After 14 years, the New Zealand Sponsorship Agency recently rebranded as Spur. And, as more brands see the benefits of creating experiences for customers that can then be amplified online, it seems the planets are coming into alignment for this small but growing agency.
Typically, sponsorship activations and brand experiences are something off to the side; a nice-to-have that forms part of a wider strategy or might be tacked on to a big campaign. But that's changing. And with the rise of digital and social media, the opportunities to amplify that all-important word of mouth have increased considerably. As Spur says on its website: "If it's not good enough to share, it's not good enough". And after creating around 1,400 sponsorship activations and brand experiences since it started, "New Zealand's most experienced and successful sponsorship agency" is well-versed in that.
"We started as a sponsorship business and to a large part we always will be," says founder and joint managing director Nick Brown-Haysom, formerly head of sport at TV3 and head of sponsorship at Mobil Oil. "We came up with a philosophy when we were planning the business in 2000 that we help our customers connect to their market through something their market loves or cares about. We’ve revisited that statement from time to time, but essentially that’s still what we do in the sponsorship space. If a sponsor isn’t adding to an experience, then they’re interrupting it. There’s no middle ground in that equation. We all know what it's like when a corporate brings on some activity that’s contrary to what’s going on. It’s a high standard to push for and not all of our clients are there with us on that at the start, but once they work with us for a while they know that adding to the fans’ experience is essential."
In the beginning, Brown-Haysom says there were no other sponsorship agencies in this market, so it set out to convince clients they could get better value if they did things differently. And it's managed to convince a whole bunch of them over the years, including Telecom, Hyundai, Lion, NZI, Huawei, ANZ and a range of others.
"That wheel’s been turning and we've had growth on the back of [sponsorship activation]. You get enough runs on the board that people give you a call."
He says it was a logical step to move into brand experiences. And while the business has been producing pop-up spaces and event environments as a part of that focus for a few years, it has now formalised them as a new offering. To launch the new Spur brand, it wanted to showcase its experiential skills, so the team gave a presentation in a room that was able to morph into three different states—boardroom, cinema and deck—and it says the response was amazing, with one client asking to borrow the entire activation format.
Real-life experiences that have the power to affect people's moods really resonate with consumers, says Nick Harvey, who has been with the company for around ten years and was recently made joint managing director. And he points to some research from the UK that showed people tell an average of 15 to 17 people if they attended an amazing brand experience.
"Brands are defined by people talking about what you do, whereas they used to be defined by what you said," says Brown-Haysom.
In the past, accountability has been fairly hard to come by in this area. But Spur, which has 11 full-timers and a network of around 200 promotional and event staff, says campaign measurement is mandatory because it's a marketing discipline. Harvey says great campaigns are a combination of facts and intuition. And it's conducting more online research as campaigns go on in terms of charting awareness, consideration, shareability, sales or whatever the client wants to achieve.
Brown-Haysom points to its Telecom Tree idea, which attracted 250,000 Kiwis to three locations in its prime and led to a huge number of photos and comments online, as a good example of experiential being used as a brand exercise (it shifted the dial enough in Auckand, where Telecom struggles, to win a silver Effie in 2009). And Steinlager's All Blacks Workplace visits is in a similar category. But others for Hyundai, Lion and Telecom Retail "want a nice brand experience but they expect to sell too".
"And that’s where the pop-up experience is becoming more important," says Harvey.
Brown-Haysom says one of the best bits of evidence for the results it's getting with its work is the tenure of some of the campaigns it's involved with.
"When we talk to clients, we’re thinking about something that’s going to carry on. In this space, perhaps more than any, if you do something people like, there becomes a demand for it and the equity builds year on year. It's about adding to rather than interrupting. And it has to hit the status of any experience. Take the word brand out of it. It has to add to your life."
In the past, the general rule was that for every dollar spent on securing a sponsorship you had to spend $3 to activate it. In a story written a few years ago in NZ Marketing, some believed that had jumped to around 1:5 in recent years. But Brown-Haysom says it has never abided by that philosophy because every client is different.
For a new brand in the market, he says the media gain through logos on hoardings and uniforms "is sometimes the best thing you can do because they're just trying to get known and associate themselves with things that we love". As examples of that strategy, he points to NIB, which has just launched here and sponsors the Blues and NZ Cricket, and Emirates, which attaches itself to a number of high-profile properties and tends to let its product do the talking.
But there are others that might buy the minimum rights and try and generate value themselves, something seen regularly with the raft of All Blacks sponsors. Brown-Haysom admits it's often hard to find clear air in terms of sponsorship these days, and Telecom obviously found that out, because it pulled out of its All Blacks sponsorship last year and put that resource into other areas. He says the fit is really important. And the more obvious the fit the easier it is to create some meaningful benefit with the sponsorship (despite its previous name, it doesn't actually broker any sponsorship deals between brands and properties).
In addition to its main skills, Spur, which will no doubt be forced to have a western themed Christmas party this year, also offers a service called Sponsor Link in conjunction with sports marketing agency Repucom, which surveys 2,000 Kiwis over 18 about sport participation and viewership to help find some of that clear air. It also asks about sponsorship recall and it does a little bit of research in the same area in arts and entertainment.
"It does arm us with an amazing knowledge of the area we work in," says Harvey.
Harvey says Vodafone's association with The Warriors has the highest level of unprompted awareness of any sponsorship in Australasia, and by a significant margin. And Adidas does pretty well too, with about 50 percent of rugby fans able to identify Adidas as a sponsor of the All Blacks (also unprompted).