The CFL's sponsorship picture is starting to change. According to Kirk Penton of The Winnipeg Sun, Scotiabank and RONA are both departing as national sponsors. Scotiabank will advertise with the league this year but then leave, while RONA is already out of the picture. CFL commissioner Mark Cohon told Penton the league isn't concerned, as plenty of companies have recently inquired about getting involved, and that seems about right; the league's in a pretty good place overall right now, especially in terms of TV ratings, and that's often what really matters for sponsorship. However, not all sponsorships are effective, and the Scotiabank and RONA ones in particular didn't seem to really work (Update: RONA thinks theirs did. See the *Update section at the end of this post), so it's not all that surprising they're leaving. Companies looking to replace them should carefully think about how the CFL can help their brand before jumping in, though. Here are three tips they should consider.
1. Less is more when it comes to TV advertising: The advertising during televised CFL games is actually one of the most disappointing parts of the league. As fans all over the country know, it feels like the same four or five commercials are shown time after time during every game. That carries over game-to-game and week-to-week, too, and that's problematic; many CFL fans intensely follow every game their team's involved in, and because the league's so small, lots of fans watch almost every game that's played regardless of the teams involved. That translates into a lot of oversaturation. Companies value saturation to a degree, as multiple impressions can get something to stick in a viewer's mind, but the sheer force of repetition involved means the impressions gained are often negative. That's not good sponsorship value; why would you pay a lot of money to make people dislike your brand?
A clear solution would be to get more companies involved in the commercials that run during CFL games. That could perhaps result in 60 different ads (or 30 each shown twice) instead of six shown 10 times each (and more change in the ad rotation from game to game). It would also really help if companies invested more into individual commercials. Make something good, something funny, something that will actually appeal to the viewer, and then don't shove it down their throat. A smart, humorous commercial shown once or twice that gets people saying good things about your brand would seem far more beneficial than a low-budget one run 30 times that causes plenty of complaints.
2. Keep track of how people respond: A remarkable element of the internet age is how it's become easier than ever for companies to actually see how their advertising goes over. Social media's a key point here, and it's the best evidence of how frustrating the oversaturation of certain commercials during CFL games can become. If a company's a CFL sponsor, they should absolutely be monitoring the #CFL hashtag on Twitter during games, particularly when their commercials air. Fans commenting on the games often praise or criticize the commercials as well, and that's where the backlash against seeing the same commercials over and over again has really gained legs.
The most interesting example of this comes from RONA's old "Our Man Carlo" series of ads, featuring a guy in the stands being recognized for doing home renovations. Those ads became so ubiquitous during CFL games and so annoying that they inspired Bombers' fan John Hodge to start a parody Twitter feed. Conversely, smart CFL partnerships (like Tim Hortons' series of team-based donuts) inspire plenty of positive feedback on Twitter, Facebook and blogs without any television advertising. Any company involved with the CFL should be carefully monitoring how fans react to what they're doing, and adjusting their marketing approach appropriately.
3. Tie it to the league: Yes, Canadian football fans tend to be very loyal, but that doesn't mean they'll buy your product or service just because it's the "official X of the CFL". Go a little deeper, and in particular, offer something that's going to be interesting to them. A great example here comes from Gibson's Finest whiskey, a long-time CFL sponsor. Yes, they've done some of the standard tactics (running commercials during games, putting their name on the various player awards), but their most interesting marketing moves have come from special creations tied to the CFL. They created a special whiskey in honour of the 100th Grey Cup (complete with a unique bottle), and over at least the last two Grey Cups, they've included collector's glasses with those Grey Cup logos and more with purchases of particular bottles. The Tim Hortons' donuts also come to mind here; those are products that are specifically designed for CFL fans, and that's a smart move. RONA showed their close connections to the league a bit, being a key sponsor of this fall's train tour and hosting the Grey Cup at plenty of their stores as part of that tour, but they never really seemed to come out with products would attract CFL fans. Look, licensed products work: everything from the B.C. Lions' barbecue sauce to Fantuz Flakes has gone over well in the past. If a hardware store offered, say, barbecues with CFL logos (which some actually do in Regina!), that might go a lot further towards solidifying their connection to the league.
Of course, it's much harder to offer sponsored products with, say, banking. However, there's another approach that sponsors in those industries can take: get players involved. One of the few oft-repeated CFL commercials in 2012 that didn't quickly grind on the nerves came from Humpty's Restaurants, which got a massive collection of current and former CFL players together to promote the packs of trading cards the restaurants were offering. Scotiabank has done similar things with Jarome Iginla over the years, and something with CFL players might have worked quite well. (However, the company deserves plaudits for another innovation: their "Game Changers" idea, which honoured locals who had done key charity work at every 2012 game, was a great move.) The overall moral of the story: being the "official X of the CFL" is all well and good, but you're much more likely to actually attract CFL fans if you do something that shows you have a real connection to the league.
*Update: RONA senior director (communications and public affairs) Michelle Laberge said via e-mail Monday that the company was happy with the results of their sponsorship and is leaving for other reasons. "RONA was a National sponsor of the CFL and teams for 11 years. Our reason for pulling had more to do with the financial turnaround we are orchestrating than with efficiency of our partnership with the league. Our tracking for initiatives was always ongoing and the partnership was always a favourite." She also added that "Our partnership involved field refurbishing. The next partner should also ask ‘’what’s in it for us?’’ Our commitment to the league was not about selling team branded BBQ and more about community relationship building. Our effort was more about corporate social responsibility and brand recognition."
Obviously, each company has its own set of goals it wants to accomplish with a partnership. If RONA believes they met theirs with the CFL, that's good news for the league. It's further evidence that this is an in-demand sponsorship, and one that can be quite fruitful for companies. Approaches towards reaching corporate goals with partnerships can vary, of course, so the tips above aren't universal, but they might be worth considering for new sponsors. RONA's response suggests that even sponsorships whose high-profile TV commercials don't necessarily get great reactions from fans can have benefits for companies, though.