Mark Ritson on branding: Motorway marketing is the wrong road to take

Here comes summer, and with it a slew of big events for major brands to blow their marketing budgets on.

This year's spending orgy will kick off with Euro 2004 in June, then really take hold with the Athens Olympics in August.

Sponsoring a major event such as Euro 2004 is incredibly appealing to brand managers for several reasons. First, the size of the audience for a major event such as this is usually measured in billions of exposures.

Combine this with the fact that a single major sponsorship can achieve this impact worldwide without the necessity for individual campaigns in each country, and most global brand managers are hooked.

There is also the security of investing your brand budget in something everyone within the organisation, especially the chief executive, can see. The perimeter signage, the TV ads, the VIP tickets for prized customers - each presents tangible evidence of where the marketing euros are being spent.

Best of all, sponsoring an event is easy. You pay the money, you produce the creative and your brand is instantly locked in to one of the hottest global spectacles of the year.

But there is a downside. Sponsoring a major event may deliver billions of eyeballs, but it also requires millions of pounds. Despite the positive results of such campaigns, in most cases the huge investment would have been better spent elsewhere.

While Euro 2004 may guarantee a quantitatively enormous audience, the qualitative link to your brand equity is often dubious. Consider the words of Hajime Tsuruoka, chief executive of Canon Europe, who explained its sponsorship of Euro 2004 as follows: 'This partnership strongly supports Canon's "You Can" philosophy, which enables people to realise their personal creative ambitions and potential through the use of digital technology.'

Perhaps, but surely there were less expensive, more brand-centric ways of communicating this message than a football tournament.

Ultimately, companies such as Canon are putting the communications cart before the branding horse. Rather than starting with Euro 2004, then devising a way to use it to communicate their brand, they should start with the brand and let that guide them on how to communicate it.

The hallmark of most great brand campaigns is an entirely unexpected, alternative communication strategy that originated with an interrogation of the brand equity. When Haagen-Dazs used double-page ads in fashion magazines such as Vogue, when HSBC bought the rights to the connecting tunnels between plane and airport terminal at major global destinations, when Innocent used simple, high-quality booklets at the point of sale to communicate its philosophy to consumers, they did not begin with a medium and then think brand.

Sponsoring Euro 2004 is the equivalent of taking the M6 to the market: it's noisy, expensive, outdated, no fun, lazy, and everyone else is doing it.

Great marketers ignore the motorway. They get out their brand compass and devise an untrodden path. It's a path that takes them in an unexpected direction because no one has ever taken it before. It's a path that takes guts, a knowledge of your brand, and usually a lot more time than the motorway. It does not usually require enormous sums of cash and it always ensures that when the brand arrives, it does so in a style that is noticed.

- Mark Ritson is assistant professor of marketing at London Business School

30 SECONDS ON ... EURO 2004 SPONSORS

- The eight official sponsors of Euro 2004 are: Canon, Carlsberg, Coca-Cola, Hyundai, McDonald's, JVC, Mastercard and T-Mobile.

- T-Mobile, a first-time football sponsor, is launching Everyone 200 Full Time. The tariff will offer 90 minutes of free calls, 50 text messages and a Euro 2004 SMS news service.

- Hyundai has mounted the Hyundai Goodwill Ball Road Show. Sixteen giant footballs have toured major European cities collecting messages of support from fans. They will be displayed outside stadia on match days.

- Coca-Cola is giving away branded footballs and running an ad starring footballers including Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry.

- Carlsberg's campaign will focus on driving fans into pubs to watch the games, using the slogan 'Your country needs you'. An on-pack promotion will offer free and discounted beer.

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