Law firms are relatively new to the world of commercial sponsorship, but it certainly has a significant role in their marketing and promotional activities.
Frequently sponsorship is confused with patronage. The two are not the same. Sponsorship offers some form of commercial benefit to all the parties concerned.
As law firms, especially larger ones, continue to become more marketing-oriented, sponsorship is expected to work hard. It has to fit more closely into the overall marketing and business plan and should be used to meet genuine business and marketing requirements.
Though once thought of as little more than name association, sponsorship is now a sophisticated tool and should be approached with caution by law firms.
Sponsorship activity need not have a direct connection with the activities of the firm but it should project the firm in an appropriate light. The most critical questions to ask about sponsorship is whether the activity is cost effective and the best use of limited financial resources? Financial calculations should be related to a number of basic factors essential in any promotional activity.
How does sponsorship fit into the firm's overall marketing strategy?
What are the firm's underlying objectives in undertaking sponsorship?
What audience is the firm trying to reach?
What attitudes is the firm trying to shape?
What message is the firm trying to communicate?
If the activity is carefully selected and controlled, it can be a useful marketing aid. If not then it is a waste of financial and management resources.
To a large extent positive publicity by association is the objective of most sponsorship. It is not sufficient to seek third-party endorsement and positive association with an event or organisation on the basis of philanthropy or whimsy. Serious consideration should be given as to whether the appropriate, positive messages will reach the target audience either directly or indirectly.
This means the profile of the followers of and participants in the activity have to be closely matched to the profile of the target market. This is not easy to establish in the professional services sector where the potential and existing client base is drawn from many different sectors and industries.
Is it possible to assess how many project finance directors play golf or patronise the opera? With the help of sophisticated databases and market research this should be easy.
However, careful consideration needs to be given as to whether the firm's identity is to be strongly established with an event or organisation. Cricket and cycling, for example, have enjoyed sponsorship from Cornhill Insurance and the now defunct Milk Marketing Board respectively, with the result that those two organisations became closely associated with the positive attributes of the sports. For sponsorship to succeed, it must be long term.
Consequently, music and performing arts tend to be the most important forms of commercial sponsorship for the legal profession.
In part this is because they also present opportunities for client entertainment. As a result, sponsorship and corporate hospitality are closely linked. If an event is prestigious or innovative, the positive 'aura' factor can be immense, as it not only provides an informal venue for client entertainment but also creates a vehicle for publicity and engenders goodwill. There is, however, a fine line between what is considered appropriate client entertainment and sheer ostentation.
Law firms are testing the water where planned commercial sponsorship is concerned. They have not reached quite the same level of sophistication as accountancy firms or management consultancies. It will be some years from now before we see a major law firm sponsoring the cricket or rugby test matches or a Grand Prix racing team.
In addition to commercial sponsorship, many firms give their backing to community-based or educational projects as well as sponsoring seminars and publications.
This is very different from patronage which implies little control over the end result and sponsorship which is a powerful marketing tool. Sponsorship requires careful control from inception of the project through to its completion in order for it to deliver the required results.