Business Sense: Do vehicle sponsorships have to die?

May 2, 2011

When I decided to write an article on the topic of “sponsorships” as they relate to the aftermarket segment of our industry, I had no idea just how passionate and frustrated some of my industry colleagues would be. I sent an e-mail out to my industry friends, representing all sides of the business, and the response was amazing. Mostly, each had either cut way back on sponsorships or had eliminated them altogether. And it wasn’t due to a tough economy.

For many, myself included, the original attraction for even attending a SEMA show the first time was to experience the vehicles – custom, outrageous, best-in-the-biz project vehicles that fill every aisle and corner of the convention center. Of course, there is plenty of business being completed at the show, and building your network of industry relationships is a priceless opportunity, but first, it’s about the vehicles. They are the one part of the event that speaks directly to our passion and what originally attracted most of us to the industry. They inspire us to create the next great vehicle project, and to develop the aftermarket accessories that enhance them and feed our continuous passion for personalizing them.

However, for anyone who has ever designed, built and then hauled a project vehicle to the show, the process is not inexpensive by any means. There are some builders who personally finance their own project vehicles; but for most of us it requires the support of sponsors – the manufacturers and product suppliers that willfully step up and get behind your idea, your design, your ability and your promise. That’s right, your promise. A sponsorship is a promise to promote and stand behind the product or service that you have been given, to provide positive exposure to the company’s brand and to do everything in your power to provide them with a return on investment (ROI) that equals or exceeds the value that has been provided to you. The concept is great for the industry – the coolest cars on the planet, adorned with the latest and greatest aftermarket products and accessories.

Sponsors disillusioned

There is, however, a growing concern. So many of the manufacturers I spoke with feel taken advantage of, and have been burned too often. Every year I’ve heard – and experienced – horror stories about sponsored vehicles not showing up for industry events or appearances. In fact, sponsors are more often disappointed than satisfied with the projects they’ve supported. Not because of the design or build quality, but the lack of marketing associated with the project.

One company representative said, “We want to support upcoming builders, and need our products installed on vehicles at high-profile events throughout the year, but we just don’t see the ROI. We’ve stopped looking for new builders, and will only work with a few that we have history with.”

Others said, essentially, “We no longer sponsor any vehicle projects and, instead, build our own.”

Let’s face it, almost anyone with imagination, a passion for automobiles and a large checkbook can create a show-quality vehicle. The difference between one that sponsors are thrilled with and the disappointing ones is most often the marketing efforts behind them.

What project builders need to consider

So what can we do to help keep manufacturers sponsoring new designers and builders throughout the industry?

Before you even think of turning a wrench, determine the what, how and when of your project vehicle marketing plan. If you’ve never created a strategic marketing plan, don’t just wing it. Getting help from a marketing professional will be an enormous benefit to you and your sponsors, and allow you to keep focused on the build. The right marketing plan will quickly establish you as the obvious choice when important sponsorship decisions are being made.

Who is your target audience, and why will it be attracted to your design and/or theme? Do you have an existing relationship with media contacts, and why should they feature your project? What marketing materials will be created to go along with the vehicle at each event to promote the sponsors? Which events can you guarantee the vehicle will attend? What additional marketing efforts are planned to provide additional brand impressions for the sponsors (e.g., a dedicated website, e-mail campaigns, social media presence, press releases, formal press kit, video, posters, etc.)? I’ve been part of some of the wildest vehicles ever seen at SEMA and global events, but it’s the successful marketing efforts and promotions that attracted the industry’s attention and kept sponsors coming back each year.

The struggling economy has not created this challenge; it merely magnifies the importance for ROI with every business decision that is made, and it illustrates the importance of constantly improving how we conduct business.