As the Shanghai World Expo approaches, many firms are wondering how to best use this opportunity to increase their brand exposure. Sponsorship is obviously the highest-profile marketing option, but simply signing a sponsorship contract does not guarantee effectiveness.
In order to explore how to make a sponsorship more effective, we launched a systematic ongoing consumer survey, called "The Sponsorship Effectiveness of the Shanghai World Expo," to study brand performance.
Relying on an online panel of respondents in six major Chinese cities, the survey studies and compares the relative performance of 24 brands, 10 of which are World Expo sponsors. From the survey, we produced a sponsorship effectiveness index founded on three dimensions: brand recognition, brand image and purchase intention. According to the second wave of results, firms may need to adopt a different strategy for the Expo than they have used in past campaigns.
Studying the performance of the firms that are doing best at leveraging Expo sponsorship is a useful place to start. At present there are several consistent leaders who have tenaciously held on to their lead. They are China Mobile, Tencent and Lenovo, which rank as the top three, respectively, in terms of overall sponsorship effectiveness.
A comparison of two separate consumer surveys conducted in August and again in November showed that there has been little change in the ranking since this summer. The three firms also still rank at the top in terms of brand recognition, at 90%, 81% and 80%, respectively. But this is not to say there has been no change at all. Bank of Communications (40%) and China Telecom (40%) both saw prominent improvements in their brand image since the first wave, and Bank of Communications is now leading in stimulating customer purchase intention.
However, the data also suggest that selling products is not the best way to use a sponsorship. After comparing all monitored brands, it is clear that sponsorship has a lesser impact on stimulating respondents’ willingness to consume a specific brand’s products than on improving that brand’s image in general.
Out of the 10 monitored Expo sponsors, data show that consumers who can actively recognize the sponsor give a much better evaluation of the brand than those who can’t. Yet it seems that whether the sponsorship is known or not has no notable effect on whether a consumer will purchase the sponsor’s products. The likely result of a World Expo sponsorship will be reflected in an improved brand image rather than a short-term sales boost. This is not to say that one should not try to sell products through sponsorship, but efforts dedicated to brand promotion are likely to have more traction.
Furthermore, while some firms re-used strategies that worked for them during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the survey results also suggest that Expo sponsors should adopt new tactics to publicize and communicate to their target populations and for major product promotions.
Compared with the Olympics, an event driven by sports and youthful passion, the World Expo carries a sense of maturity that comes from its focus on economic, scientific and environmental protection issues. Ensuring that the brand is seen and felt by the people most likely to respond to it is best achieved by identifying targeted audiences and understanding the ways in which they are most efficiently reached, instead of using a scattershot approach.
In addition to being a more "mature" event, the Expo draws interest from a narrower class of people than the Beijing Olympics did. According to our survey, respondents who claim to be "most interested" in the Expo are, for the most part, Shanghai residents who are working professionals between the ages of 26 and 35 years old. The age span and occupations of those interested in the Expo suggest that enterprises would be wise to focus on middle- and high-end products in their promotional campaigns. However, attendance is more important than mere interest.
Naturally, people planning to attend the Expo in person will be much more focused on the event and provide a better target for enterprises looking to enhance their brand image. According to results from the second wave of the study, people actually planning to attend the World Expo in person have high academic degrees, occupations and income levels. Expo sponsors should make sure they reach out to attendees with at least a bachelor degree or above (69%), management and professionals (30% and 20%, respectively), and those with average monthly income between RMB9,000 and RMB10,000 (US$1,318-1,464).
To effectively reach targets, enterprises must further identify what specifically interests them and what their motivations are. If sponsors want to maximize their effectiveness, they should choose different topics to publicize to their targets, based on what will resonate most. According to our data, the two biggest reasons for interest in the World Expo are its assembly of today’s most advanced technology (69%), and the environmental protection and urban development themes (64%). Therefore a solid strategy to increase brand exposure will include the concepts of "hi-tech" and "green."
This is not to say publicizing "hi-tech" and "green" messages to Shanghai professionals is all firms need to do. They must also look to their own product lines and customer bases to decide exactly how to tweak their message so that it achieves the desired results. Maximizing the return on a sponsorship investment is like any other investment; it takes thought and work.
Kliff Zhang is research director at market research and business consultancy Ipsos. The company’s Greater China branches can be found in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Hong Kong and Taipei.