The Science of Sports Sponsorship Activation

Maximize sports marketing investments with these tips from neuroscience

Tone, placement and connection measurement are all key

Global sponsorship spending is estimated to reach almost $63 billion in 2017, according to IEG, a sponsorship measurement firm. In North America, the biggest regional market for sponsorship, 70% of the more than $23B in sponsorship investment is sports-related. That’s more than $16B committed to sponsoring sport in the US and Canada. And it’s growing.

For brands, there’s a lot riding on these investments, and for those managing these investments, the stakes are high: General Motors’ fired their CMO following the mishandling of Chevy’s record sponsorship with Manchester United. While this might be the highest profile head to roll from sponsorship mismanagement, the shrinking average tenure of CMOs suggests that boards are rarely in forgiving moods with marketing departments.


The implications are clear, then – in order to preserve and extend their tenure, marketers must leverage every tool at their disposal to maximize performance. For sports sponsorship and marketing, that means figuring out both what to sponsor, and how best to activate investments to drive business and brand performance. The latter is particularly important - $2 out of every 3 is spent in activation, according to data compiled by IEG from December, 2016.

Brainsights have conducted a meta analysis of dozens of its sports marketing studies, crunching billions of brain data points in the process, in order to bring marketers a deeper understanding of how to maximize sports sponsorship activations. As an Olympics and World Cup year, the timing is even more apt.

This, the first in a series of three articles, tackles the key topic of tone.

Tip 1: Score points with your Audience by Minding your Tone

A meta-analysis of Brainsights’ sports activation work reveals considerable differences in the way various audience segments respond to tone. To take one example, consider how Millennials versus Gen X’ers respond to tones around motivation (see below). This is perhaps the most common of sports marketing tones used, framed in language of empowerment, hard work, grit, grind, payoff. However it's communicated, it’s a form of motivation.

The Generational Challenges of Motivational Tones (Source: Brainsights database)

The Generational Challenges of Motivational Tones (Source: Brainsights database)

Analyzing how Millennial and Gen X brains respond to hours of the same content – content that is tagged by theme, tone and over 100 other metadata variables - Brainsights could pinpoint what resonated at a deep neural level. When it came to sports marketing and motivation, the results were intriguing: what resonates with Millenials is almost the exact opposite of what resonates with Gen X’ers.

Scenes and segments featuring moments of stoicism, tenacity and tough challenges drove the neural activation of Millennials. These are scenes typically showcasing the struggles of athletes, and how they responded. These same moments failed to resonate with Gen X’ers, who were more engaged with scenes featuring celebration and achievement – scenes promptly rejected by Millennials. This pattern of response holds true across various sporting environments, from hockey to the Olympics.

These findings suggest that brands must re-think their activation strategies as it pertains to tone by life stage; otherwise they risk outright rejection of important marketing messages by key consumer segments, and wasted sponsorship efforts.

This isn't to say that you should not show the journey to get to the celebration, or show the celebration as reward for the journey. It’s about how that story is told.

A reward could be as simple as the smile on someone’s face after a period of hard work. It’s hardly a celebration, but most certainly indicative of achievement (and something that scores well in sports apparel advertising).

Similarly, a journey needn’t overly focus on the hardships along the way – it could rather focus on the opportunities presented to an athlete.

But to be effective, a segmented approach to tone that appeals to the sensibilities of various audiences is required; otherwise sponsorship storytelling is blunted.

The next in our series of sports marketing tips looks at how to outflank the competition by understanding the power of context.

(Image cred: sxsw.com)