SPONSORSHIP: Sponsorship on the edge

Sponsorship of a daredevil event can mean huge publicity, but it also carries risks of its own, writes Danny Rogers

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

sponsorship vehicles.

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

spin-off coverage.

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

geographical knowledge.’

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

sponsorship money.

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,’

she says.

‘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

recognisable achievement.’

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



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