Corporate sponsorship of sports and arts events or community initiatives is commonplace in many countries. But what are the benefits to companies participating in such sponsorship? And what are the potential pitfalls in these sensitive times, especially where food companies are concerned? Bernice Hurst reports.

Is there a difference between advertising and sponsorship? Familiar words on American television or radio have always been, “And now a word from our sponsor”. But some sponsorship is less overtly commercial and, in fact, has benefits that cannot even be measured in financial terms.

Sponsorship of sports teams and events has long been favoured by companies looking for visible promotion of their support for consumers. Posters for concerts and fêtes feature sponsors’ corporate logos. Educational activities range from funding materials to be used in the classroom to art carts at the Tate Britain (sponsored by Tate & Lyle – geddit?) and from sending employees to participate in careers events to hosting students looking for work experience. Approaches are often made informally through someone who works for the company, asking them to take the request to the right department.

Often, on a grander scale, the initiative comes from within for some high profile regional or national event that would attract feel-good publicity. Cash-strapped theatres, museums and galleries mount productions to attract audiences of which they could otherwise only dream thanks to such contributions. It is always understood that contributions are bartered for promotion.

Time is precious

Employees, too, are donated with time allocated to participation in local projects, particularly education-focused. Education Business Partnerships depend on representatives of industry to man stands at careers fairs, provide supervision and guidance for workshops and business competitions as well as taking young people under their wings for work experience.

The UK’s Business in the Community (BITC), founded in 1982, has more than 700 members and an additional 1600 participants in programmes delivered through a national network of 97 business-led partnerships. It also has 45 global partners. Chief executive Julia Cleverdon visited Australia in February 2004 to launch the Corporate Responsibility Index and “inspire more businesses to get involved in corporate social investment and catalyse interest in the development of a new business-led movement.”

There are, inevitably, varying interpretations of response and success. Cadbury Schweppes and the Youth Sports Trust told BITC’s Cause Related Marketing newsletter (Summer 2003) that they were very pleased with their joint ‘Get Active’ project. Accusing a “lobby group” of “spinning” the facts about the controversial scheme, Cadbury’s marketing director, Louise Cooke, boasted of some 5000-plus schools participating. Helen Vost, external relations director of Youth Sports Trust said that “groups of both primary and secondary teachers” were consulted and “their attitude was both positive and upbeat”.

Compare this with a sample of schools in Oxfordshire, where not a single one discussed participation let alone decided to join in. According to Education Business Partnership manager Liz Davies, schools are already struggling with parents and principles about letting companies sponsor vending machines or collecting supermarket vouchers for IT equipment, without endorsing anything that would encourage people to increase their consumption of chocolate.

Steering clear of controversy

Sponsorship by food companies of anything even remotely related to young people is particularly problematic in these days of health consciousness and obesity crises. Schools and parents have always been wary of allowing young people to be exposed to anything commercial and have insisted that “giving something back” only works in one direction. Firms and their employees are welcome to give something back to the community as long as there are minimal strings attached, and those as subtly as possible.

EduSPortz, a new programme just completing its trial phase in the US, is sponsored by supermarkets and their suppliers but ensures that only “appropriate” products are used. All material is approved by the schools and carefully designed to be heavy on information and light on “sell”. Nutritionists help produce an assortment of nutrition guides, recipe books and coupons.

“Our programme is endorsed exclusively by USA Track & Field (USATF) as the only programme it endorses to provide fitness and fight obesity for youth. USATF is the official entity in the US that promotes/supports track and field (athletics) events. It is sanctioned by the US Olympic Committee, which is in turn sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) so for us this is a welcome and important endorsement. USATF is a true partner of ours,” says EduSPortz CEO, Grethe Lindemann.

Corporate Social Responsibility

The scope, and scale, of sponsored community activities has expanded greatly since the term Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was coined.

Kraft Foods’ theme, “Kraft Cares”, runs through all programmes in British as well as global markets, according to corporate affairs director Joanne Scott. Their four focus areas encompass healthy lifestyles, hunger and access to the arts along with a recently increased emphasis on environment and sustainability. “Locally appropriate criteria” are key elements as all initiatives supported are based in communities where the company operates and its employees live and work.

Benefits to Kraft are based on an assessment of how much impact can be gained for the money contributed. Strict codes are followed to ensure that projects “make a difference”, says Scott. They also want to “be engaged, not just write a cheque and walk away”. Involvement from employees and other stakeholders is always considered.

Decision-making isn’t easy. Large companies have far more requests for sponsorship than they can possibly approve. Michael Mullen, general manager of corporate affairs at Heinz, says the thousand or so they receive annually are all reviewed on an individual basis. Ranging from the smallest of local suggestions to the largest national television campaigns, Mullen says Heinz bases decisions on a fit with the organisation, target audience and whether it feels natural or not. “Is the age group one we want to influence?” is just one question asked.

Unilever UK’s website assures visitors of its commitment, investing “over £9m (US$16.6m) worth of cash, goods and our people’s time” in UK community projects every year. Kellogg’s, whose plan is to “be recognised as an economic, intellectual and social asset in each community, region and country in which we operate”, saw corporate giving exceed £40m in 2001.

Most projects are evaluated when they end, looking for lessons that can be applied to future decision-making. Profitability is rarely measurable but impact and influence are important. Unquantifiable benefits such as making a difference, giving something back and supporting or implementing CSR strategies count just as heavily.

Case studies of good works abound. Regardless of whether intentions are accepted at face value, it’s results that count and the very number of people and pounds or dollars being invested in CSR undeniably produces some pretty good results.