A headline on PRWeek.com caught my eye today: Public sector needs private help to offset cutbacks. The gist of it was that £1bn of private sector sponsorship will be sought to support marketing and public relations for British tourism around the 2012 Olympics.
Frustratingly, the article didn’t really elaborate on the headline, and neither did the press notice on the Department of Culture Media and Sport website shed any light on how this might work. But it got me thinking about the potential of sponsorship to help fund public sector comms as we face a period of serious belt-tightening.
The Government’s Change 4 Life campaign to tackle rising obesity has had massive private support, with big-name brands such as Asda, Flora, Tesco and Unilever getting behind it. But they aren’t sponsors in the true sense. They have supported the Change for Life movement once it launched, rather than provided direct funding to the campaign and shaped its development.
The 2004 joint British Heart Foundation and NHS stop-smoking adverts were an example of the private sector pooling resources with a partner – albeit a charity rather than a corporate – on a campaign. There were benefits to the message coming from a respected charity as well as the NHS, although in this instance I think the lion’s share of the funding came from the NHS.
The signals coming from the new administration suggest we won’t see any more large-scale government-funded health promotion campaigns for a while. But it
is not difficult to imagine such campaigns being funded by the private sector. A safe-sex campaign funded by a condom manufacturer but leveraging the trust and the NHS brand as well, perhaps? Or a nicotine replacement product sponsoring a stop-smoking campaign?
And the opportunities aren’t limited to public health: Think road safety messages, early-reading and climate change campaigns, and so on. Equally, sponsorship needn’t be for large scale campaigns. I was working with a foundation trust recently which was seeking sponsorship to cover the cost of its members newsletter. It’s simple, but many more organisations could be doing it.
I saw an ad on TV recently that gave the impression it was a public health message, directing viewers to a website for help and advice on quitting smoking, which was in fact from a nicotine replacement product. I’m sure they would have loved to be able to use the NHS brand in their campaign.
And brand is the crux of the issue. Public sector brands must be careful not to be seen to be giving unfair advantage to one product over another in a competitive marketplace. But where there are powerful public sector brands, such as the NHS, it seems daft not to leverage all the value they have, to achieve their aims, when hard cash is so hard to come by.
Brand-fit is an important factor in any sponsorship. For every brand that would like to have some of the trust and respectability of the NHS brand rub-off on its own, there is another that would run a mile from the NHS’s perceived failings and ‘nannying’.
When I headed the NHS brand management team at the Department of Health, we carried out some research and published some useful guidance on communications partnerships. The most important elements for success are having clearly agreed joint objectives from the start and that all important ‘brand-fit’.
The research showed that people have a ‘gut reaction’ of either comfort or discomfort when they see the NHS in partnership with another organisation based on a number of factors, the most important being how well they think the partner’s business and brand values fit with those of the NHS. If there was any mismatch between what the NHS and the partner do and stand for, audiences are likely to either question the partnership or reject the communication. So tobacco companies and fast food brads wouldn’t
work, but sportswear brands or brands with the appropriate values of care and compassion would.
Then, of course, come the risks of any partnership and the potential loss of control and impact on reputation when you work with any third party. But the benefits of such partnerships could be well worth it as we seek to carry on delivering vital communications campaigns with far fewer resources to support us.