How you can build high-impact sponsorship for small businesses

publication date: Dec 12, 2011
 | 
author/source: Jim McEwan
Sponsorship is alive, well and changing in smaller communities. While much of the material available regarding sponsorship focuses on big corporations and international events, potential benefits for small businesses sponsoring local and regional events are also impressive.Jim McEwan photo

My community, Vernon, is located in the north Okanagan with a population of 35,000 and another 20,000 in the immediate trading area. Much like thousands of communities in BC or in any province, Vernon lists the majority of the business community (a whopping 98%) as small business - fewer than 50 employees. Of those, 86% are five employees or fewer.

So if you're looking for sponsorship, you need to understand the process of small business in a small community. Almost all the time in Vernon, sponsorship seekers relate to business owners who are involved in day-to-day operations. They live in the community, and over than two-thirds have operated their business in Vernon for 15 years or more. They know their community and who's who in their community.

Hot competition

Since 2006, I have been the executive director of the Funtastic Sports Society - Vernon's equivalent to the Calgary Stampede. With 300 teams and 4500 players, Funtastic is Canada's largest tournament. Funtastic makes a significant contribution to the local economy and receives no government funding. As a nonprofit organization, our mandate is to support local sports and recreation initiatives, and we've donated $1.2 million over 27 years. 

In my volunteer role I am VP for the Greater Vernon 2012 BC Winter Games, the first multi-sport event for many of BC's young top athletes between the ages of 9 -17. More than 2,000 athletes, coaches and officials will converge on Vernon and area for four days of competition. While the Games are supported by the provincial government, we are still responsible for generating community sponsorship revenues through the Friends of the Games directorate.

In addition to these two events, Vernon has literally hundreds of events and organizations looking for funding, so the local business community has a challenging time wading through the list. All events and organizations are worthy; all are great for the community, and many offer the same demographics. In recent years government funding has declined, leading to more demands on businesses. Therefore, sponsorship for properties has become imperative.

The small-town advantage

In Vernon, a business needs to make only a minimal investment to reach the majority of the residents. New businesses are especially interested in sponsorship as part of their launch strategy, as they can reach a great many local residents in a very short time. Cobs Ambassadors

An example of this is Cobs Bread, a two-year-old business in Vernon. During the initial meetings in 2010, we agreed that sampling with coupons would be a good test. We decided to use individually packaged scones at 8:30 in the morning. I recruited two volunteers to hand out 400 scones with a dough dollar. Cobs Vernon had their best weekend to date during Funtastic.

In 2011 we used cinnamon buns as a sample product and surpassed the previous year's numbers. (Photo: Funtastic Sports Society)

Motivations of small-town sponsors

Typical marketing objectives are no different than those of major national sponsors - building brands, generating sales, promoting corporate responsibility or launching new products and services. Often a business will sponsor a cause, event or organization because it is good for the community. In addition to providing a corporate social responsibility program for their company, getting involved with community sponsorship programs such as Funtastic brings an additional element of staff engagement to their business.

In the past few years, though, Vernon has seen a change in the prime reason for sponsoring. These days, owners and managers are more likely to ask, "What's in it for me?" and "What do I get from it?" Corporate responsibility is still important; however, companies are also looking for a return on investment.

Helping sponsors make it work

With Funtastic, I work with 125 sponsors each year. We have a 90% return rate in sponsorship and take pride in the placing our sponsors' needs first.

Too often, properties simply ask for money because "the company has always given us money." These same properties are surprised when the sponsor asks "what's in it for me?" By contrast, those properties that understand the changing market continue to be successful.

Not all sponsorships are the roaring successes companies would like them to be. There are several reasons why they might have failed. A common one is the "Owner Syndrome" - for example, the owner likes a sport and has the company sponsor an event without due consideration of marketing objectives.

Another reason for failure occurs when a company commits to a sponsorship and neglects to do any promotion prior to the event. They just turn up and hope that the on-site visibility will give them what they want. Generally they presume the property didn't deliver and is at fault. In fact, both are at fault and are equally responsible.

Like marriage, it's about commitment

According to Brent Barootes of Partnership Group - Sponsorship Specialists, sponsorship is like a marriage. Both partners need to contribute for it to be successful.

Sponsorship is quickly growing as a desirable form of marketing in small communities. Yet in many ways, it is still very much in its infancy. There are unlimited opportunities for astute organizations to fund their events, and for intelligent companies to increase their credibility, image and prestige through strategic sponsorship.

This article was adapted from Jim McEwan's session at the Western Sponsorship Congress held in Calgary in October.

Jim McEwan is the executive director for the Vernon & District Funtastic Sports Society, where he has worked since 2006. He is also very involved with the sport tourism scene in the north Okanagan, helping several organizations with their event and sponsorship planning. Jim possesses more than 12 years of experience working on the selling side of sponsorship, including both small community events and nationally acclaimed organizations.

Funtastic is Canada's largest slo-pitch tournament and music festival, www.funtastic.org. Email Jim

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