Sponsorship Expert Aiko de Bruijn "The world is constantly changing and so are the challenges that sponsors face. It’s important for us to always keep up with the market."

From childhood, Aiko de Bruijn dreamt of becoming a sports journalist. During his studies, he discovered that journalism was not his ultimate field, but his passion for sports has always remained. Aiko now works as a Research Consultant at Sponsoring Insights, a place where all his interests converge. Here follows a conversation about cycling, the drive to understand customers, and a fascination with numbers.

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What do you like to do in your spare time?

Besides my work at Blauw Sponsoring Insights, I have a cycling start-up that takes a lot of my time. I also like to play and watch sports, which is something I have done all my life. I’m also a real news junkie; my day starts with reading the newspaper, which I read from front to back. I love that and it keeps me up to date. I love to travel and I'm studying Spanish. And of course I like to do nice things with my friends. Whenever possible, I try to combine my hobbies with my social environment - my best friends cycle too.

So cycling is your number one sport?

Yes, when I was young I also ice skated and played football and tennis for years. Eventually I stopped doing everything at some point in secondary school, because I had other needs for a while. In my student days, I started playing football again, but unfortunately got injured pretty quickly. I then bought a racing bike and was soon sold on it. Occasionally I still kick a ball around, and I've been a member of a tennis club again since last year. But cycling is by far the sport to which I devote most time, including annual weekends and weeks away with friends to Limburg, the Ardennes and France. I also follow every cycling race held anywhere in the world online.

Where does your love of sport come from?

I don't know exactly where it comes from. All I know is that I wanted to watch sport on TV from a very early age. Those are my first memories. My father liked watching sport, but I wouldn't necessarily describe him as a passionate sports fan. My brother is. He's a few years older than me, and that certainly helped. I used to nag my parents to buy extra newspapers, because I wanted to read all the sports editions. I like the emotion surrounding sport and I like the physical and mental challenge that comes with it. The athletes on TV were always my heroes.

Did you have a link to sports sponsorship back then?

No, I didn't think about that. My dream was to become a sports journalist. That's why I read all those articles in the paper, cut them out, and then made my own newspapers. For a long time, I thought that would be my field of study too. When I was a kid, I found numbers fascinating - from lap times in ice skating to goal differences in football. I kept everything in notebooks. It's still a habit of mine. When I'm on my racing bike in the mountains during a climb I can be thinking: At the speed I'm going now, how many minutes is it from here to the top? I love calculating and I did it as a child. I always liked the logos in sports too. The Dutch national football team had Nationale Nederlanden as a sponsor at the time. I used to draw those footballers and the Nationale Nederlanden logo, without actually knowing that it belonged to Nationale Nederlanden.

What did you study?

I finally decided to study business administration, because I wanted a scientific course. I had researched all the sports journalists that I held in high esteem and I saw that they had often entered the profession via a side-road. So I thought, “That's what I'm going to do." I did an internship at ELF Voetbal and Sport 1 Magazine, which was a super cool time. I was allowed to interview footballers, write background articles, and after a while they were even published in the magazines. I still cherish them and have a pile of them at home. But, unfortunately, that’s where my dream came to an end. After six months, I found it a bit superficial. After my degree in business administration, I did a master's degree in marketing. I wrote a master's dissertation on the effectiveness of sports sponsorship.

How did you end up at Sponsoring Insights?

I first worked at Dutch Railways as a management trainee and then in project and team management. But I noticed that sport is my passion, the common thread in my life, and that I wanted to do something with it. I knew that would make me happy. Every day I walked and cycled past a large Blauw sign, which was a few hundred metres from my house. I had no idea what Blauw was, but that sign always stuck. When I started looking for potential employers, I didn't really know where to begin. I managed to get hold of a list of all kinds of companies and Blauw Sponsoring Insights was among them. So by chance I saw that list and thought: that's funny, I think I recognise those letters B L A U W. I started to look into the organisation and read about Blauw Sponsoring Insights' work in international sports sponsorship research and consultancy on their website. This is where my fascination with numbers and my dissertation on sponsorship came together - this was a super opportunity! So I e-mailed them and later found myself talking to Eva (Gerritse).

What does your position as Research Consultant entail?

At Sponsoring Insights we advise partners such as Sony, PepsiCo and Nissan. My role is to work with the research team to understand what our partner's real needs are, what challenges they face, and what their future challenges might be. We then devise a suitable research solution to help our partner further. We don't just look at the present, but also offer our customers insights and advice on how to successfully move forward. I'm also responsible for all the projects we do with Heineken. Heineken wants to move forward and understands that market research plays an essential role in this. Heineken regards research as an investment to make its sponsoring investment pay off. In addition, I'm responsible for product development in our team. The world is constantly changing and so are the challenges that sponsors face. It's important to always keep up with the market. And, of course, we want to remain at the forefront of this.

Why do you think sponsorship research is so important?

Sponsorship can be a wonderful vehicle. When sponsorship is properly activated, it leads to better brand results than any other marketing tool. The essence of sponsorship is to build an emotional relationship with the sports fan. The word “relationship“ implies that there are two sides to it; it's not a one-way street. So it's important to understand who those sports fans are, what drives them, how they follow sports, and how you can touch them as a brand. Market research is crucial here. As a sponsor, only when you understand the fan can you effectively "steer" and get a grip on the success of your sponsorship.

How do you make a difference for partners?

My strength is that I want to clearly understand the challenges facing our partners and what's going on there. And then come up with the right research solution for it. What drives me is understanding our partners and providing them with insights and advice that really help them tackle their challenges. I think that is where I can make a difference for customers. For me, partnership is not about delivering a research report and then moving on; no, partnership is a continuous process. I also swap ideas with our partners outside of official projects.

Is that the journalist in you? Wanting to really understand the other person, and grasp everything?

I never really made that connection. Indeed, I found journalism interesting because it's about wanting to understand a person, situation, context or tactics. But I don't want to understand a partner just for the sake of understanding, but because I want to help him. As Stephen Covey put it: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” And it's true.

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