Helen Edwards on Branding: The accidental sponsor

Far from being an also-ran, Sainsbury's Paralympics tie-up could prove a lucrative investment.

Last week the 2012 Paralympic mascot, Mandeville, hit the shelves in Sainsbury's, exactly two years ahead of the start of the Games of which the retailer is headline sponsor.

What is behind its decision to spend £20m sponsoring an event many see as an afterthought to the Olympic Games? The official line, from Gwyn Burr, Sainsbury's customer service and colleague director, is that it will communicate the supermarket's commitment to 'healthy, fitter lifestyles across all ages and abilities'.

The unofficial story has more to do with accident and muddle. Sainsbury's had wanted to be a first-tier sponsor of the Olympics, but was blocked by Coca-Cola, which pays £80m for its four-year sponsorship of the IOC. Coke objected on the grounds that a supermarket sponsor would be free to put the Olympic logo onto its own-label carbonated drinks. Rather than withdraw altogether, Sainsbury's compromised by going for the Paralympics.

At first glance, it seems like Coke gets the real thing and Sainsbury's ends up with the consolation prize. In place of those coveted Olympic rings, it settles for the nondescript swirls of the Paralympic 'Agitos' symbol; instead of being associated with a tradition that dates back to Ancient Greece, it embraces one with a provenance that stretches back only to post-war Buckinghamshire. Has Sainsbury's lost the battle of prestige, and taken a massive gamble with £20m of shareholder money?

Not necessarily. Just as the most perfectly conceived and executed strategies can run into problems, so makeshift ones can benefit from good luck. There are reasons to think that Sainsbury's decision could look a shrewd one down the line.

First, Channel 4 will be covering the Paralympic Games. The channel has a great track record with sporting events, revolutionising the coverage of cricket in 2005 with a fast-paced format that attracted a new, younger audience.

Second, as a UK-only sponsor, Sainsbury's could benefit from the 'Susan Boyle' effect. British audiences warm to unassuming heroes with plenty of back-story - people with the resolve to overcome adversity and achieve success. Channel 4 has already started to explore the stories of the athletes - like Lance Corporal Craig Lundberg, a Paralympic footballer who was blinded by a grenade while serving in Iraq.

Third, the Paralympics are coming home, to the country that invented them, and the British team has real chances to capitalise on home support, having been good enough to finish runners-up in Beijing.

If these factors combine to create bigger, more involved UK audiences than the Paralympics have achieved in the past, then there will be plenty of opportunities for recognition of the Sainsbury's logo on the athletes' bibs.

Even so, the retailer will need to do better at creating the right sponsorship narrative than it has so far. A recent Sunday Times interview with Sainsbury's chief executive, Justin King, concluded that his sponsorship strategy was all about 'non-food' merchandise, in contradiction of the 'health and fitness' message of his colleague.

Sainsbury's has time on its side to create a more compelling link between its core activities and its sponsorship, and to build excitement through its 850 stores. If it achieves that, and Channel 4 coverage lives up to expectations, then it might do as well with its £20m investment as the Olympic sponsors do with their much bigger stakes. Accident and adversity at the outset; triumph at the end - it would be a fitting parallel.

- Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers

30 SECONDS ON ... THE PARALYMPIC GAMES

- The Paralympics grew from an event at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948. The Buckinghamshire hospital, which specialises in spinal cord injuries, organised the International Wheelchair Games, a competition for British World War II veterans, to coincide with the first day of the London Olympics. Dutch veterans joined the event four years later.

- The hospital is also the inspiration for the 2012 'Mandeville' mascot.

- The first Paralympic Games, held immediately after the Olympics, was in Rome in 1960. There is no official link between the governing bodies of the two events.

- From its origins as an event primarily for wheelchair-using athletes, the Paralympics now encompasses multiple sports and participants in categories including Amputee, Intellectual Disability, Wheelchair and Visually Impaired.

- Audiences for the Paralympic Games have grown rapidly over the years. The thirteenth Paralympics, in Beijing in September 2008, attracted a global audience of more than 3.8bn - not far short of the 4.4bn for the Beijing Olympics.

- A special 'First Edition Mandeville' went on sale exactly two years prior to the opening of the games. The edition is limited to 2012 individually numbered mascots.

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