It's that time of year again. Whatever summer we had is almost over, the nights are drawing in, and Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Louis Walsh and Dannii Minogue are back on our screens telling an increasingly deluded range of lunatics that their version of Take My Breath Away is the worst thing they've ever heard.
Yes, The X Factor is back, providing another chance for advertisers to speak to more than ten million viewers every Saturday night from now until Christmas.
The brand with the most to gain from the show's return is The Carphone Warehouse, which signed a £7 million three-year sponsorship deal with ITV in June 2007. It includes sponsorship of all episodes, repeats and brand extensions, such as The Xtra Factor on ITV2, as well as broadband, interactive, licensing and merchandising.
"Sponsorship gives a brand a chance to build up credibility with its target audience," David Charlesworth, the head of sponsorship at Channel 4, says. "It can also be an effective way of validating a reappraisal of a brand and helps it stand out from the rest of the ads in the ad break."
And that's not all. "The generic message of TV sponsorship is that of stature," Tess Alps, the chief executive of Thinkbox, adds. "Viewers think that if a brand has the ability to sponsor such a big show, then it must be of a size and scale that they can trust."
Indeed, research undertaken by Thinkbox last year revealed that brand fame increased in viewers' minds by up to 10 per cent through TV sponsorship, with brand favourability rising by up to 8.5 per cent.
However, there are pitfalls. The amount of exposure that a lot of these idents receive means that if they aren't freshened up regularly, and don't offer anything special creatively, then they can become very irritating very quickly (for example, Old Speckled Hen has 80 seconds per hour to fill for its sponsorship of Prime Time on Dave, so, to keep things fresh, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy has created 11 separate idents).
The production values need to suit the brand's stature too. Stella Artois, looking to portray itself as a quality premium lager, scored well when sponsoring Channel 4 films by rolling out classy, high-quality idents. But spots with distinctly low production values would have struggled to give the same message.
To combat this, some brands, particularly those that have spent a fortune on high-profile ad campaigns, such as 118 118, are simply rolling out shortened versions of existing 30-second spots. Again, though, this is missing the point.
For one thing, if a brand has paid the money to gain that all-important slot attached to a programme like The X Factor, then the key thing is for the ident to fit seamlessly in with the show, rather than appearing like it's part of the interruptive ad break. Take Baileys' sponsorship of Sex And The City, which many feel formed such a bond with the show that an episode almost seems lost without the ident preceding it.
Creating a high-profile campaign that's completely geared around a sponsorship deal can bring other benefits too. No longer is TV sponsorship all about the ident; there are other opportunities to capitalise as well.
"Something we've been banging on about for two or three years now is that sponsorship of a programme can incorporate so much more than just a five-second TV spot," Charlesworth says. "The best sponsorship campaigns add something to a viewer's experience of the programme, and that should mean exploring a range of media."
Toyota's sponsorship of T4 is an example of this. Along with backing Channel 4's youth slot, its relationship meant that it sponsored the T4 on the Beach music festival, which saw the brand exposed to 50,000 of its target audience, as well as allowing it to exploit prestigious VIP opportunities at the event.
Diet Coke, too, took things to another level to successfully leverage its sponsorship of Ugly Betty by producing a limited-edition pink "Betty Bottle", which received valuable additional PR.
"Sponsorship campaigns should start out like any other ad campaign, with a well-identified strategy and a big idea," Thiago de Moraes, a creative director at CHI & Partners, says. "If you do that early, then you're able to work with the media guys from the beginning and open up a whole number of avenues to develop the campaign."
With de Moraes' new Carphone Warehouse campaign, for example, the idents drive viewers to a website where they can perform a dance, the best of which will end up being used in the next idents that run.
And as part of its sponsorship of Skins, O2 used social networking sites to help place its brand deeper into the environment of its target audience by using MSN to give viewers real-time information on characters and locations while the episode played out.
"This encourages a whole new level of interaction," Charlesworth says, "and allows a brand to show the viewer that it understands them and can benefit them in many different ways, which helps build up a sense of trust and credibility."
And in today's climate, where trust and credibility are commodities that are even more valuable than normal, it's time for agencies and brands to take a step back and consider how they can really make sponsorship work.
THE CARPHONE WAREHOUSE AND THE X FACTOR
- Thiago de Moraes, creative director, CHI & Partners
"To make The Carphone Warehouse sponsorship work, we had to ask 'What do we have to give people?' rather than 'What do we have to tell people?' We never wanted to do a short Carphone Warehouse ad that just happened to be between two X Factor segments; instead, we had to get people involved because The X Factor is a participatory show.
"So, by giving people the opportunity to appear on the idents, we were able to use the popularity of the show to drive people to the website and interact with the brand.
"It's also been important, though, to keep progressing each year. The first year, our campaign allowed viewers to simply call a number and record a song. And while this year our TalkTalk campaign has kept the same mechanisms, the innovative technology has meant we've been able to take the sponsorship further and actually use footage of the public to feature on the show."
GROLSCH AND CHANNEL 4 COMEDY
- Gerry Farrell, executive creative director, Leith
"The danger we always faced with this sponsorship was that by sponsoring comedy, we were setting ourselves up for a fall if we tried to be funnier in the idents than the comedy programme itself.
"So we took a more laid-back tone in the idents, and then used alternative media to portray Grolsch as an interesting brand doing interesting things.
"We created a 'Codebreaker' digital campaign to increase the exposure of the TV idents to the target audience by hiding secret codes within the idents that we then used for an online competition.
"We also offered consumers Green Room access to the Friday Night Project as competition prizes, which they could only enter by registering on the Grolsch website.
"This succeeded in increasing spontaneous awareness of the brand by 53 per cent, with the competitions alone attracting 150,000 additional online views of the idents."