Sponsorship of a daredevil event can mean huge publicity, but it also
carries risks of its own, writes Danny Rogers
‘A vivid reminder to an often timid society that there has never been
advancement without some risk,’ is how pilot Peter McMillan described
the flying machine, held together by fabric, wood and wire, that took
him from Brooklands airfield in Surrey to Australia at a mere 85mph.
An element of risk may equally make a big contribution to effective
commercial sponsorship. Small pay-outs can be rewarded by extensive
media coverage and build a reputation for endeavour and excitement.
McMillan’s adventure commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Smith
brothers’ flight in an identical Vickers Vimy bi-plane, back in the
pioneering days of aviation. In 1994, as in 1919, the main sponsors were
Shell and National Geographic magazine.
Although the Vimy sponsorship amounted to a fraction of the amount Shell
invests in Formula 1 racing, it generated comparable exposure. Worldwide
the initiative appeared in 1200 press stories and made more than 300
radio and TV appearances.
‘It was a small sponsorship, but we received ten times the amount of
exposure that we would normally have expected for this outlay,’ says
Jackie Ireland, Shell’s international sponsorship manager.
Shell’s Vimy experience is a prime example of how sponsorship of an off-
beat or pioneering activity can provide disproportional returns - an
attractive proposition as prices continue to soar for more conventional
Rothmans is reputed to be paying pounds 20m a year for its association
with the Williams Renault Formula 1 team, while Euro ’96’s top-tier
sponsors paid out pounds 3.5m each.
Indeed, why pay a fortune backing a high-profile event, when a quirky
activity can provide outstanding PR mileage?
There are several advantages to this form of sponsorship. The most
obvious being participation in a unique enterprise.
‘The sponsorship market is very crowded. You do need to stand out,’ says
Betty Maitland, director of Scope Sponsorship.
By picking a unique activity like this, one can enjoy the benefits of
In the case of the epic 1994 Vimy flight, public relations consultancy
Direct PR organised pre-flight publicity around the Farnborough air
show, in-flight publicity at each stopover - the pilot was greeted by
five prime ministers en route - and post-flight publicity as the plane
arrived at its destination.
And it did not end there. There was a ‘Welcome home’ celebration and
subsequent TV documentaries in the ‘How did they do that?’ vein. Shell
also produced a resource pack and video on the initiative.
The third advantage is the element of ownership. In a large-scale event
you may be just one of many sponsor names. In this case the challenge
was entitled the ‘Shell Spirit of Brooklands Vimy’.
‘We succeeded in communicating certain messages. Seventy-five years ago
Shell sponsored the first Vimy flight to Australia because we were proud
to be the only worldwide oil company,’ explains Shell’s international
sponsorship manager Jackie Ireland.
‘Now the message is that we are the aviation fuel leader and the flight
associated us with a tradition in technical know-how.’
Co-sponsor National Geographic magazine felt it achieved a similar
ownership. ‘We had exclusive editorial rights to McMillan’s personal
experiences,’ says National Geographic UK director Jenny Moseley.
‘From a brand point of view, his adventurous spirit and intellectualism
matched our mission statement: the increase and diffusion of
However, such adventures can have their limitations for the sponsor.
The Vimy is due to fly to South Africa on another commemorative flight
in 1997, but both Shell and National Geographic look unlikely to take
part because the Australia flight was a one-off anniversary and it would
be difficult for the companies to repeat their success.
For this reason Andrew Nicholson, of sponsorship consultants Price
Nicholson, views this form of sponsorship as tactical rather than
‘It’s a brave move for a big corporate.
After all, nobody ever got fired for sponsoring Euro ’96. Today’s
adventurers are few and far between and certainly newsworthy, but as a
sponsorship opportunity it is tactical and a bit on the edge,’ Nicholson
Nicholson believes that if a company is making a serious investment in
sponsorship, the move needs to be part of a long-term strategy.
He identifies a contrasting trend for companies such as Coca-Cola and
Carling to cut down their range of sponsorship activities and
concentrate on ‘owning’ something that is central to people’s lives,
such as football.
There can also be a more serious downside to adventurous sponsorship.
Last summer, mountaineer Alison Hargreaves tackled one of the world’s
most dangerous peaks: K2 in the Karakoram Mountains. She was sponsored
in this high-profile media event by Sprayaway, a Manchester-based
climbing equipment firm.
Shortly after reaching the summit she was killed in a storm. The result
was a wave of articles about how she pushed herself too far, some of
which alluded to the increasing pressure on climbers to acquire
Although it seems unlikely that she was put under any external pressure,
the tragedy was also negative publicity for Sprayaway.
Scope Sponsorship’s Betty Maitland says it is crucial to weigh up the
risks to the sponsor.
‘Individuals can get injured, so it’s our policy not to deal with this
type of sponsorship. There’s also the risk to the image of the brand,’
‘We do get a few proposals from people involved in extreme sports. Team
sports carry less risk than individuals, but it still depends on the
brief and the client; it would have to be a certain type of sponsor.’
Such a sponsor is the inventive British vacuum cleaner manufacturer
Dyson Appliances, which has a policy of eschewing mass advertising and
supporting individuals undertaking challenging endeavour for its PR
Dyson will be sponsoring Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s attempt to walk solo and
unsupported across Antarctica this autumn in aid of the Breakthrough
Breast Cancer charity.
Logistics company DHL also has a recent history of quirky sponsorships.
Two years ago it backed Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to
climb Everest, and last year it sponsored Simon Ward’s attempt to
skydive on to the North Pole. Were there any disasters?
‘The only thing that went wrong was that on the day of Simon Ward’s
drop, the Oklahoma bomb went off and took all the media coverage,’ says
Liz Hauxwell, DHL’s PR and sponsorship manager.
‘There is an element of risk in these sponsorships. You have to look at
the potential negatives and how you would cope with the impact of a
disaster,’ says Hauxwell.
‘You also have to make sure that the individual is well equipped and
there is no undue pressure placed on them.’
The benefit to DHL is that such endeavour matches its marketing
messages. After all, this is the company whose advertising led on the
theme ‘There ain’t no mountain high enough’.
‘We look for the unusual and genuine human endeavour,’ says Hauxwell.
‘Pogo-sticking across the Sahara Desert wouldn’t qualify. It has to be a
DHL even separates its sponsorship into three distinct areas: sports,
business-to-business and ‘achievement’.
Another example of a major corporate sponsoring ‘on the edge’ activities
as part of a wider general strategy is Sony.
Its computer entertainment arm PlayStation is committed to supporting
‘free-sport events’. This includes activities from roller-blading and
snowboarding to more dangerous activities.
Last month PlayStation supported the British pairs’ entry to the sky
surfing championships in California.
‘We back sports that reflect the feeling that PlayStation gives:
exhilaration, power, being on the edge,’ says Alan Wellsman, head of PR
for Sony Computer Entertainment.
A key part of Wellsman’s strategy is to accentuate PlayStation’s
underground roots. He identifies a sport that’s growing and PlayStation
gets involved, sponsoring events and enjoying the media spin-off by
inviting journalists from youth and underground magazines to participate
in the sports.
It has to move fast, but by building a portfolio of ‘funky’ associations
Sony can strategically buy into youth culture.
‘First and foremost it’s about choosing the right events for your
brand,’ says Andrew Nicholson.
‘There has to be a coherent fit. Stodgier corporations may be scared by
the more off-the-wall activities but youth brands rely on a fresh
Shell’s Jackie Ireland says: ‘There is always an element of risk
attached. Look at Formula 1’s Ayrton Senna. And then there’s Michael