Sponsorship is a Dirty Word (But You Still Have to Use It.)

A few weeks ago, an article that I wrote received criticism on LinkedIn because it used the word sponsorship in the title. I understood the commenter’s point of view – some people hear sponsorship and think ‘free money’ – and I actually do prefer the term ‘marketing partnership’.

But I had to laugh when other commenters questioned him and his responses included the word ‘sponsorship’ instead of ‘marketing partnerships’ over and over again.

Let me be clear: I don’t think he’s a hypocrite. It’s just difficult to strike the word from our vocabulary.

Our brains are wired to recognize familiar patterns. For example, if the other cars on the racetrack begin to slow, your brain knows to make your eyes look for the caution light even before you think about it.

‘Sponsorship’ is how we in racing, and in many sports, refer to our marketing programs. So, it’s really hard to talk about sponsorship programs without using the word sponsorship. Our brains can recognize it, even if it doesn’t best describe what we do.

To a potential marketing partner, the word ‘sponsorship’ immediately conjures up an exchange of value. And that’s where things can go right or wrong. If they’ve had a bad experience in the past, they might have a negative response to the term. It has positive associations for some, and negative associations for others.

But here’s why I disagree with striking the word ‘sponsorship’ altogether:

If someone has a strong, negative association with the word sponsorship, you’re not going to change their minds by using a different term in place of it.

In fact, only using another term might even have the opposite effect. You’ll look like you’re hiding the fact that you are presenting a sponsorship proposal – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (Ex. ‘Are you trying to trick me into sponsoring you, fool?’)

Sponsorship is a concept that companies and decision-makers get. It’s up to you to help them see the value in your program beyond their initial connotations with an engaging pitch and effective proposal. It’s up to you to match their needs with what you can provide, and it’s up to you to show them how you’ll provide that.

Basically, it’s on you to confirm their positive view of sponsorship or shift their negative view.

The truth is, you’ll have to provide proof of value and a guarantee of fulfillment on that value whether they love or hate the term. So you might as well be up-front from the beginning – hey, people actually appreciate honesty from people they do business with! – and start the train down the right track.

Yes, that means you may not always be able to get in the door with the word sponsorship. But if their perspective is already that negative, they’re probably not going to consider it anyway.

Consider that a time-saver.


P.S. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments section below.

P. P.S. If you want a Don Draper twist, check out this clip from Mad Men where Don talks about only selling to believers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5y4b-DEkIps. Tell me that doesn’t get you fired up.

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About the author

Kristin Swartzlander Kristin Swartzlander is passionate about applying business sense to racing 'nonsense' in hopes of growing the sport of dirt track racing. She is a business strategist who works with entrepreneurs and small businesses to help them learn how to use public relations, marketing and social media to achieve their goals. Learn more about social media, marketing and racing sponsorship on the DirtyMouth blog.