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The Psychology of Sponsorship – 7 Content Marketing Opportunities

Sponsorship, the acquisition of rights to affiliate or directly associate with a product, person, organisation, venue, cause, team, league or event, is a rising star in the marketing mix, worth $51BN+ globally and growing at 4%+ annually. But despite exciting new digital opportunities for activating (bringing to life) sponsorship deals – live, on-screen and in situ – little attention from digital marketers has been given over to sponsorship. The upshot is sponsorship remains a silo seperated from digital marketing, despite opportunities to fuse the two.  What then are the top digital activation opportunities in sponsorship?

To digitally optimise sponsorship, it helps to understand the basics of how sponsorship can work as an effective marketing tool, so here’s a quick primer on the psychology of sponsorship that outlines 7 digital opportunities in sponsorship using a behaviourist take on Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast (System 1) and Slow (System 2)’ model (that I’ve been putting together for an upcoming conference paper on the Digital Future of Sponsorship). If you want to skip the psychobabble, and jump the end for a summary of the 7 opportunities, feel free!

  • The first, and perhaps most important thing to note is that sponsorship works by association rather than persuasion.  The general idea is that a sponsored property (product, person, organisation, venue, cause, team, league or event) eliciting a strong positive emotional response will have a ‘halo effect’ that rubs off on the associated sponsor, just a single good trait in a person can have a halo effect on how we see all other traits.  So the positive responses associated with the sponsored property (e.g. NBA’s Miami Heat) ‘spillover’ and become associated with the sponsor (e.g. Kia cars).  This has nothing to do with logical persuasion and everything to do with emotional association.
    • In simple behaviourist terms, this emotional association may occur through conditioned learning.  Sponsorship pairs two stimuli (Miami Heat and Kia), where an existing positive response (said here to be ‘unconditioned’ (UR)) to Miami Heat (here the ‘unconditioned’ stimulus (US)) conditions the response to a second stimulus (Kia) by association.  By associating and seeing Kia paired with Miami Heat, our response to Kia becomes  conditioned (CR) so it resembles our response to the Heat, with Kia therefore becoming a conditioned stimulus (CS). The practical upshot is when we see Kia, we think Heat thoughts.
    • Using the terms of contemporary psychology, emotional association is a central mechanism of ‘System 1’ learning, one of the two ways we learn and think (System 2 =   slow, deliberate, logical; System 1 = fast, automatic, intuitive). Rather than think though what we think about Kia, our thoughts are patterned by the associations (things, times, places, causes…), Kia evokes and by quick cognitive shortcuts (mental ‘heuristics’) that we experience as ‘intuition’.  By pairing Kia with the Heat we come to associate Heat thoughts with Kia and we like Kia through association rather than persuasion (such as via a persuasive ad or sales pitch). Moreover, if we then see a representation of the Heat on a Kia website or in a showroom, then these positive associations are primed (activated in our minds), and our behaviour is influenced so as to be more favourable to Kia . The central insight of Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow is that our System 1 associative mind is our dominant mode of thought, patterning our behaviour far more than our logical System 2 minds would like to think.  This is great news for the sponsorship industry.
      • If all this sounds like psychobabble, the practical upshot for making sponsorship more effective is that activation should focus as much on activating sponsored properties (e.g. The Miami Heat) in the purchase funnel as activating the sponsor (Kia) at events.  Sponsorship is about creating and activating associations. For digital marketing, this means embedding the sponsored property in digital properties, experiences and collateral. Just as showing elderly people will cause us to act in an elderly way (the so-called Florida Effect – no Dwayne Wade jokes please) through associative priming, showing the Miami Heat in a Kia context will prime Heat thoughts and emotions. 
  • Building on this insight that sponsorship works through associative learning and priming, there are at least seven psychological mechanisms, which translate to content marketing opportunities, for sponsorship to harness (for in-depth detail see Pracejus, J. W. (2004). Seven psychological mechanisms through which sponsorship can influence consumers. Sports marketing and the psychology of marketing communication, 175-190)


  • 1. Mere-Exposure Effect (our tendency to like something more simply because we see it frequently).  By associating a sponsor with a high profile property to which people are frequently exposed, people perceive the sponsor more positively because our associative System 1 mind associates familiarity with likability.  At this basic level, sponsorship is a frequency/numbers game (despite the fact that exposure, visibility, awareness and logo-counts may have fallen out of favour). It’s all about creating impressionsrather than creating an impression. It really is about exploiting logo and naming rights everywhere every time – including online time.
    • Digital content could enhance sponsorship effectiveness by running keyword search ad campaigns that increase exposure by explicitly pairing the sponsor with the sponsored property. In addition to activating sponsored properties with the sponsor name, digital properties (ads, apps, sites, signage) of the sponsor should be activated by the sponsored property as frequently as possible.
  • 2. Emotional Association (the transfer ofaffect (excitement, interest, appreciation) from sponsored property to paired sponsor).  The associations that make up what a sponsor ‘means’ to our System 1 mind become patterned by the salient associations made around a sponsored property
    • Digital content could enhance sponsorship effectiveness by focusing more on eliciting emotional responses, rather than rational responses, especially those associated with desired emotional response to the sponsor.  For example, the emotive YouTube video of Clippers’ Blake Griffin (to a choir singing I believe I can fly) winning the slam dunk contest by jumping over sponsor Kia car builds an emotional association of awe

