The Power of Brand Activation

The Association of National Advertisers include six activation disciplines including experiential, promotion, content, influencer, relationship, and shopper marketing.

Will (no) fans in the stands impact sponsorship ROI?

Sponsors and properties alike wonder what the effect of (no) fans in the stands might have on ROI. The irony is the 20/80 rule applies to attendance: Less than 20% of the fan base can attend any given year. The best partnership strategies always focus on reaching the entire fan base.

Game day assets including branded venue gates, clubs, spaces, and facilities accompanied by in-bowl signage, LED, scoreboard and on-field activities have long-term effects on brand image. These assets are valuable because they form the basis of brand memories for years to come. Game day assets make some activation efforts easier, but creative strategies like co-branded direct-to-consumer plans will work now and later. Digital & social media ad reach has skyrocketed as fans spend more time online and mobile.

We'd worry if fans could never attend. But one year does not diminish prior game day effects. Without question, the number one influence on brand preference is brand activation.

Brand preference follows when fans take actions on behalf of the partner. These include:

  • visiting the website, showroom, or store

  • joining rewards programs or subscribing to content

  • consuming, trying or buying at the game, at the store, or online

  • receiving and retrieving brand messages and meanings

  • attending events, themed games, and activities (virtual or live)

  • recognizing community involvement, programs, and causes

  • entering contests & sweepstakes; redeeming coupons, rebates, & premiums

Impact on brand preference

For each partner in our studies, we measure four brand activation elements determined by the property's account executives in concert with the brand. Effectively executed campaigns deliver more fans who "have consumed Miller Lite in the last 7 days," "know Palais Royale sponsors the Texans' Battle Red Ladies program," "downloaded the Waitr app," "entered a Coca-Cola sweepstakes," or "joined United MileagePlus Rewards."

brand preference.JPG

We measure brand preference on a 100-point scale (see inset) across partners and competitors. Based on over 196,000 responses from NFL fans in 2019, we can explain about 46% of brand preference for the 108 brands (132 partnerships) studied. Differences in the demographics of fan bases explains very little (less than 3%).

As seen in the chart (below), the strongest effect by far is whether or not the fan took an action on behalf of the brand. Brand activation accounts for over 70% of the effects on fans' preferences across the 108 brands. The location of the activation may change, but the opportunity remains the same in 2020-21.

relative effects of assets on brand pref

Passion. Besides planning activation strategy, the next most important thing brands should care about is the passion of the fan base. Our passion scores (heart + mind + body + soul) mirror the rankings but go one better by predicting how well sponsors perform. Passion is the #1 predictor of fans watching, listening, and following the team's media.

Passion provides the psychological motivation to pay attention. Fans may not care about the brand of insurance, electricity, gas, grocery, retailer, or telecom, but they do care about who supports their team. That's why use of marks, up next, is vital to changing people's minds to prefer one brand (the team's sponsor) over another.

​​Use of marks. Whatever rights fees brands pay to use to reach fans is worth more than any other asset. The first priority in prompting activation is clearly linking the brand with the team so passionate fans pay attention, gain interest and desire, and take action.

Being in the same place as the team (in-venue; on broadcast, digital, and social media) banks on classical conditioning to make the connection. Mere association is the weakest link to learning. Active learning drives it home. When law firm Dudley DeBosier provides Saints fans with a free Uber ride when they need it, fans internalize and store the information in long-term memory.


Experiential +  Social + Digital (ESD). The fourth strongest influence on brand preference occurs when fans experience the brand, interact or observe it on digital media (email, website, or app), or see, engage, or follow the brand via the team's social media.

Fans see these partnership marketing elements in unison or complementary to each other. When Kroger partners with the Lions to create an event to contribute food to a local school, fans can experience giving and see the partnership in action on digital and social channels. Each asset can be executed independently but are better interdependently for the greatest impact.

kroger lions.JPG

Venue assets include everything fans encounter upon entering the venue (outside digital & fixed signage; gates), along the concourse (including clubs and dedicated brand spaces), and in their seats (in-bowl signage, scoreboard and on-field). When fans encode these episodes into memory, prominent brands stick with them. That's one reason why the decay rate for anchor sponsors is three or four years. It's another reason why we shouldn't overreact if that asset is less visible for one season.

Our study across 132 partnerships indicates venue assets are important but rank just behind ESD assets. When play resumes (with fans attending) these work in concert. Fans access digital and social content while experiencing the game integrated with in-game activation, messages, and environments provided by the brand partner.

Attendance. Fans who attend more games are more likely to prefer the brands encountered there. We just need to keep the effects in perspective, since attendance explains less than 3% of the differences we observe across the 132 partnerships.

A common misconception is season ticket holders should have more positive attitudes toward brand partners, given the exposure. Holding all else equal, our data shows season ticket holders are less likely to hold such attitudes, owing to the fact these tend to be older consumers with established brand preferences. Savvy brand managers know the 18-44 set is the target to establish the brand for the present and future returns.

Broadcast assets. TV and radio represent a particular channel to a specific audience that follow by sight and sound, if not hands (mobile/digital) and feet (attending). Its passive nature makes it less effective in changing brand preference but combined with solid activation strategies can transform team fans into brand fans. If games play absent fans, adding broadcast spots clearly demonstrating the brand-team linkage is a top priority. Better is integrated spots with activation campaigns via digital and social promoting experiences using the product (viz., MasterCard and the Packers).


Fans who live closer (inside an hour's drive) and with higher incomes tend to respond better to the brand partner. Longevity (the number of years as a partner) builds brand preference as well.

green bay mastercard.JPG

The brand. Naturally, the brand matters. On our 100-point scale, the brand itself can weigh in its favor by as much as plus 6% or weigh it down by as much as minus 6%. Of the 108 brands measured, brands like Wegmans (Bills), H-E-B (Texans), Rouses (Saints), Kwik Trip (Packers), University Hospitals (Browns), VISA (Bears), Kroger & Meijer (Lions), Delta Airlines (Vikings), Coca-Cola (Buccaneers), Houston Methodist (Texans), and Lucas Oil (Colts) were among the top partners whose own brand values boosted preference the most.

Brands with effective, integrated marketing strategies will continue to do well with properly executed sponsorships. Brands that maintain the industry standard of spending as much as 2-to-1 or more on activating the sponsorship should reap the rewards of their investments.