The Great Debate: Does “Sponsorship” need a new Name?

scrabble“Are you calling about a sponsorship?”  “Um, no, I’m calling about a corporate partnership… I mean strategic alliance.  Sorry, it’s actually an associative marketing opportunity”.    “Isn’t that the same thing?”

This has been an ongoing debate in our industry for as long as I can remember.    I made a reference to this in one of my recent posts “You Know you work in Sponsorship When” (check it out if you have time), but the bigger question on everyone’s mind is if it’s not “sponsorship” then what is it and what do we call it?   Passion Marketing? Alliance Marketing?  Partnership Marketing?  Associative Marketing?  Corporate Partnership? It seems to me that it’s more of an internal industry debate and based on my experience and research for this post, properties seem to be leading the charge in terms of a creative interpretation and positioning of “sponsorship”

Somewhere along the way, the term “sponsorship” got lost in translation and thanks to our creative marketing minds, we decided to put a certain spin on the term to make it sound more inclusive, lucrative, creative…more of a partnership or marriage of sorts.  Perhaps the term is too generic, or gets easily confused with philanthropy (cause marketing could confuse you even more)  or maybe a few people have bruised the perception of the word through bad deals, poorly executed programs, broken promises, and yes, even a  government scandal (e.g.. the sponsorship scandal, “AdScam”, “Sponsorship” or Sponsorgate, is a scandal that came as a result of a Canadian federal government “sponsorship program” in the province of Quebec and involving the Liberal Party of Canada, which was in power from 1993 to 2006 – source Wikipedia).    Based on all the industry chatter, I thought this would be a great conversation-starter and the genesis for writing this open-ended blog post.

DictionaryNext step was to look up the formal definition of “sponsorship” using Mirriam-Webster’s online dictionary, but since sponsorship is technically a noun, I was directed to the definition for “Sponsor”.  According to this dictionary, “Sponsee”, isn’t a word so no luck there, either.    I then hit the thesaurus button and got something close: “the financial support and general guidance for an undertaking ”.   Not really what I was expecting, but then again, there are a number of marketing terms that technically don’t reside in a traditional dictionary.  I decided to look at a more modern source including industry juggernaut: IEG, Wikipedia and one from Europe:

IEG Defines sponsorship as:

  • “Fee paid to a property (cash or in kind) in exchange for the right to exploit the commercial potential associated with that property”.    I always thought this was the formal definition, but learned recently it was created and introduced by IEG over 30 years ago.   Kudos to Lesa Ukman and the original team of Pioneers at IEG, for helping to define the true meaning of sponsorship.

Wikipedia (borrows elements of IEG’s definition)

  • Sponsorship is a cash and/or in-kind fee paid to a property (typically in sports, arts, entertainment or causes) in return for access to the exploitable commercial potential associated with that property, according to IEG.
  • While the sponsoree (property being sponsored) may be nonprofit, unlike philanthropy, sponsorship is done with the expectation of a commercial return.

Think!Sponsorship (a UK-based sponsorship agency) uses this definition:

  • ‘Sponsorship is a business relationship between a provider of funds, resources or services and an individual, event or organisation which offers in return for rights and association that may be used for commercial advantage in return for sponsorship investment’

Here’s where it gets even more interesting.

LinkedInIf you look at the roles of most executives (on LinkedIn) who represent properties and sell sponsorship, you’ll find a myriad of titles- the most popular: “Corporate Partnerships” to more overarching monikers such as “Sales”, “Business Development” and “commercial assets”.   It’s very rare that you’ll see the word “sponsorship” in the title of an executive who sells sponsorship for a property.  However, If you look at most executives who buy sponsorship, you’ll find a large majority of them have “sponsorship” in their title e.g. Director of Sponsorship, Manager of Sponsorship Strategy, etc.

I decided to dig a little deeper and looked at industry conferences, associations, blogs, twitter accounts and other credible sources to help find some answers.    If the word “sponsorship” wasn’t clearly spelled-out in the titles (or departments) of executives on the property or brand side, it was undeniably front-and-center with these groups.    If you look at the major industry conferences you’ll find the word “sponsorship” a lot more prevalent – in fact, it was hard to find one that didn’t use “sponsorship”.  Starting with IEG’s recent sponsorship conference entitled über Sponsorship (oh, and their website is    All but one of the major sponsorship conferences in Canada (five of them, if you can believe it) uses “sponsorship” in the title:

Sponsorship Conferences

Based on a quick Google search, I looked into international conferences and other industry associations.   Most of the easy-to-find events/associations also featured “sponsorship” prominently in their names

  • LeadersinSponsorship (annual invitation-only event held in London, England,)
  • Think!Sponsorship: positioned as the UKs largest one-day sponsorship conference
  • Sponsorship Marketing Council of Canada (SMCC)
  • Canadian “Sponsorship” Landscape Study – (CSLS) is an annual study that provides the most comprehensive information on the scope, scale and trends of Canada’s sponsorship industry
  • European Sponsorship Association (ESA)
  • Sponsorship Australasia
  • United States Sponsorship Association (USSA) – just made this up because it doesn’t exist.   I was shocked to learn through a recent conversation with David Rachell (SponsorPark) that there is currently no formal sponsorship association in the US.  In fact, there is a petition that has been developed to start one.  Considering the size and impact of the sponsorship marketplace in the US, an objective industry association (comprised of brands, properties and agencies) would be beneficial not only in the United States, but also internationally.  If you have time, check out the online petition

Several Sponsorship Blogs and other online resources (in addition to Sponsorship Alliance) also highlighted the word “sponsorship” or sponsor:

HulkBased on my research and conversations with a few industry colleagues, it looks like “sponsorship” is still the undisputed champion.  Sure, we can all get creative with words, but it’s still sponsorship at its core.   The broader question is, are we as an industry just confusing the marketplace with a vast array of synonyms or should we as an industry makes things easier and align on the term Sponsorship once and for all?   I think we should focus more of our collective energy on developing better models, best practices and case studies that promote the benefits of sponsorship marketing as a powerful and relevant tool for today’s marketers.

BrevityBrevity is one my favourite words and the more we over-complicate sponsorship and confuse people, the harder it will be to promote it.    If someone tells you they don’t like the word “sponsorship”, then ask them for clarity and ask questions.   If you leave the term “sponsorship” in isolation without context then you’re leaving yourself open for criticism and you need to go back to basics – remember, become an expert in sponsorship marketing, first.   It’s all about context, creative ideas and educating the marketplace about the power of sponsorship marketing.   Here’s a few simple tips:

  • Use “Sponsorship Marketing” vs. “sponsorship”
  • Use “sponsorship” in combination with other words like partnership, solutions, engagement
  • If someone doesn’t like the term “sponsorship” then ask for clarity and adapt accordingly.  Point to industry associations and other credible sources or suggest a conference to help them better understand why you were using the term.   If they are still adamant, then use another term – it’s not the end-of-the-world.
  • Spend less time worrying about the term and more time on creating ideas and great partnerships that leverage the power of sponsorship

I’ve left this open-ended with the goal of creating a discussion.  Please take the time to weigh-in and provide comments.   Share this post via twitter, LinkedIn and other social media channels.    Look forward to your thoughts on the term “sponsorship”.

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