Lessons Learned from the Collective Mistake of Three Global Brands
Manchester United are set to travel to Merseyside this weekend for their biggest game of the season so far. As such, this is a great opportunity to revisit one of the great misjudgements of recent sports sponsorship and marketing history by a global brand. (Any perceived bias towards Manchester United in this article may be real or imagined!)
In 2012 Chevrolet signed sponsorship agreements with two of England’s biggest clubs, Manchester United and Liverpool. In the build-up to the derby game between these two fierce rivals, Chevrolet released an advertisement featuring players from both sides as part of their “#DrivenBy” campaign. However there was an online backlash from supporters of both clubs in response to the video.
The fans felt that Chevrolet completely misunderstood the nature of the rivalry between the two clubs. It is a city rivalry as much as a football rivalry and here was an American car manufacturer attempting to unite these opposing forces for the benefit of their brand. The video features players from each team talking about their club, but because the content of their speeches is exactly the same, Chevrolet is trying to demonstrate the similarities between the clubs and their cultures. This conflicts with the fans view, who see themselves as completely different to their rivals, and this is why it became so controversial.
Sponsorship and sport go hand in hand and in general it is seen as a mutually beneficial relationship for both sponsor and object. Sport is by far the most developed area of sponsorship, accounting for 54% of all sponsorship activity in the UK in 2001 (Mintel 2002). However a sponsorship agreement may not always result in an exclusively positive affect for the brand in all situations.
“Over the past two decades, sponsorship-linked marketing growth has outstripped advertising growth by several percentage points, with the 2007 figure for sponsorship topping $37 billion worldwide (IEG 2007)” (Cornwell 2008).
Conflicting Objects in Sports Sponsorship
Chevrolet have developed sponsorship deals with Manchester United and Liverpool in a bid to tap into the global fan base of these two English clubs. Sponsorship is an important tool for marketers because, when compared to advertising, consumers generally respond with more goodwill and less scepticism (Meenaghan, 2001).
Davies 2006 conducted a study into the influence of joint sponsorship of rival teams on supporter’s attitudes and brand preferences. He looked at NTL, who sponsored both Rangers and Celtic in Scotland, and found that the more involved the supporter, the more likely they were to reject the sponsorship. This situation would not arise in the context of a single sponsorship agreement. When one brand sponsors pairs of rival football teams, Jenkins and Fleming (2002) found that there was significant alienation among fans towards the rival team’s sponsor (Davies 2006).
When investing into multi-million dollar sponsorship agreements, the marketing team should be aware of any conflicts between their sponsorship objects and take this into account when making any decisions so as to avoid negative affects for their brand. The central aim of football sponsorships is to encourage football fans to develop a similar bond with their team’s sponsors as they have with their team (Bergkvist, 2012). Ideally the fans will actively support the sponsoring brand, in addition to supporting their team, due to the close association between sponsor and sponsee.
Bergkvist (2012) conducted a study into the issue of image transfer between an object and a sponsor. He found that image transfer is as likely to be negative as positive and that, in the case of football sponsorships, there will be a transfer of negative associations from rival teams on to their sponsors. In this way, sports sponsorships can become a contentious issue for marketing managers.
Fit Between Sponsor and Object
While the main issue prevalent in the Chevrolet case is that the sponsorship objects are conflicting, the issue of appropriate fit also arises as a possible factor and root cause of the online backlash. Cornwell (2008) asserts that choice-modelling approaches are the most appropriate ways of studying managerial decision making in sponsorship. When choosing an object to sponsor, Chevrolet could use this approach to assess the benefits and costs between the different options open to them.
One method which increasingly is used by managers when picking objects to sponsor based on fit is best/worst scaling (Finn and Louviere 1992, Marley and Louviere 2005). With this approach, managers would evaluate choice sets (sponsorship alternatives, perhaps three or four at a time, with various characteristics) and indicate for each set the ‘best choice’ and the ‘worst choice’ (Cornwell 2008). Cornwell notes that taking the theory into account is particularly important in sponsorship since little is known about how sponsorship linked communications are remembered.
Poon and Prendergast (2006) developed the Integrated Product Relevance framework to analyse consumer’s responses to sponsors objects. Using this framework, Chevrolet could find the levels of function based similarity and image based similarity between the brand and the sponsees, and therefore pick more suitable objects if necessary. This would ensure that their sponsorship deals have an appropriate level of fit, based on the two most important dimensions.
Olson (2011) built on the work of Poon and Prendergast (2006) and developed seven different dimensions on which fit can be explained. Applying these dimensions we can evaluate how well the brands of Man United and Liverpool ‘fit’ with Chevrolet:
- Use of brand’s products during a game either directly or indirectly – Under this dimension, Chevrolet is completely inappropriate as a football sponsor. Their products cannot be used either directly or indirectly during a game. An alternative would be to sponsor motorsport such as Formula 1.
- Size similarity – Both of the football clubs and Chevrolet are large global brands, and in this way the sponsorship is appropriate.
- Audience similarity – Chevrolet sponsored the clubs in order to increase their global presence, and considering the global support of both clubs this dimension is satisfied.
- Geographic similarity – Chevrolet is an historic ‘All-American’ car brand, where the football clubs are both quintessentially English, and two of Britain’s most famous exports. In addition there is some ill-feeling from the supporters towards the club’s American owners, and the sponsorship deal with Chevrolet emphasizes this.
- Attitude similarity – The football supporters are deeply passionate about their teams, whereas they are relatively apathetic towards the Chevrolet brand.
- Image similarity – As mentioned above, Chevrolet is a very American brand. Manchester United and Liverpool are the most successful clubs in English football with a rich history that is in no way associated with what Chevrolet represents.
- Time duration of the sponsorship relationship – Chevrolet will be Manchester United’s fifth shirt sponsor in their history, and first car brand sponsor, so the time duration is not long enough for fans to simply see this as acceptable without questioning it.
The 1st and 3rd factors were the two most important predictors of fit, and the 4th and 5th factors were also quite prominent. The results showed that the other dimensions were not significant. From the analysis above, the 3rd factor is the only important factor which Chevrolet satisfies with their choice of sponsorship object. This indicates that there isn’t a sufficient degree of ‘fit’ between the brand and the clubs, and this may be the root cause of the inappropriate video which caused the backlash. However, it is important to note that a perfect fit is not always necessary.
Cornwell et al. (2006) found that one reason why a firm may not desire to sponsor a perfect fit is if they want to drastically change an existing brand image. This could be taken as the reason why Chevrolet sponsored English football clubs – to make their brand more visible to a European and global audience. Olson and Thjømøe (2009) found “that mild incongruency can result in higher sponsor recognition accuracy due to increased attention or elaboration.”
According to Cornwell and Maignan (1998), there are three objectives for sponsors when engaging in sports sponsorship (or sponsorship of any kind) – awareness, image and sales. It appears that Chevrolet’s main objective with these sponsorship deals was to increase awareness of the brand in European and Asian markets. Instead of sponsoring these two rivals, they could have developed a deal with one of the other big clubs in Europe such as Barcelona or Bayern Munich where there is not the same animosity. This will achieve the same result without the negative implications – “an association with a sponsored property perceived negatively by the target market may tarnish a sponsor’s image” (Davies 2006).
While this marketing initiative clearly didn’t work out as planned for Chevrolet, it makes for an interesting case in the pitfalls of sponsorship. The key learning for brands is that to make sponsorship work you need to really understand the ultimate consumer of the object that you want to sponsor, and ensure that authenticity is core to your activity.
For an example of a brand that have mastered the art of sponsorship, check out my study of Coca-Cola’s sponsorship activity.
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