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Sponsorship deals have taken over everything from rock festivals to marathons, but a heavy-handed approach can devalue the event that is being endorsed. It is important to maintain a degree of integrity.

As Wolff Olins prepares to unveil its new logo for the London 2012 Olympics, and brand-owners line up to sponsor the games, designers will be forced to ponder how best to link corporate identities with sporting and cultural events.

Product endorsements offer wide scope for design experimentation, as brands seek innovative ways to cement their association with events. But a delicate balance must be struck when two brands are melded together on the football pitch, in the art gallery or through a TV soap. If the sponsoring marque overwhelms the property it is championing, the original purpose of the partnership may be lost.

One way to avoid a heavy-handed approach is to produce limited edition products promoting the association.

A notable instance is premium lager Beck’s long-standing sponsorship of the Beck’s Futures art prize at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The brand has produced a series of limited edition label designs to support the association using leading artists. The most recent was by artist Yinka Shonibare, while Tracey Emin produced another showing herself half-naked in her bath. The theme has been further exploited by Beck’s through a recent poster and print ad campaign showcasing the labels.

Meanwhile, anti-perspirant deodorant Sure Crystal produced limited edition packaging created by fashion designer Julien Macdonald to boost its sponsorship of the designer’s show at London Fashion Week. A design for Sure Crystal ClearAqua was packaged in green with images of peacock feathers and fish, while PureSilver was in pink with tiger lilies and stars.

In the more macho world of motor sports, Philips backed up its sponsorship of the Formula 1 Williams team by commissioning designers from the Williams workshop to create co-branded electric shavers using materials from the cars, such as carbon fibre and titanium. Watch-maker Oris also produced a watch specifically to support its Williams team sponsorship.

The challenge lies in creating a design that reflects the nature of the event. For instance, mineral water brand Vittel produced a fluorescent label to support its position as sponsor of the Nike Run London 10km race. As the race was held at night, the luminous labels helped shed light on the event. Vittel produced a limited run of 120 000, 33cl bottles, with the labels produced in-house at Nestlé’s labelling plant in Vosgues. These examples show how imagination and flair are needed to squeeze the maximum from sponsorships and reveal the importance of a light touch.

At the other extreme, mobile phone brand Orange has been criticised for plastering its corporate identity all over the Glastonbury music festival. Adidas sued Wimbledon last year after those running the tournament introduced rules limiting the size of external logos. They objected to the way Adidas clothes designs, worn by tennis stars such as Tim Henman, featured large prints of the three-stripe logo and looked like ‘walking advertising hoardings’.

Alastair Macdonald, managing director of sponsorship agency Connexus, says that where the purpose of a sponsorship is to piggyback the values of a cultural property, it is dangerous for sponsors to let their logos dominate. ‘The only association you end up creating is with yourself,’ he says.

The Olympics are seen as a prime example of a rights-owner creating a robust system for marques to co-exist. Brands sponsoring the games through the International Olympic Committee can use their own logo next to the Olympic rings. Meanwhile, the sports stadiums are logo-free areas. This balances the brands’ desire for association with the games and the Olympic ideal of sport unsullied by naked commercialism. For the London 2012 games, brands such as Lloyds TSB, BT and BP are expected to pay up to £80m to act as top-tier sponsors.

But a misjudged sponsorship can look, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, opportunistic. Some have questioned the wisdom of car marque Jaguar’s sponsorship of the Italian rugby union team. It may make sense in Italy – linking two English properties together – but it looks very strange to British eyes when the Italian team plays in the UK with the Jaguar logo on their shirts. US brands such as Mc Donald’s and Coca-Cola backing football are also viewed as a little out of place by some.

The sheer ubiquity of sponsorship forces brands to become more intelligent in their use of the medium. John Allert, UK chief ‹ executive of Interbrand, says, ‘Our experience is that businesses are becoming increasingly stringent in their involvement criteria for sponsorship. Long gone are the days of a chief executive sponsoring a yacht because he likes sailing.’

That said, one successful sponsorship had been B&Q and Castorama’s backing of round-the-world sailor Ellen MacArthur, carried out on the whim of the DIY retailers’ chief executive Sir Geoff Mulcahy. In design terms, pretty it wasn’t. The B&Q logo was plastered clumsily on the sail of her trimaran, which was also named B&Q. But it achieved massive coverage for the brand when she became the fastest, solo, non-stop, round-the-world sailor in history.

Unfortunately, sponsorships do not always end so happily. Vodafone sponsored English cricket in a £20m deal in 2005 and has admitted the team’s recent drubbing by Australia in the Ashes was ‘disappointing’.

One way around many of these problems is for brands to create their own sponsorship properties. Innocent Drinks holds its Fruitstock Festival in Regent’s Park every summer, and Red Bull has created a number of properties, such as the Red Bull Air Race. Dan Bobby, managing director of brand consultancy Dave, says, ‘There’s an authenticity and integrity about this that people appreciate. You own the content. It’s a much more intelligent approach to sponsorship.’

Meanwhile, some brand consultants are sceptical about sponsorship endorsements. ‘I find it a bit of a tiresome concept – it is a lazy way to publicise yourself by piggy-backing on someone else,’ says Jim Prior of The Partners. Still, Prior is familiar with the challenges of transferring a brand’s corporate identity on to a sponsorship property. One difficult task The Partners undertook was branding cricket stumps with the NatWest logo.

Having a powerful visual identity in the first place will enhance whatever kind of sponsorship a brand gets involved with. ‘This underscores the necessity of having powerful and simple brand iconography. You are one of many support sponsors or partners seen as logo confetti on the back of a brochure,’ says Interbrand’s John Allert. The challenge will be to move beyond this.

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