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Study Links NFL Sponsorship and Purchasing Decisions. Does it apply to Cause Marketing?

A study from Kirk Wakefield, Ph.D. of Baylor University released Monday finds strong linkage between official NFL sponsors and purchase decisions, especially among fans.

Called “The Effect of Fan Passion and Official League Sponsorship on Brand Metrics: A Longitudinal Study of Official NFL Sponsors and ROO,” the study was co-authored by Anne Rivers of the New York City firm Brand Asset Consulting.

The study compared official NFL sponsors to non-official sponsors in banking, beer, credit cards, pizza and telecommunications over the three year period between 2008 and 2010. Then they measured public opinion of the official brand in each category against 2 competing brands in the same category that weren’t official sponsors. So in the pizza category Papa John’s, the official sponsor, was measured against two non-official sponsors; Pizza Hut and Domino’s.

Says Professor Wakefield, “Companies with official sponsorship of the NFL receive a significant lift among NFL fans compared to non-fans.”

The study also found that:
  • “Passionate fans—those who watch or attend and prefer the NFL as an entertainment alternative—have more positive attitudes toward the official sponsors of the NFL than do less passionate fans."
  • “Over time, the official sponsors of the NFL improve their brand positioning vis-à-vis competitors."
  • “If the consumer is coming to “know” a brand more through its NFL relationship, they are picking up many of the NFL’s positive brand attributes. This works both ways (e.g., when leagues are in trouble)."
  • “Esteem is the key pillar to identify a fan of a team or a league. Esteem rubs off on the sponsoring brand, thereby helping reduce churn through increased loyalty. Consumers are often willing to forgive transgressions or setbacks of an esteemed brand compared to one that is less esteemed.”
It’s when Wakefield and Rivers get to the theory of brand esteem where I think there is application to cause marketing. As the flowchart shows above, their theory is that for fans an official sponsor is more likely to move to the top of mind as they see the sponsor during games and via media inside and outside of the stadium. That sponsorship works on them and they gain knowledge about the brand. As they do so the brand is differentiated from competing brands. Fans feel brand loyalty and are more likely to purchase the official brand.

The theory’s not seamless in my opinion. I think it strains credulity that most fans, especially those watching the NFL on TV, are able to readily distinguish between Sprint, the official sponsor and AT&T and Verizon, both of which also advertise actively during NFL games but aren’t official sponsors. But as a working theory I like it.

I think you could make an argument that cause marketing works similarly. If I support St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at Auto Zone during a promotion, the chances are high that I will notice and esteem Auto Zone in a way that I don't O'Reilly's.

Another key finding that I expect also holds true for cause marketing is that as the official sponsorship continued over time, the effects of it improved for sponsors.

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