The Long Reach of Sponsorship: How Fan Isolation and Identification Strength Jointly Shape Sponsorship Performance

Marc Mazodier, Conor M. Henderson, and Joshua T. Beck, 2017, 17-123-09

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Approximately 40% of fans live in a city far from their favorite team’s hometown, and brands are beginning to recognize these isolated fans when drafting sponsorship initiatives. For example, Chevrolet’s $560 million sponsorship of the British soccer team Manchester United explicitly targeted fans living in other countries.

Even as advances in location-based advertising platforms coupled with more globally distributed media allow managers to target audiences according to the combination of their real-time location and personal interests, research has yet to explore how social context influences sponsorship success. This raises the issue of “getting marketing ‘right’ in real time,” identified in MSI’s 2016-18 research priorities. In terms of personal interest–based sponsorships, examining the nature and process of fan isolation can help clarify which fans are ideal brand sponsorship targets.

In this report, Marc Mazodier, Conor Henderson, and Joshua Beck investigate the role of fan isolation—defined as separation of a fan from the team community—in shaping sponsorship effectiveness. The authors posit that such isolation increases the desire to affiliate, which can enhance memory and liking for team-linked brands. However, the effect of isolation on sponsor effectiveness depends on the strength of fan identification. Isolated strong fans bolster team-based affiliation (“doubling-down” effects). Isolated weak fans exhibit the opposite behaviors (“desertion” effects) as their affiliation motives prompt them to avoid vestiges of the team as they adapt to their local social environment.

Three studies of fans across three countries (N = 1,119) support these predictions. Study 1 demonstrates that memory for a sponsor depends on the level of fan isolation and identification strength. The average accurate recall rate was 61% for the entire sample, but it was much higher (74%) among isolated strong fans and much weaker (37%) among isolated weak fans. Thus, identification strength polarizes the effects of isolation.

Experiments in Study 2 manipulated feelings of isolation to validate the findings. Study 2a demonstrates a key role of sponsorship too, such that there are no effects on brand recall when the brand is not presented as a team sponsor. Offering a key managerial insight, Study 2b further reveals that a single exposure to the brand sponsorship for isolated strong fans is as effective (82% recall, up from 44% in less isolated context) as multiple exposures to the brand sponsor for all fans (between 76% and 83% recall). Finally, Study 3 replicates these effects and confirms the mediating role of affiliation motives.

Managerial implications

Managers seeking to reach mass market, global consumers through sports sponsorships should consider targeting advertisements based on customers’ location and the corresponding social context. Sports are unique in their broad appeal to live audiences, leading to substantial increases in spending on sports sponsorships (annual growth of 4.3% versus 2.6% for general brand advertising) and sponsor spending is predicted to exceed $16 billion annually in North America alone. For managers, the proposed framework reveals which isolated fans to target for maximizing returns on sponsorship investments.

Marc Mazodier is Associate Professor of Marketing, College of Business, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates. Conor M. Henderson is Assistant Professor of Marketing and Joshua T. Beck is Assistant Professor of Marketing, both at Lundquist College of Business, University of Oregon.

The authors contributed equally to this work; order is listed as reverse alphabetical. This research was partially funded by the Business School of Hong Kong Baptist University and the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. The authors acknowledge Bettina Cornwell for helpful feedback on a previous version of this manuscript.

Related links

Does Customer-centric Alignment Improve Firm Performance? (2015) [Article]

Consequences of Customer Engagement: How Customer Engagement Alters the Effects of Habit-, Dependence-, and Relationship-Based Intrinsic Loyalty
Conor M. Henderson, Lena Steinhoff, and Robert W. Palmatier (2014) [Report]


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