Why do very large brands love to sponsor sports teams? Do they really expect to sell more stuff? This is the question that came up over the weekend as I was visiting my in-laws and watching the Springboks play the French in a game of rugby. The Springboks have a new headline sponsor in MTN, a very large, established mobile network operator. According to News24: “The South African-based African giant has agreed a three-year deal to back the national team.”

But why? Is MTN really expecting to sell more cellphone contracts because of this sponsorship?

One can never say for sure what the reasoning is for these mega sponsorships since the press release almost never tells the full story. But in the case of MTN their announcement talks about how they have been “… a long-time supporter of South African sport…” and how they will “…seek to make both our customers’ and rugby supporters’ lives brighter by offering unique experiences and competitions…”. Clearly most of this has very little to do with generating sales.

Here’s s the thing to remember: marketing activity always has two primary objectives in varying degrees:
1. Grow sales
2. Build brand awareness and loyalty

The first objective is the one we usually associate with marketing and the most important to entrepreneurs. But in the case of MTN, they are very much after the second objective. For them the sponsorship is about telling a story, not only to us, the public, but also to their staff, world-wide. They want to associate the MTN brand with the values of rugby.

You see, rugby is unique in that it is both very aggressive and very civilized. It is a full contact, team sport. MTN is making a statement that they are willing to fight hard, whilst also play by the rules. This association is a powerful metaphor for a company who has had a tough time in many of its markets, incurring heavy fines in Nigeria, Rwanda and Turkey.

MTN is not sponsoring the Boks to sell more cellphone contracts. The South African market is mature, and the various network operators are well dug in. Rather, the sponsorship is about making a statement to themselves, and the world: we’re up for a fight!