Does sponsorship work?

Sponsorship spending increased 70% from over the past dozen years (2006-2018) and people still ask, “Does sponsorship work?”

  • Yes, sponsorship works. Sponsorship works when fans make the connection between the brand and the team. We call that sponsorship recall.
  • Why does sponsorship work? Sponsorship works because passion transfers from the team to the brand. The stronger the ties that bind the brand with the team, the greater the passion transfer.
  • What builds strong ties? Brands build strong ties when they share brand meaning through the team via multiple channels of communication.

Average Sponsorship Recall & Brand Lift

Average NFL sponsor recall1 was 38-39% across eight teams over the past two years (2017-2018). Among 11 teams this year the average recall from preseason is up to 43% in the NFL. Adding eight more teams from the NBA and NHL, average recall remains about the same (44%). The increase is due to (a) adding teams measuring strong partnerships, (b) teams selecting more partners above a given spending threshold, and (c) our partners getting smarter in sharing brand meaning with fans. However, with 165 brands represented, it’s safe to say average recall across the leagues hovers near 40% (+/- a few points) over the past three years.

The data visualization demonstrates the biggest differences are across categories. Hover over each category to see the distribution within that group of sponsors. Above average recall comes from the brand’s active use of the team’s marks and often some kind of entitlement or dedicated branded space (gates, training facilities, etc.). Below average recall often occurs in the first years of a contract in non-exclusive categories. Nonetheless, 25% recall among an NFL team’s fan base of four million is still one million passionate fans.

Below the recall comparisons by category we can see the effects on the key brand metrics of differentiation2 and preference3 On average for the NFL, when fans recall brands as the partner of the team, they improve brand relevance, differentiation and preference by over 60%.

Note: All results are based on a scientifically designed sample of the team’s database accurately reflecting season ticket holders, single game buyers and all other registered users. These results statistically infer brand lift without directly asking fans about the relationship between recall and effects (e.g., “If brand X is a sponsor of the team….”).

Thanks to Ian Young for the cool data viz.

8 Great Sponsorship Ideas

Brand objectives in an integrated marketing campaignA brand achieves over 50% partnership recall1Aided recall versus two primary competing brands when both the property and the brand effectively leverage assets to link and activate the brand in the minds of fans. One-third (41) of the 123 brands in 45 categories among eight NFL teams we studied achieved this feat in 2018.

Who will it be in 2019? The brands & properties with clear objectives (see right) that execute great sponsorship strategies like the ones we share from our partners (below) will achieve their goals. While there are many stellar sponsorship stories, here are eight we think are great.

Naturally, if you’re going to set goals it’s a good idea to measure progress. No one trains to run a race then never looks at the time. These partners set the goals and worked together to craft integrated campaigns that fans couldn’t miss.

Detroit Lions

Submitted by: Alex Ballew; Scott Olman

Partner: Henry Ford Health System

Brand Objectives: Differentiation, Preference/Consideration

The Lions teamed up with Henry Ford Health System to unveil a fully branded concourse prior to the 2018 season, which was the first of its kind at Ford Field. Branding is unmistakable throughout, including on the large walls, in the hallways leading to the seating bowl, on the window awnings, wayfinding signage and also integrated within the virtual photo fan experience. The wall graphics pair Lions players and Henry Ford Health System patients, showing key stats, facts, and interests for each. This theme helps humanize the players and makes them relatable to our fans.

Detroit Lions HFHS Concourse Wall

Partner: Kroger

Brand Objectives: Preference & Drive Traffic

Kroger was the perfect partner to integrate into a new Grab & Go concept at Ford Field. After the immediate success of the first location, Kroger doubled-down on the concept and installed a second Kroger Cooler in the building. Prior to the new concept and rebranding, both of these concession locations were among the worst performing in the facility. After renovations and branding with the new model, both locations are now Top 5 performers. In the minds of consumers, purchasing items from the Kroger Coolers is easy and quick, just like visiting an actual Kroger location.

