Red Thread

Sponsorship Storytelling

It’s that time of year again – and the question: is Father Christmas real?

It’s not my question, of course, but my son’s. And although my wife – who’s from a country which doesn’t believe in the first place – wants to put him on the straight and narrow, I resist: the figure of Father Christmas is so compelling.

The term ‘figure’ actually has a special meaning in psychology and psychotherapy, which is relevant to both sponsorship – and storytelling. A clumsy segue into sponsorship storytelling? Yes and no.

Two Faces form the image of a Candlestick

A Butcher and a Baker

Gestalt psychology, articulated by Kurt Goldstein, established simple truths, laws and principles about perception. Gestalt psychology maintains that the human eye sees objects in their entirety before perceiving their individual parts. The Gestalt effect is the capability of our senses to create coherent patterns from disparate visual cues, as exemplified by the quite famous images displayed here. In other words, the mind has an innate tendency to make sense of what it perceives, and this tendency leads us to fill in the gaps in what we see, hear, and know – to make educated guesses, to establish predictive and interpretive patterns.


Black or White dot grid optical illusion

Gestalt psychotherapy was developed by Fritz and Laura Perls and Paul Goodman in the 1940s and 1950s. Besides other things, it borrowed these concepts from Goldstein and extended their application to behaviour: when we become aware of being thirsty (identify the figure), we drink, closing the figure. If we become aware of loneliness, we quieten it with company. The concept of ‘closure’, as popularised in American movies of the 80s, is perhaps Gestalt’s most annoying cultural legacy.


Dalmatian camouflaged against background

But the thought that our innate tendency is to create patterns and meaning from life’s disparate events, or brand touchpoints, applies to sponsorship as much as to anything else – and at many levels. At the macro, it might relate to the importance of creating a clearly defined relationship between brand and property, its purpose – to which self-promotion is not a satisfactory answer to the questions of why, why this, why like this?

The point is, it’s not only natural to want to understand what a sponsorship is about, it’s part of our programming. If we’re not given a figure, we’ll do one of a number of things: we’ll come up with our own – which might or might not align with brand messaging intentions; we’ll dismiss it – at some level, because it doesn’t make sense; or it will become a subconscious irritant. Each of these responses effectively reduces the emotional impact of the sponsorship.

The figure of the relationship between npower and football is ill-defined and unclear. npower’s sponsorship of the Championship, for example, never began to explain: why football, why the Championship for npower? Likewise Aon’s relationship with Manchester United.

On the other hand, Castrol’s performance index was a clear attempt to create and call out a relationship.

Investec is a great example of a sponsor which defines a clear relationship between itself and what it sponsors. Beginning with the Investec Challenge, it moved on to Investec Derby Festival and latterly the Investec Ashes. At the micro level, its activations also have a clearly definable shape: the Investec Derby Day.

Figure also applies to sponsorship narrative: the beginning, middle, end of simple storytelling wisdom.

It’s all too easy to think of sponsorship as an exercise which begins with a contract and ends with an exit, that we can forget to consider how it looks from the outside. Sponsorship is the story of a relationship, a relationship between sponsor and property, or whatever names we choose to give these two characters.

From the perspective of the storyteller, the sponsorship narrative needs to explain how – and why – the relationship came to be, what brought these two characters together, what was the attraction, or the driver, and what were the consequences – what emerges from the partnership, and how it all ends. Building on the storytelling practice, one would say: a compelling beginning, a point of tension and a resolution.

Although we, as sponsorship practitioners, are rarely responsible for brand, we’re frequently given the freedom to establish partnerships which give us huge brand accountability. And, as architects of the sponsorship narrative, we can ensure or neglect to ensure that the brand has a clear role and that it is allowed to express its character through its relationship.

If you try to tell your sponsorship as a story, you’ll spot very quickly whether it’s a showbiz wedding, or something deeper. Storytelling is a useful exercise, a model to stretch your brand and sponsorship thinking.

Is this over-complicating something which should be kept simple? We don’t believe so. The levels of engagement achieved by Games sponsors hinges on a sponsorship story with a large, glorious finale, an entirely different narrative model from most other sponsorships.

Why shouldn’t a technology company enter into a football partnership with the goal of helping the club transform its digital comms? bring in support from the wider agency world to coach and mentor the team? help supply and fund any tech restructure? Why shouldn’t it exit with job done? As a fan, your appreciation is going to be both clearer and sharper, you’re going to receive a direct business message, you’re going to be in a mood to celebrate the achievement of a three year programme rather than cry dependently at the loss of a sponsor.

Why shouldn’t an airline partner do the same with regard to international expansion, the community programmes which all top league clubs are doing to build their global franchise? Why shouldn’t a beer sponsor actively link itself to fanbase development? Why shouldn’t sponsorship plan its exit from the word go, turning exit into a celebration rather than ignominious and often embarrassed departure?

The figure of Father Christmas is so compelling because he comes with his own closed loop of a story. Justice, fairness, care and love are all wrapped up in his own Christmas narrative. Why do we give presents at Christmas? Father Christmas is the easy answer.

Season’s Greetings

This is an extract from a fuller presentation ‘Sponsorship and storytelling’ presented at Sponsor Tribune, in Amsterdam on 29 November.