Late summer and early autumn are a busy time despite the holiday season. The number of inbound enquiries rises exponentially as marketers seek to finalise their financial planning for the final quarter or for the next calendar year. We’re looking for that sweet spot, where we can meld what the sport has to offer with a sponsor’s business objectives in a way that enhances corporate reputation and wins business.
Some callers will be new potential sponsors. Even a major event like the Cheltenham Festival will have some degree of churn; up to a quarter of sponsorships may be available for renewal in any one year as a 2-5 year deal concludes or an organisation’s people change or business objectives are met. Other callers will be existing sponsors, fleshing out how they intend to use their sponsorship over the coming year. Still others will be previous sponsors wishing to return to the sport – for example, financial services brands are coming back to sponsorship after the financial crisis.
In each case, I try to encourage brands to think about how they can stand out from the crowd to maximise their return on investment and capitalise upon the significant amount of dwell time on-course (sometimes up to 50 minutes in an hour). For some brands, that entails looking at how racing can become part of their community support or corporate social responsibility programmes, not just their customer hospitality strategies. It can also be about encouraging brands to be creative in developing their customer insight and activating business.
Customer engagement is at the heart of every sponsorship agreement. Cheltenham’s customers are spread far and wide, and our audience views us through multiple channels. Television, radio, newspapers & online media, in person at the racecourse, and remotely through web and mobile; the availability of racing is one of its finest marketing attributes. So how can brands capitalise upon that reach?
Some brands have adopted a photographic solution to drive customer engagement – offering racegoers the chance to have their picture taken with a top personality or trophy. Racegoers can walk away with a printed picture that carries a call to action, the brand can capture the racegoer’s details to mail the photo to their phone, or it can upload the pictures to a Facebook page, from where they can be used. Indeed, social media has become increasingly important in customer activation.
Customers also react well to experiential marketing and quirky tactics. One brand, Dubarry, sells premium waterproof leather boots, which are promoted at Cheltenham through an employee wearing the boots and standing in water all day long, to prove how robust they are. Humour works, too. For example, one bookmaker undertook a charity camel race at Cheltenham as part of its CSR strategy.
Content marketing is another increasingly important part of sponsorship deals. Racing spectators have an almost inexhaustible appetite for content, which can be branded and bundled for different media channels and outlets, whether that is a microsite for News International or exclusive content for our own event radio station, Cheltenham Radio. This can also take the form of sponsored race meeting preview evenings, which attract a paying audience and may be streamed online so enthusiasts can hear from a panel of racing experts on the runners and riders. On the night, as a call to action, a bookmaker may offer special rates on races that won’t be available elsewhere or at any other time in order to generate business.
Similarly, Ryanair uses its sponsorship to offer free Festival entry tickets to the first 200 people who book flights to the event – a reward for booking early with Ryanair.
Ultimately, successful sponsorship is all about innovation; doing the same thing each year tends to result in diminishing marginal returns. Sometimes that innovation is driven by the story of racing itself, as when one sponsor gave out Denman and Kauto Star scarves so racegoers could show their affiliation. That was hugely popular.
Sometimes, it can be about linking in to Cheltenham’s own physical presence – we enjoy beautiful views of the English countryside – or our presence on social media. The sport has also generated some very well-known sports personalities – like Tony McCoy – and brands can offer meet and greet sessions or signed books to promote customer activation.
Equally, B2B brands can find innovative solutions that work. In so many instances, the b2b and b2c objectives merge with each other for mutual benefit. The brand awareness created by sponsorship can provide a foundation for establishing and growing routes to market through trade channels. One whisky brand – Glenfarclas - has sponsored televised races at Cheltenham to create brand familiarity whilst it improves relations among trade distributors through premium hospitality.
Whatever a brand’s strategy, a little innovation, differentiation and enthusiasm can generate real business results.