A study supported by the European Sponsorship Association (ESA) has found fresh evidence of the growing importance of companies engaged in sponsorship being committed to environmental sustainability.
The research project, undertaken as part of a thesis by Loughborough University London student Maximilian McLoughlin, also reinforced the results of a 2021 ESA Sponsorship Sentiment Tracker examining sponsor expectations around right holders’ commitment to sustainability.
McLoughlin’s industry survey was answered by 265 organisations, including 29 sponsors and 40 rights holders, and a follow-up focus group enabled five sponsors to provide more detailed information.
Almost two-thirds of sponsor respondents (62%) said it was very important that potential partners had a sustainability policy in place, with only 6% saying it was not very important.
This enthusiasm for sustainability to be built into the fabric of companies engaged in sponsorship was not confined to brands. More than half (58%) of all respondents said they had high expectations of the environmental sustainability standards of their partners, with another 11% saying they had moderate expectations.
McLoughlin identified a slight disparity between sponsors and rights holders when it came to the importance of aligned sustainability values between partners in a successful sponsorship deal. Looking specifically at organisations involved in sport sponsorship, his survey found that 69% of sponsors felt this was important and 19% felt it was critically important, compared to 62.5% and 15% of rights holders respectively.
The importance of sustainability was also underlined in the way sponsors responded to a question based on McCook et al’s (1997) criteria established to rank the factors in a successful sponsorship partnership out of 10. With an average score of 7.54, sponsorship ranked higher than ‘revenue opportunity’ (7) and was only 1.34 points behind the most important factor ‘enhancement of brand image’ at 8.88.
Sustainability, among other purpose-led priorities, was identified by ESA in early 2023 as the sponsorship industry’s top trend. The relevance of the trend was underscored by McLoughlin’s survey, which found that 86% of sponsors expected sustainability policies to become a more important factor in their choice of future partners.
This indicated a growing unanimity about the direction of travel, as the comparative figure from ESA’s 2021 system was 78%.
Wave 12 of ESA’s Sponsorship Sentiment Tracker, published in October 2021, found that almost all brands (96.4%) expected potential partners to have a sustainability policy in place, compared to 79.5% of rights holders and 66.7% of agencies.
The far higher number of brands that rated this as “very important” as opposed to “quite important” led ESA to comment: “The discrepancy in focus between rights holders and agencies and their brand-side partners and clients could become a deciding factor in who brands choose to work with in the future, as sustainability credentials increasingly become non-negotiable.”
McLoughlin’s research found a slight alignment of expectations, with 81.3% of rights holders and 77.2% of agencies expecting potential partners to have a sustainability policy in place, compared to 90% of brands. But brands continued to score far higher on the “very important” metric.
Reflecting on the comparison between ESA’s 2021 research and his own findings, McLoughlin wrote in the conclusions section of his thesis: “On balance there have been very minor changes over the last year in sponsor environmental sustainability expectations, leading to the conclusion that another survey should be conducted at least 2-3 years from now to categorically assess change.
“However, it is important to reiterate that although there was no distinct change, sponsors within the sample have embraced sustainability to a large extent with multiple sustainability initiatives currently underway within their own organisations…
“Even though there has been little change, what is clear is that sponsor environmental sustainability expectations of their partners appear to be high currently, suggesting that rights holders should ensure that their sustainability charters are updated and are actively engaging in sustainability initiatives to safeguard future sponsorship partnerships from failing.”
The European Sponsorship Association (ESA) is a not-for-profit membership association whose mission is to inspire, unite and grow a welcoming and diverse sponsorship industry. ESA does this through education, guidance, representation, the recognition of excellence and the sharing of best practice and performance.
ESA’s reach encompasses all types of sponsorship activity from sport, broadcast, education, charity, the arts and culture, to environment and the community. Its members include sponsors, rights holders, agencies and consultants, professional advisors and suppliers. Visit sponsorship.org for more information.
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