  • 3. Image Association (the transfer of image associations (characteristics, personality) from sponsored property to sponsor).  Through sponsorship pairings, the image of a sponsored property – such as cricket (with a traditional ‘English’ association) can influence the image in our System 1 mind of the sponsor (such as that of  Gillette, sponsoring the Gillette Cup and  looking to soften an overly dominant American association with the American brand abroad).  Similarly,IVECO trucks sponsored heavyweight boxing for the image association of toughness and strength)
    • Digital content could enhance sponsorship effectiveness by being more attentive to the specific image associations it is trying to borrow, activate and amplify from the sponsored property.  For example, digital activations could use words and imagery associated with the target association when activating the sponsor around the sponsored property, and activating the sponsored property around sponsor properties (such as Gillette’s fantasy league site). In a similar way, American Express activated its sponsorship of the US Open using John McEnroe in an video entitled the ‘Art of the Dispute‘ to promote its dispute resolution service.


  • 4. Affiliation Association (our tendency to feel something is suited to us simply because it affiliates itself with something we affiliate with).  Affiliation by association is about a sponsor creating the perception that it is ‘a brand for me’ because it associates itself with a sponsored property that is important to us.  For example, if Ihave an affiliation with the Miami Heat, and American Airlines has a sponsorship affiliation with Miami Heat, so I have a de facto affiliation with American Airlines – American Airlines is an airline for me.
    • Another way digital content could enhance sponsorship effectively is by amplifying the affiliation between sponsored property and the sponsor.  For example sponsorship could use digital product placement in social media feeds of personalities (such as Sprite in LeBron James instagram feed).  Deutsche Telekom digitally reinforced its association with Bayern Munich with a ‘vanity’ URL.  Pepsi and other sponsors of US major league baseball MLB reinforce their affiliation with the league by sponsoring an online MLB Fan Cave. EA Games delivered a brilliant digital activation of its affiliation with Tiger Woods after a bug was found in its Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 game that allowed walking on water (see below). The video response was seen over 11 million times, tightening the affiliation with Woods.IMG_0010



  • 5. Size Association (our tendency to infer that because a sponsor can sponsor a big property, it must be big itself). By associating itself with a major event, team, venue, league or star, our System 1 mind makes a cognitive shortcut and assumes the sponsor has size, which can in turn be associated with stability, financial strength, popularity, and ultimately quality.  Just as a peacock tail is a costly signal display of quality, so too is sponsorship of major events. Thiscan be useful for sponsors looking to enhancethe perception of size and dominance. For example, when MRF a leading tyre manufacturer in India invested its entire marketing budget in sponsorship of Cricket World Cup, perceptions of the company’s size increased by 19.7%, whilst perceived health of the company increased 24.6%.
    • Digital content could enhance sponsorship effectiveness of large sponsorship deals through activations that focus on the size, strength and quality of the sponsor. For example, Nestlé activated its sponsorship of the 4.4 incarnation of the popular Android mobile operating system (with naming rights for its Kit Kat confectionary brand) with a tongue-in-cheek Apple-Esque video promoting the supreme quality of the Kit Kat chocolate bar

  • 6. Trustworthiness Association (our tendency to infer that a sponsormust be trustworthy, otherwise it wouldn’t be allowedto be the sponsor). Although a sponsormight not be explicitly endorsed by a sponsored property (person, team, event…), there is an implicit System 1 assumption that sponsors have to go through a quality control to sponsor a property.  The very fact that Visa andLloyds Bankwere allowedto be official sponsors of the 2012 Olympics appears to say something about their trustworthiness and good standing, the aftermath of the financial meltdownnotwithstanding
    • Digital content could enhance sponsorship effectiveness with digital activation that builds on the trustworthiness the sponsor. For example, IBM could build on its use of sponsorship as demo platform for reliable IBM technology, or at the other extreme digital ambush marketing, such as that by Subway around the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, could be a way to enjoy the association of trustworthiness without paying fat sponsorship fee. Despite not being an official sponsor, Subway’s marketing activities used associations (athletes, snow, skiing) with the Olympics and became the fourth most associated brand with the games


