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The Power of Sponsorship Activation: Why Sponsors Must Invest Beyond the Deal

In the dynamic world of marketing and brand promotion, sponsorships have become a popular avenue for businesses to connect with their target audience. However, simply signing a sponsorship deal is not enough to guarantee success. To truly harness the potential of a partnership, sponsors must understand the crucial role of activation and why investing additional resources is essential for a sponsorship to thrive.


The Anatomy of a Sponsorship Deal

Before delving into sponsorship (or brand) activation, let's briefly examine the structure of a typical sponsorship deal. A sponsorship agreement involves a financial commitment from the sponsor to the sponsored entity, often in exchange for exposure and association with the sponsored event, team, or property. In other words, that's your logo on a race car, building, or other property. Since NASCAR has been our main environment we'll use a quote we repeat often: "The worst thing you can do is pay for a 200 mph billboard to go in circles and do nothing else with it!" This is where newer sponsors often fail simply because they lack the understanding of how to get REAL value out of their sponsorship. More on that in a moment.


Sponsorship contract signed Smithfield Stewart Haas Racing
Signing day in 2018 was just the beginning after moving to a new team

Defining Sponsorship Activation

Sponsorship activation, or brand activation in the realm of sponsorship marketing, refers to the strategic efforts made by sponsors to leverage their sponsorship investment fully. It involves creating engaging and memorable experiences that amplify the sponsor's brand message, foster consumer engagement, and drive brand loyalty. While the sponsorship itself provides visibility, activation is the key to converting that visibility into tangible results. Keep in mind, there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach. During my time at Smithfield we used 15 - yes, FIFTEEN - different layers of activation in any given year. Activation approaches can be unique to industries and individual businesses depending upon objectives. You can trust that we are experts in this space.


sponsorship marketing brand activation
A few examples of activation generating earned media

The Pitfalls of Passive Sponsorship

We alluded to this earlier and we'll expound upon it a little here - sponsorships can fail to meet expectations when sponsors take a passive approach, assuming that the mere association with an event or team will generate the desired results. Without activation, a sponsorship deal may lack the depth needed to truly resonate with the target audience. In addition, marketing dollars are typically scrutinized to at least some degree (in most organizations) so it's imperative to make these dollars work as hard as they can. We've seen too many sponsors come into NASCAR - knowing it's the most sponsorship motivated fan base - and exit all too quickly because they thought all that needed to be done was to write the check for X number of races to a race team. Passive sponsorship rarely works and even if it works to a degree it's underperforming a well activated sponsorship of the same caliber.



Breaking Through the Clutter

In today's saturated marketing landscape, consumers are bombarded with messages from various brands. Activation serves as the catalyst to break through the clutter and capture the audience's attention. Through creative and strategic initiatives, sponsors can stand out and create lasting impressions.


In the early years of the Smithfield sponsorship of Aric Almirola we were in relatively uncompetitive cars. We knew we weren't likely to run up front week in and week out yet we had one of the most visible and active sponsorships of any sponsor in the garage. We got creative, we spent a few dollars (not as many as most people might think!), and constantly found ways to break through the clutter to get the brand mentioned, seen, heard, experienced, etc. It can be done and it doesn't have to be with a championship team.


Shopper marketing NASCAR sponsorship
One of many examples from the early days

Connecting with the Audience

In addition to cutting through the clutter, activation allows sponsors to connect with the audience on a personal level. Whether through experiential marketing, social media campaigns, engaging content, interactive events, or other means of activation, sponsors can create emotional connections that resonate long after the event concludes. When your brand becomes synonymous with something a particular audience cares deeply about the likelihood of those fans choosing your brand over your competitor's brand at purchase decision time skyrockets. Activation is the mechanism that seals the connection between brand, property, and audience.


Experiential marketing at a NASCAR event
An example of activation resonating with the audience

Maximizing Return on Investment (ROI)

Activation is an investment that yields dividends. If the investment into the sponsorship is the cake then effective activation is the icing - and who eats cake without icing?! I mentioned earlier that we used 15 layers of activation at Smithfield (on a relatively meager budget) to create one of the most successful sponsorships in the garage. We didn't start with 15 but we kept a philosophy of keep what works, discard what doesn't, if you're going to fail then fail fast, and keep building the toolchest year in and year out - and that's what we did. Because of that we were able to increase ROI every single year of the sponsorship (excluding COVID in 2020). Activation matters when it comes to driving sponsorship ROI.


Sponsorship marketing return on investment
It's possible to grow sponsorship ROI every year

Case Studies: Learning from Success and Failure

Examining both successful and unsuccessful sponsorships provides valuable insights. Successful activations, such as Red Bull's immersive events or Nike's athlete-centered campaigns, showcase the power of going beyond the basic sponsorship terms. On the flip side, failed sponsorships often involve a lack of creativity, engagement, or a clear strategy. Current and prospective sponsors will do themselves a huge favor understanding what it is they are trying to accomplish prior to writing the check.




Strategies for Effective Activation

To ensure a sponsorship's success, sponsors should develop a comprehensive activation strategy for all the reasons mentioned above. When I first took over the Smithfield sponsorship a decade ago it was a very much "learn as you go" approach. However, through that experience of learning on the fly to build a highly acclaimed sponsorship our firm is uniquely positioned to provide clients the shortcuts to success. By understanding your business we can tailor a winning strategy. Contact us today for a free consultation.


NASCAR victory Aric Almirola sponsorship
We have the winning formula

Conclusion

In the competitive realm of sponsorships, activation is the secret ingredient that transforms a financial commitment into a powerful marketing tool. Sponsors must recognize the importance of going beyond the initial deal and invest in activation to create meaningful connections, stand out in a crowded market, and maximize the return on their sponsorship investment. The success of a sponsorship hinges not only on the deal itself but on the creativity, engagement, and strategic thinking applied in the activation phase - and we're here to help!

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