2016 has seen an aggressive rising to the surface of serious social, economic and political issues in South Africa and has left the majority of the country including myself deep in thought as to where we all stand on these issues and what our role has not only been in the past but also what our role should be going forward.

This has also left me pondering as to how this massive shift in social conscious thinking could potentially affect the sponsorship industry and how sponsorship investments could be made and leveraged going forward as brand and business leaders also come to terms with their own consciences’ and the on-going increasing consumer expectation that companies give back and show more commitment to making positive change.

News broke in the last few months that Absa will not be renewing their significant sponsorship in rugby and focussing on education going forward was one such example that left me wondering whether others would follow suit and whether we’d start seeing stronger integration of CSI initatives and messages within existing mainstream sponsorships.

Firstly, let me state upfront that I’m a massive believer in cause related sponsorship and feel that these are fundemental to solving key challenges we have in South Africa. I also believe that these initiatives, some of which are up there with some of the largest sponsorship investments in the main stream space do not get the recognition they deserve which leads me to my concern. For the most part, cause related sponsorships or CSI sponsored initiatives have generally always sat outside

the marketing space with clear lines seperating them from the mainstream sponsorships. Now and again those lines are crossed when someone from corporate affairs briefly comes over to tick a ‘CSI Integration’ objective box in the overall sponsorship strategy (almost as an afterthought). In fact, it’s scary on how many occasions we’ve been told to not even consider CSI as part of the sponsorship strategy development because “the company’s corporate affairs department handle those elements and they have different objectives and focus areas.”

I personally have never understood why these two elements are often managed so separately and not integrated more within the sponsorship marketing space, especially as research continues to show that individuals are becoming more socially conscious and passionate than ever before and supporting companies and brands that share these sentiments. This theme also came through strongly at the IEG Global Sponsorship Conference I attended recently in Chicago.

The reality is that nearly every major company gives back and have been doing so for years in the form of numerous valuable CSI sponsorships yet for many of them I don’ t believe they receiving the positive sentiment and commercial benefits they deserve. One such example for me that stands out is Liberty Life. What they are doing and have done for education in this country is arguably unmatched. According to their website they’ve contributed over R450m towards education sponsorships and continue to invest up to R30m per year. That’s up there with some of the biggest sponsorship deals in the country yet I’m not convinced they’re receiving the positive brand sentiment from the public nor the commercial returns they should be, especially when considering that kind of investment.

I’m sure some people will argue and say that CSI sponsorship should not be about commerical gain but I disagree. Of course it needs to come from a place of genuine intention to improve things but I believe that if companies embraced cause related sponsorship initiatives as a brand-building / profit-making strategy the money earned by harnessing the profit motive can help achieve change faster, and is more sustainable than old-fashioned charity alone. Those companies already practising this approach call it doing ‘well’ by doing ‘good’

With this in mind, I believe the majority of companies fail to see the potential role their cause related sponsorships and initiatives could play in achieving certain business and commercial objectives as we move further into in this highly socially conscious driven era.

MTN’s (now ex) sponsorship of the MTN Qhubeka cycling team was a great example of how sponsorship and CSI crossed the mainstream divide where they used the sponsorship to drive sales by talking about how when purchasing certain MTN products you could help rural communities move forward and progress by giving bicycles to children in return for work done to improve their environment and their community. In the end, tens of thousands of bicycles were distributed.

Another example that stands out for me, (outside of the negative PR that spilled over into this campaign through a separate business issue), is the Woolworths Pharrell “Are you with us?” partnership where they’ve utilized one of the world’s most iconic artists to highlight their commitment to providing products that are better for the environment and they encourage people to join the movement.

Both the above examples showing us that cause related sponsorships can be more exciting, creative and appealing and not necessarily have to be relegated to the company newsletter and CSI section of the corporate website that only people with highly advanced degrees can read and understand.

The positive sentiment that is created by sponsorship is a proven match-winner yet when it comes to CSI within the sponsorship space, the approach taken is often always different when it shouldn’t be. The point is that for these CSI sponsorships to be more effective they need to be integrated and leveraged properly as you would a mainstream sponsorship.

If companies want to truly capitalize on their CSI sponsorship initiatives they need to move beyond the same standard approach of the staged media event with a corporate press release that ends up on page two of the company newsletter or brochure. The reality is whilst a picture of the CEO shaking hands with a government representative at a sponsored tree planting ceremony may tick a box, it is not enough to convince consumers that you really care about the environment. Consumers want to see real authentic effort and they want to see it implemented within their product / brand offering as well as in an environment that relates to them and that they are passionate about. They also want to be part of the story / journey and feel that they have also contributed in their own right.

To quote a line from one of my colleague’s previous blog, “in the best practice, modern age of sponsorship, consumers and brands are seeing the far-reaching benefits of connecting communities with partnerships that have a real social impact.” The only thing I would add to that is… like any other sponsorship, if you want to maximize results, it needs to be leveraged.

By Clint Paterson