  • 7. Reciprocity Association (the mental short cut that if a sponsor supports something we care about, we should care about the sponsor). If you’ve ever felt a pang of guilt when someone sent you a seasonal greeting card, and but you hadn’t sent one to them, then you’ll know how powerful the reciprocity heuristic is. Reciprocityis baked deep into our System 1 psychology, when we’re given something, we automatically seek to pay back the favour.  Sponsorship harnesses this powerful mental cue by materially supporting something we care about – and so we feel indebted to the sponsor. We associate the sponsorship with benevolent giving, and we instinctively want to pay back. For example, 48% of NASCAR fans said they would “almost always”purchase a sponsor’s product over a closely priced competitor.
    • Digital content could enhance sponsorship effectiveness though digital activation that gives rather than takes.  For example, mobile operator O2 offers an app to O2 customers to get priority tickets to events at its O2 London arena, and then offers customers VIP hospitality areas at the arena (lounge and bar).  Extending this, O2 could offer other perks associated with the sponsored property such as faster broadband, flash offers at the venue etc.  Similarly, Kia activated its sponsorship of the NBA with a digitally advertised promotion that brought fans together with their club in it’s Drive for Five promotion (purchase/lease a Kia and get 5 pairs of home game tickets).  In Orlando, this sponsor promotion closed 300 sales.






Summary: 7 Content Marketing Opportunities from the Psychology of Sponsorship

For seasoned sponsorship pros, breaking down sponsorship opportunities into how sponsorship can work at a psychological level may not add much in choosing effective sponsorship partnerships, or even in activating them digitally (or traditionally). However, by focusing on the psychology of sponsorship we ensure we adopt an audience-focused approach to sponsorship and digital activation through content marketing (unlike the traditional sponsorship paradigm depicted below).

Moreover, taking a psychologically-informed approach to sponsorship wards us away from some the excesses in sponsorship fads – notably the idea that good sponsorship is about great story telling.  I can see little psychological rationale for this; the star and story of the show should surely be the sponsored property and not the sponsor because it is the sponsored property that captures attention and evokes emotion.  When focused on sponsored property, people have limited capacity for cognitive elaboration, and any attempt to wrestle attention may backfire.  This means that sponsorship works precisely because it is not about story-telling, because story telling requires conscious thinking that may be perceived an interruptive distraction, and belie a sponsor’s commercial motivations, thereby undermining its own efficacy. From a psychological perspective, the effectiveness of sponsorship may lie in not being noticed and it may make more sense to think of sponsorship as subliminal influence, rather than story-telling influence.  At most, if sponsorship is to poke its head above the parapet of conscious awareness, then it should non-invasive and focused on enhancing the sponsored propriety, not competing with it. O2’s app is a nice example of this kind of sponsorship done right, offering digital utility to enhance the experience – shorter wait and bathroom lines, seat priority and upgrades.  At-seat refreshment service would be a nice build. With that in mind, here’s the summary list of 7 digital opportunities in sponsorship that emerge from the psychology of sponsorship.

  1. Consider using digital advertising to expand exposure to the sponsored pairing and systematically add the paired association to all digital properties (Mere-Exposure Effect)
  2. Focus digital activation on eliciting emotional responses, rather than rational responses to sponsorship parings (Emotional Association)
  3. Build digital activation around an associated trait of the sponsored property that you as a sponsor would like be associated with (Image Association)
  4. Explore how digital can creatively reinforce the affiliation between the sponsor and the sponsored property (Affiliation Association)
  5. Build your digital activation strategy around the size, strength and quality of you as a sponsor (Size Association)
  6. Use digital to build on your trustworthiness as the sponsor (Trustworthiness Association)
  7. Harness reciprocity by using digital to give (deliver value) before you take (capture value) (Reciprocity)

Thoughts welcome!



Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Join the discussion

  • I think it’s important to think about quality.
    Write quality guest posts. This is a great way to access new perspectives. To win coveted guest posts, create content that is non-promotional and relevant to the readers of your host site. This not only gives you a valuable backlink, but it also increases your authority in your field.

  • Hi Paul,
    Great post – and we were a big fan of Brainjuicer at the time!
    I’d disagree about storytelling though and the level of visibility of sponsors. For sure, there are risks with the sponsor becoming too dominant an actor, but that doesn’t negate the value of storytelling. Storytelling isn’t per se about prominence, it’s about an approach to communication. And congruity is also an important part of association – and that places an obligation on the sponsor to offer an easy to grasp rationale for its presence. Otherwise, it leaves consumers to form their own patterns and make their own meanings of the relationship. But I really like your categorisation of the different aspects of association. Time for another article! Shaun

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.