Kroger Cooler at Ford Field

Houston Texans

Submitted by: Andrew Jacobs

Partner: Texas Children’s Hospital

Objectives: Increase/improve reputation (regard); Make the brand more relevant to people’s lives

One of Texas Children’s Hospital’s key objectives was to increase reputation and regard in the community through sponsorship of PLAY 60. During the season we created an entire “Play 60” week with events in the community to promote awareness and tie it to the team. Alex Comerota played a vital role in making the campaign a success.


Partner: RTIC

Objectives: To increase differentiation, trust, and preference.

RTIC makes excellent products that we are able to help differentiate from their chief competitor YETI. RTIC used the power of our brand, association with players, and special promotions throughout the year to increase their brand preference. They saw fantastic results, as those that recognized their partnership were far more likely to prefer RTIC to YETI. Litsa Darby did a great job with this campaign integrating the Texans with RTIC Outdoors.

Cleveland Browns

Submitted by: Vanessa Bryan

Partner: Bud Light

Objectives: Increase brand relevance & differentiation to increase consumption

Bud Light and the Browns created the Victory Fridges to help fans celebrate the first win of the 2018 season and the end of a long series of losses. Bud Light built a program based on several insights about Cleveland Browns fans in order to help them achieve their brand goal of associating celebrations with Bud Light. The brand also creatively executed several other brand elements, like the Bud Knight and the Dilly Dilly cam, to even further tie together the brand, team, celebratory moments, and the fridges.

Submitted by: Joe Hamlin

Partner: Sherwin-Williams

Objectives: To enhance reputation and drive consideration/preference for future purchase behavior.

For years the Browns were unable to wear our Color Rush jerseys we knew fans loved. When we were finally able to announce we were wearing Color Rush for three games, Sherwin-Williams jumped on the opportunity to present the announcement and the first ever Color Rush game with the Browns. Sherwin-Williams was the presenting partner of the first Color Rush game and a Color-Rush-Themed giveaway offered to fans.

For Sherwin-Williams, the synergies around a modern, new look with our colors was important. Equally important is being high in consideration for any customer coast-to-coast to get more shoppers to their neighborhood Sherwin-Williams store. The quality of the giveaway was important. Decades ago, Sherwin-Williams gave away painters hats. This time Sherwin-Williams opted for a more modern truckers-hat which has had amazing shelf-life since the promotion. We see them at almost every Browns event. The fact that this game was nationally televised, was Baker’s first game, and also our first win in 635 days also made the promotion lightning in a bottle.

New Orleans Saints

Submitted by: Kelly (Carroll) Batista

Partner: Cox

Objectives: Increase reputation and foster trust in the brand

Cox had a heavy game day presence both outside and inside of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Prior to the game, their on-site activation was a virtual reality experience with high engagement and created a fun interactive opportunity prior to kickoff. Their in-game activation offered to give away free Contour TV service for a year to reward fans.Their ongoing distinctive creative strategy integrated the team marks well to show off the partnership and connect with fans. This creative lived on all billboards, web ads, program ads, and other media. Emile Moussa was instrumental in carrying out this campaign

Partner: Dudley DeBosier

Objectives: To enhance reputation to differentiate and build trust with the firm.

Dudley DeBosier (DDB) featured two outstanding campaigns in 2018. Their phone number is 504-444-4444 and to play into the theme of “4’s,” fans had the opportunity to enter to win a trip to the fourth away game of the season. Over 19,000 entries were received for the chance to win a trip to Minnesota. The social media posts gained 731k impressions and 16k engagements. The second cool campaign was in partnership with Uber. DDB offered safe rides for fans to and from Saints home games. As injury lawyers, it was great for them to message the need for safe rides to avoid the need for a lawyer later! This campaign resulted in 3.1m impressions on social media and almost 5000 fans taking advantage of the free rides. Kaitlin Donahoe Cox helped carry out these campaign executions originally sold by Juan Aguilera.


Need more information? Contact Kirk Wakefield (

The Digital Media Value of Title Sponsorships & Promotions

Google trends for sponsors

Naming rights get plenty of media mentions, but what about directly tracking consumer engagement? What’s the relative payoff?

Including the effects of digital and social media in conjunction with the use of the team’s marks, we measure specific effects brands want fans to take as a result of sponsorship. These include what fans think, feel, or do because of the sponsorship, such as awareness of the Verizon Up campaign, preferring Heinz over Hunt’s, downloading the AT&T app, or owning a Toyota, Mercedes-Benz or Ford.

