Your credit card company invites you to attend a meet-and-greet with your favorite rock band before the upcoming concert. Your financial institution offers you a private golf lesson from one of the professional golfers in a PGA tournament. Your airline offers you the chance to attend spring training for your favorite MLB team.

Sound impossible? Not at all. Welcome to the new world of sponsorships.

From sporting events to concerts to cultural happenings... sponsorships are becoming commonplace. They are also playing an increasingly pivotal role in corporate marketing strategies and budgets.

In fact, sponsorships have been the fastest-growing form of marketing over the past decade. According to SponsorClick's "Sponsorship Marketing Global 2004 Report," brand marketers worldwide will spend $37.8 billion on sponsorships in 2004 and that figure will close in on $50 billion by 2006—in comparison to a mere $4.3 billion in 1990.

Given these rapidly escalating spend levels, it is critical that marketers create sponsorship strategies that are on target, cost-effective and support and enhance the organization's brand strategy. In other words, marketers need to ask themselves: Are we getting the most from our sponsorship investments?

Traditionally, sponsorships have been thought of as an advertising medium—used to drive awareness and brand recognition. That approach has merit, but sponsorships should be leveraged in much more innovative and effective ways, by considering the marketing and experience implications. This means thinking about unique ways to capitalize on the power of the assets that specific sponsorships offer.

Consider this example: Last year, Citizen's Bank signed a major sponsorship deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. In addition to securing naming rights for the new baseball stadium and guaranteed radio spots, the company considered ways to leverage the sponsorship to strengthen relationships with its most valuable customers. The result: Citizen's also secured seats on the team plane and private tours of the dugout and locker room for its best customers.

Countrywide Financial, which began its foray into golf sponsorships in 1997, now sponsors a host of annual tournaments: The Nissan Open; the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational benefiting the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center; the Michael Douglas & Friends Celebrity Golf benefiting the Motion Picture and Television Fund; and the Target World Challenge benefiting the Tiger Woods foundation.

At these events, in addition to enjoying exclusive hospitality benefits, Countrywide clients are invited to play in the Pro-Am or Celebrity-Am tournaments or walk the fairways with a foursome that includes a celebrity or touring pro.

Credit Suisse recently entered into its fifth year as the primary sponsor of the Swiss Sauber Petronas Formula Grand Prix racing team. Not content with standard uniform or automobile logo placements, Credit Suisse was determined to leverage the sponsorship to its fullest.

The result? Its clients are able to experience the thrill of Formula Grand Prix from behind the scenes—Pit Row. Credit Suisse clients who are also race fans know that this once-in-a-lifetime experience is something that money cannot buy.

If your bank or credit card company offered you the experience of a lifetime—riding in a plane filled with your favorite sports heroes, walking down the fairway with a celebrity golfer or experiencing the thrill of Pit Row during a race—would you ever do business with anyone else? And how many friends and colleagues do you think you would tell about your once in a lifetime experience?

These examples illustrate how some companies are looking creatively at leveraging the unique assets of their sponsorships and corporate partnerships—and using experiences to create emotional and lasting impressions for their best clients and offer unique benefits to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Companies that have wrapped experiences around sponsorship assets are reaping significant and quantifiable business results. Participants of these experiences virtually all report feeling more valued as customers; but, even more importantly, that translates into significant and quantifiable increases in spend levels and loyalty.

In fact, even customers who are offered these experiences but choose not to attend spend more and stay longer. As word of these experiences gets around to the rest of the customer base, many of them likely also increase their spend levels in hopes of getting invited to future events. Comments such as "most colleagues to whom I mentioned this event wanted to switch (to this brand) since they were very impressed" are commonplace among the companies that have "experientialized" their sponsorship assets.

Although sponsorships are playing a much more prominent role in marketing strategies and budgets, they are still strategically underutilized. By thinking outside the box—and creating unique and memorable experiences from the assets that may already be available through corporate sponsorships and partnerships—companies can forge more emotional and valuable relationships with their best customers.

In the future, you can bet that more and more companies will create experiences around their sponsorship assets in an effort to generate greater returns for their sponsorship investments.

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image of Rob Murphy

Rob Murphy is the former chief marketing officer of MC2, a global exhibit and event marketing company. Check out the eConnections Digest blog and find MC2 on Twitter (@MC2experience_ and @MC2_FastTrak) and Facebook.