It is nearly impossible to find a discussion of sponsorship without some mention of authenticity. New partnerships claim they have it. Successful partnerships attribute their success to it. We all know authenticity when we experience it. Authenticity is the genuineness, the legitimacy of something, it is imbued with an experience of truthfulness.
What is the nature of authenticity in sponsorship? There is an assumption that authenticity is found, not built. This is evidenced by the flurry of brands during the ascendance of esports asking out loud, “could we be authentic in esports?” A better question might be, “can a brand that is not endemic to esports be an authentic partner?” Clearly the answer was, or became, yes.
In sum, authentic relationships:
- can be found
- may be built via leverage and activation
- evolve over time
I have argued to stop thinking of sponsorship as advertising and begin thinking of it as authentic engagement. Marketing researchers Anita Pansari and V. Kumar explain that engagement comes from consumer satisfaction and emotional bonding. Typical brand outcomes targeted through sponsorship include liking or brand purchase. Engaged outcomes achieved through authentic relationships include loyalty, brand attachment and even brand love or advocacy.
Unfortunately, for all the emphasis place on authenticity in sponsoring, it is amazing how infrequently it is measured. With this in mind, we (Aaron Charlton and I) developed a measure of partnership authenticity. Based on thinking about brand authenticity (from Felicitas Morhart and colleagues), the partnership authenticity measure has four dimensions:
- Continuity – standing for something over time, the partnership has history
- Credibility – delivering on promises, the partnership is honest
- Integrity – holding good values, the partnership is responsible
- Symbolism – representing ideas, the partnership communicates intangible values
We developed a short scale with four questions and a long scale with 16 questions, either of which could be included in a survey. The short scale can give an overall picture of the level of authenticity. The long measure is useful diagnostically by capturing each dimension in depth. We tried out our scales in studies on sponsorship naming rights deals, co-branding, and celebrity endorsement. The measures of authenticity work well in different contexts.
How might the measures be used?
Scouting for new partners – Authenticity measures could be used by the either side of the partnership when exploring potential new relationships. For example, when a sport team is considering several new partners, it could be helpful in a pitch tell a brand how they are viewed by fans. Alternatively, when a brand is considering several possible rising sport stars, which one might resonate more with their customer base?
Measuring partnerships over time – To know the current level of authenticity is helpful but to monitor it over time to see if the partners are growing together in the mind of audiences is evidence of success. Are the partners delivering on promises? Is there satisfaction? Are emotional bonds being forged?
For example, a team might be new, like the MLS Los Angeles Football Club, but their shirt sponsor is a power tools brand, Flex, with 100 years of history. As the relationship moves forward, the club could consider the extent to which their shirt sponsorship deepens in authenticity over time. Further, the extent to which authenticity contributes to brand loyalty for each partner could be captured.
Diagnostics for strategy – Measuring the four dimensions of authenticity supports an understanding of the success of leveraging and activation designed to move the needle on a dimension. Partnerships could bring high scores on an authenticity dimension like continuity from both sides but also might want to develop a low scoring dimension like symbolism.
Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs, founded in 1870, have a long history. The Cubs partnered with history-rich Jim Beam and their Maker’s Mark brand in 2017. But what about symbolism? For those fortunate enough to visit Wrigley Field and the Marker’s Mark speakeasy-themed lounge, their sense of the brand partnership might be enhanced. Seeing the Maker’s Mark chandelier made from bourbon bottles and brought to Chicago from Kentucky or tasting the exclusive Chicago Cubs Reserve bourbon might instill a sense of symbolism that could be measured.
Sponsorship is notorious for not being adequately measured. In partial defense of those working in this space, there has been a dearth of appropriate measures for some things that matter most in sponsoring. The authenticity of partnerships has been one of those hard to gage aspects of sponsoring, but no longer.
T. Bettina Cornwell is the Philip H. Knight Chair and Professor of Marketing at the University of Oregon.