Tracking Media Engagement

But, one easy, free way to capture or track media engagement is through Google Trends.Entering key terms, we can find how frequently people search for information regarding the team and its sponsor. This speaks to the importance of the title sponsor promoting offers, deals or events connected directly to the team, so that fans search for “Lions” and “Ford” together. Of course, brands and teams get some co-branded search naturally. The question is, what can the brand do to promote more co-branded search?

People search for what they are interested in.

Comparing Naming Rights by Region

We can compare how AT&T’s sponsorship of the Cowboys fares against other naming rights in Texas–and compare it across time.  America’s most valuable team does produce more engagement than others in the state, but the Astros fare about as well and at times when the Cowboys are not in-season (and vice-versa). This chart illustrates the need for sponsors to establish complementary portfolios to reach consumers via passion points year round. (Hover over a point on the graph to see relative scores.)

Compare Naming Rights by League

We can compare with other NFL naming rights. Compared to the Patriots and Gillette, AT&T’s sponsorship of the Cowboys still reigns throughout the season, but the Patriots run lasts longer–right to the Super Bowl. Somewhat surprisingly, Ford’s sponsorship of the Lions fares about as well as the Gillette/Patriots and AT&T/Cowboys until peaking on Thanksgiving.

Compare Promotion Effectiveness

Google trends can also help track the success of promotions compared to other major promotions that might drive search behavior. This comparison shows that the Saints promotion with Verizon and the Texans promotion with the Texas Lottery drives consumers to get online to search for more information on behalf of the brand. Although on a smaller scale, the Lions promotion with Uber to help avoid traffic congestion also drives search behavior.

We continue to look for new ways to capture digital media value. Experienced marketers know the value is not in the exposure level. Everyone has heard of Ford, Verizon, Mercedes-Benz and Uber. The real value is in what people do because of the sponsorship. Measuring search behavior is one step in the right direction.

Brand preference: Why regard, relevance, differentiation and trust matter

The overarching goal of partnerships is to use the assets of the property to increase brand preference and use among fans of the team.

The route to brand preference and purchase is well-established in theory and practice. It’s all about relationships. Brands are like people. And, people are brands, for that matter.

Who do you prefer?

The steps to who–people and brands–you prefer to spend time, money and effort with are the same:

  1. I know who you are.
  2. Based on your behavior & associations, I hold you in relatively low or high regard.
  3. Because of shared relationships, you become more or less relevant.
  4. If you clearly align with my deepest passions, I see you as differentiated from others. You stand out.
  5. Now I can trust you.
  6. I prefer the brand with the highest regard, relevance, differentiation and trust.
  7. I buy the brand I prefer.

And Survey Says….

We can reliably predict brand preference for NFL partners if we know how fans feel about the brand’s regard, relevance, differentiation and trust. Our data from over 100,000 consumer opinions of over 120 brand partners among seven NFL teams (charts below) verify the importance of taking each step to build fan-brand relationships.

Why brand equity–regard, relevance, differentiation and trust–matters

For a brand that fans say is “the one I would prefer,” consider these indexed scores compared to brands they “would never use.”

Brand Equity Index Prefer/Never
Regard  +118% 5.83/2.66
Relevance +242% 5.01/1.47
Differentiation  +376% 80.34/16.87
Trust  +323% 81.96/19.37

Brand Preference = Brand Usage

Across all 120+ brand partners, if fans say the brand is “the one I prefer,” then 78.8% use that brand.

Preference Leads to Use

Why isn’t it 100%? Some categories are slow burns, like insurance, telecom, and banking. Fans of the Chicago Bears have high regard, relevance, differentiation and trust for PNC Bank–and the next time they have a banking decision–they will consider or use PNC Bank services. Fans of the Houston Texans have the same positive feelings about Verizon and the next time they have to decide which service to use, Verizon is in prime position. In any case, the property has done its job of building brand preference.

The brand partner brings it home when it makes unmistakable connections with fans and offers clear opportunities to do business with the brand in conjunction with the partnership.

HEB Brings It Home