When it comes to mounting a professional yacht racing campaign the task of finding a commercial partner to help fund it can be every bit as tough as taking on the actual race or event itself.
Nathalie Quéré – global brand director at AkzoNobel and campaign director at team AkzoNobel in the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18 – who has had plenty sponsorship proposals land on her desk over the years gives some useful insider tips to aspiring campaigners hoping to secure funding from a corporate organisations like hers.
Let me take you on a little journey behind the scenes of a large corporate organisation and try to give you some insight into what the people on the other side of the desk – people like me – might be thinking when they receive a sailing sponsorship pitch.
I often get asked what it is that I think competitive sailing can bring to a big corporation or why it was that a global brand like AkzoNobel chose to go into sailing for the first time with the Volvo Ocean Race.
I was first asked that question more than 20 years ago when I first became involved with the business end of sailing. The landscape back then and the reasons for brands to take on large sponsorship endeavours are very different to what we see today.
Back then sponsorship campaigns often began with an enthusiastic conversation over a glass of wine and were ultimately sealed with nothing more concrete than a warm handshake.
Nowadays, we all know, it is a completely different ball game.
Today businesses are looking for tangible and measurable returns on their investments and nobody will put pen to paper on a contract without a comprehensive and watertight business case to back up the proposition.
The unfortunate truth is that the merits of actual sport being proposed rarely has very much to do with the power of the business case for the sponsorship.
I’m not ashamed to say that my heart was won over by yacht racing many years ago. I have had the privilege to work with many amazing sailing teams at major events around the world during my career.
But I have also learned that when you are standing in the boardroom asking for millions of dollars of investment to be signed off it is going to take much, much, more than stunning sailing images and videos to impress a room full of people to whom the bottom line is the only priority.
That said, although I am not an accomplished sailor and I can barely drive a boat, I do share the same passion for sailing as the wonderful yachtsmen and yachtswomen I have been working with for so many years.
That passion for sailing actually made things tougher for me in my role as brand director. It takes a lot of objectivity to come up with a solid business case to pitch your favoured sport as the ideal platform to promote a major global brand.
The fact that staging a Volvo Ocean Race around the world campaign was a personal and professional goal of mine didn’t make remaining impartial any easier either.
I joined AkzoNobel in 2012 and soon after I was given the task of coming up with a sponsorship strategy that would bring their brand to life.
I started where it always starts – with the brand. I went on to analyse AkzoNobel’s brand and company values and took a long hard look at our playing field.
It took a while and plenty of hard work, but I put together a powerful business case based around a competitive sailing sponsorship, but when it came time to present it to the then newly-appointed CEO he told me he liked it, but it was not the right time and I had to wait.
The good news was that the idea was seeded at a senior level within the business, but the bad news was it was four years later before the company adopted a new brand strategy and the time was finally right for it to get involved in a sailing sponsorship.
A word here about unsolicited sponsorship proposals sent to corporate organisations. In my daily job I regularly receive lots of these – either addressed directly to me or from my CEO who passes on all the solicitations for sponsorship that he receives.
Many of the proposal documents I receive are beautifully crafted and presented with impressive sets of numbers detailing potential returns on investment and other metrics. On the face of it is all very impressive and I am respectful of the effort and time that has gone in to creating these proposals.
The problem with this blanket approach of sending your proposal out to lots of companies in the hope that one will bite is that it’s a little bit like trying to kill a fly by shooting at it with a bazooka.
The biggest problem I see in the majority of the proposals I receive is that little or no homework has been done at all to demonstrate that the proposers understand my company’s strategic challenges – or even in some cases the very basics of what we do as a business.
Mostly the proposals are all about the objectives of the individual, the team, or the event – but not a world about my company’s goals. It’s sad to say but in such cases – unfortunately the majority – we give a standard response of no reply.
My advice here is to adopt a “less is more approach”.
Instead of mailing out a one-size-fit-all proposal to the CEOs of every corporate organisation you can find in the business pages, save your resources and do some proper homework and research on a few companies until you find one with that you think has a set of values you can comfortably align with or has business goals you can help them with.
Don’t take it for granted that the C-levels people are the best entry point either. As much as they may love your project a CEO at a major company will never take the decision to enter a sponsorship on his own. Rather he will consult his board who in turn will consult their chief marketing officer and their communications and brand teams.
So don’t aim for the CEOs right away. Instead build some relationships with the communications and marketing people. And before you launch into an impassioned pitch about your project, first ask them to help you understand their business challenges and needs.
Once you have that information under your belt, arm them with ideas about how your project could help them, and equip them with data to help them sell the idea within the business. The more you know about your potential sponsor the more you can craft your proposal and your pitch to match them.
Be patient and prepared for the cold hard fact that even when there is something there that everyone thinks is a good idea – it will still get nowhere without a comprehensive business case, something that – as I know all too well – can take a long, long time to put together.
And don’t forget, even when everyone right up to the board is convinced that sponsoring you is a smart move for the business, the CEO may still need to “sell” it to his or her bosses – the shareholders.
There is no denying that finding the right commercial partner and then piecing together a mutually beneficial sponsorship deal is a far from straightforward and time-consuming process.
However there are nevertheless plenty of positives about pitching sailing over other sports.
When it comes to aligning yourself and your campaign with common business goals like performance, leadership, teamwork, excellence, resilience etc., there a few other sports that have a compelling a story to tell.
Beyond business goals and more so than most other sports sailing and yacht racing are strongly linked with positive aspirational themes like adventure, bravery, and determination – elements that help to capture people’s imagination and trigger their emotions.
All that and we haven’t even mentioned our sport’s trump card – sustainability and the environment, where sailing scores heavily against even the most mainstream sports.
So to conclude, despite the many hurdles and pitfalls that have to be overcome, sailing is a highly appealing sport for corporate business in so many ways. When put together correctly major sponsorship deals do eventually get signed.
If you have questions for Nathalie about this article or need help with your campaign sponsorship efforts, you can contact her here.