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Have influencers settled an age-old branding debate?

by uma
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Author – Ishveen Jolly, Founder & CEO of OpenSponsorship

Sponsorship is a funny old thing when looked at under the umbrella of the ‘marketing mix’. Throw influencer marketing into that debate and there are opinions, scowls, scoffs, celebrations, criticisms, nods of agreement, eye rolls and every reaction you can think of.

“Is sponsorship marketing?” 

That’s a question that businesses and individuals have asked for years. It may seem an obvious ‘yes’ on paper, but you’d be amazed how many times the sponsorship team in a business sits completely outside marketing, which tells you all you need to know. 

From my perspective, as the founder of a tech platform for sponsorship opportunities, I also think ‘yes’ it is part of marketing. But the reason for that has been the disruptive nature in the rise of influencers. 

That rise means the question now being asked is: “Is influencer marketing, sponsorship?”

Again, the fast answer is yes. One brand is paying another brand to project their product or service. That, in a nutshell is sponsorship. Therefore, the evolution of influencers achieves one clear ‘thing’ – it draws a line in the sand that yes, sponsorship is indeed part of that marketing mix. 

That evolution of influencer marketing shows no sign of abating either. When the industry was first born around 10 years ago, it barely made a ripple in the $60bn sponsorship industry. Now, every year the spend increases and forms a larger part of that total market. For us, looking at the sports industry – the largest ‘vertical’ in sponsorship – it was when talent agents representing athletes started seeing their deal flow move away to influencer marketing that suddenly everyone woke up – ourselves included.

Indeed, our business is perhaps the best example of how influencers continue to chip away at the sponsorship and marketing industry – by continuing to offer brands value. At the core of the growth is the fact that influencers are considerably more affordable than franchises, teams, stadia and other more ‘traditional’ avenues of sponsorship. 

But there are many other factors too, with a lot driven by the benefits of ‘individuality’ to a brand. 

For instance, many athletes and influencers from other sectors would take royalty deals, where they were actively involved in the sales success of the company. This leap of faith, this involvement in the success of the business is not only a more holistic approach to branding, but it also makes financial sense for the brand too – win, win.

Athletes and influencers are natural content creators too, and so don’t need expensive photoshoots and production days like traditional athlete sponsorship. It was, and still is, cost effective.

With the growth of this world, we began to see new influencer marketing teams being created. Teams who didn’t have any relationships to the CAAs of the world, it was new, and with ‘new’ comes opportunity – which is where our business becomes indicative of the evolution of sponsorship. We started rebranding our messaging in its entirety away from sponsorship and to influencer marketing. We opened ourselves to new titles such as the head of influencer marketing at Walmart or affiliate marketing directors at Footlocker – no longer liaising with sponsorship-specific teams. 

Before tech platforms like ours, arranging sponsorship deals was cumbersome, overly relationship-driven and because of that, expensive. Now, we can work with a brand, find the right influencer, negotiate and agree a campaign and launch in a matter of days, sometimes hours. And with that more nimble process, more deals can be managed, more campaigns can be run, more influencers can take part and more brands can afford sponsorship. It is a self-perpetuating industry. 

Smaller brands from all manner of industries are also now able to afford sponsorship campaigns because of influencer marketing. Influencers have given brands opportunities like never before. Big brands can reach more targeted audiences and smaller brands can afford to raise the profile of their product or service like never before.

At the heart of the benefits to brands also lies measurement. Sponsorship has been a form of marketing that has always dodged the ROI question, and is often seen as non digital and non attributable. Now, because of influencer marketing and technology, even b2b marketers are moving to attribution, digital, effective campaigns. And that data, that insight is invaluable to brands – they can truly see what’s moving the dial. More quickly and more accurately than ever before given the nature of social platforms. At OpenSponsorship we have positioned ourselves at the cross-section of traditional sponsorship and influencer marketing and we are rooted in data and measurement. We are confident that the trend is here to stay, and hopefully continue to grow.  


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