at least two seasons under their belt) not all sponsors succeed in catching sufficient attention.

As noted, fans (and even sponsorship managers) do not always know which brand sponsors their favourite sport or club. They often confuse the actual sponsors with well-known international brands that are widely associated with sports. Think Coca Cola, Visa, Nike and McDonald’s. We call these ghost sponsors: brands that are often mentioned as sponsors even though they are not.

The more brands that are active within a sponsorship domain, the harder it is to stand out and not be overshadowed by ghost sponsors. And the challenge is all the greater when multiple brands within a single product category link their name to the same sport. Just think of all the car brands in football: was it Hyundai or Volkswagen that backed the Euros? And is Kia or Nissan the official sponsor of the Europa League?

Looking back at the year behind us, the results of our surveys show that 2020 was a particularly difficult year for sponsors to stand out from the crowd. During the months without sport, when sponsors had less opportunity to be visible, respondents suddenly started naming ghost sponsors more often at the expense of the official sponsors. In the months of June and July, for instance, brands like Coca Cola and FedEx were frequently mentioned as Champions League sponsors…without spending a penny on that elite competition.

Less visibility, in other words, leads to more confusion and less (relative) recognition for official sponsors. But not all sponsors suffered equally from this effect. The key to success lies in consistent and continuous activation of the sponsorship: brands that actively kept their message authentic and relevant during the pandemic ran far less risk of ghost brands poaching their place in the minds of fans.

Our advice for 2021 is clear. Whatever happens with your sport next year, keep activating your sponsorships with a convincing, relevant and authentic message: that way, you will keep the ghosts at bay.

Want to know more about our approach?