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August 18, 2006

SPECIAL REPORT Did World Cup sponsors go out on penalties?

Event sponsorship, particularly in the sporting world, is big business, and the recent FIFA World Cup held in Germany presented this sector at its peak. However, recent research from integrated agency Space suggests that much of it didn’t actually work. It found that although some brands involved with this summer’s World Cup had created powerful links with fans, other branding efforts resulted in diminished supporter goodwill.

As reported by EVENTS:review in July, the research was carried out by Space account manager James Ralley, who spent five weeks in Germany – apparently not just watching the football. Commenting on his findings, David Atkinson, Space managing partner, says: “Where branded products and services had been designed to meet supporter needs, they enjoyed a positive response. It seems, however, that football fans are more sophisticated than some sponsors realise. Where the tournament was being used merely to increase awareness, fans recognised this and saw it as being cynical and exploitive.”

So it appears that like many other areas of advertising and marketing, sport audiences are becoming increasingly media aware and will ignore or in some cases actually feel antipathy towards overt sales messages. Certainly, Space’s on-the-spot study of World Cup branding and sponsorship revealed increasingly cynical and disillusioned football fans turning away from some of the brands aiming to win their trust. Space reports that the antipathy derives from the supporters’ perceptions of sponsors’ motives.

“If your target audience does not believe that you care about the sport,” continues Atkinson, “you have a problem. We asked if fans felt that World Cup sponsors care about football and, worryingly for sponsors, 52.3% delivered a firm ‘No’ verdict. Given that the main objective is to harness the passion for football in support of the brand, it becomes clear that opportunities were available to all, but missed by many.”

During his time in Germany, Ralley travelled 5,000 miles, visiting 12 cities – the number of bars was not specified – discussing branding issues with 1,500 fans.

“We kept hearing the same view,” explains Ralley, “with fans concerned that the corporate pound is becoming more important to football than the supporters’ money. Supporters are increasingly unhappy at the commercialisation of what they regard as ‘their game’. That unhappiness is being directed as much at sponsors as at football’s organising bodies.”

Atkinson urges brands to note the clear warning sounded by the research. “We anticipated consumer apathy,” he says, “but had not expected it to this degree, or with such passionate disinterest and alienation.”

Space’s research measured:

- fans’ involvement with brands – almost 90% claimed not to have taken part in any World Cup promotions

- awareness of brands associated with English football and with the tournament

- perception of sponsors’ motives

- fans’ participation in the tournament – almost 60% of which watched at least half of the matches, regardless of the countries involved

The agency refused to release any more of its findings on the first time of asking, presumably feeling its initial release was sufficient to get companies running for their cheque books to find out more. ER is, however, currently in negotiations for more details… if there are any.

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