While sponsorship is often a powerful force in producing positive attitudes towards a particular brand or organisation, its benefits are entirely proportional to the perceived attributes of the sponsored organisation or individual.
Commercial sponsorship is all about associations. The sponsor spends money on buying into a selected audience’s positive attitudes towards the sponsored party. Being seen to sign up as a supporter of, say, a popular sports team or athlete can generate enormous warmth and gratitude towards the sponsor.
But, as owner/MD of The UK Sponsorship Database since its launch in May 2000, I’ve noticed that very often the reverse is also true. Where, for instance, a world-famous athlete or sports person is suddenly unmasked as a drug cheat or wife-beater, existing sponsors who withdraw their support typically attract very favourable media coverage. Conversely, those who stick by the offending party may well suffer negative coverage. There will always be those who appreciate a sponsor who shows loyalty through thick and thin; but by and large there are far greater gains to be made by the positive act of ‘unsponsoring’.
Indeed, ‘unsponsorship’ can often have benefits which outweigh the positive associations of the initial deal.
A sponsorship deal typically creates a virtuous circle – the more the sponsored party succeeds in his, her or its field, the more sought-after said party becomes in the eyes of competing sponsors seeking an association with that kind of success and those perceptions. But, on the other other hand, those who are associated with bad publicity – ‘negative vibes’ – are typically dropped almost instantly by most sponsors who fear that their image will be tainted or even shattered. And the market reflects that fall in value, as the negotiating power of the sponsored party is undermined.
In the case of the NRA, for companies who (for instance) offer discounts to NRA members, the option of withdrawing support provides a very positive unsponsorship opportunity – a chance to be seen by many as taking the moral high ground. Whilst their previous loyalty might have been taken for granted, as they passively added their offering to a list of NRA members’ benefits, their decision to unsponsor the organisation puts them very much in the public spotlight at a time of intense political debate. Whilst their withdrawals will no doubt offend NRA loyalists intensely, amongst a broad spectrum of the public they may well be seen as having made a laudable, morality-based decision.
At the time of writing, according to press reports the list of companies who have withdrawn their support from the NRA (many of whom are also sponsors across a wide range of sporting and other activities), is growing rapidly and includes Alamo Rent a Car, Avis, Allied Van Lines, BestWestern, Budget, Chubb Insurance, Delta Air Lines, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, First National Bank of Omaha, Hertz, MetLife, North American Van Lines, Paramount Rx, SimpliSafe, Symantec and TrueCar.
Amongst the companies who continue to align themselves with the NRA are Bass Pro Shops, BlackRock, Clearent, FedEx, HotelPlanner, ManageUrID, MidwayUSA, NetSpend, Omni Hotels and Vinesse Wine Clubs.
So here we have a highly-charged and quite complex interplay between commerce and morality, with a “chain sponsorship” structure, involving companies who sponsor the NRA which then sponsors politicians. Different companies may take very different decisions. Politics aside, there will be a wide range of moral and commercial considerations to take into account.
From a commercial standpoint, the main question will be whether the benefit of withdrawing will outweigh the cost in terms of causing offence to NRA members. From a moral standpoint, of course, the individuals involved in the companies’ decisions may conclude that any negative effect is a price worth paying.
Image credits: NRA Headquarters Virginia USA – Bjoertvedt; Northwest side of the Delta Center – Paul Kucher; other – public domain.