Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
So begins Homer’s Odyssey, or at least the translation of it that sits on my bookshelf. I’ll admit that it’s been sitting there, unopened, probably for a couple of years. But there are other books (yes, that’s a shot of one of my bookshelves), and there’s always at least one open all the time.
We are and always have been consumers and tellers of stories. Storytelling is one of the mantras of sponsorship in today’s marketplace. Sponsorship, we’re told, is an opportunity to tell the brand story or, even better, to make your customer part of it. Kim Skildum-Reid turns that on its head (as she often does), arguing that sponsorship should be used to make the brand part of the customer’s story, “to demonstrate an alignment with your customers’ and potential customers’ priorities and motivations.”
I don’t want to challenge any of these positions. Instead, I’d like to focus simply on the word “story,” because stories come in all shapes and sizes. In his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Steven Booker describes the “meta-plot” – the basic structure that makes a story a good narrative: anticipation, adventure, frustration, nightmare, resolution. Virtually all good narratives follow this basic structure. And that’s where I think we find some of our best examples of sponsorship execution. Not simply in storytelling, which can be pedestrian, but in good narrative, which is always compelling, often soaring.
Good narrative combines strong characters with the elements of meta-plot described by Steven Booker into a powerful and engaging story arc. When sponsors come upon opportunities to insert themselves genuinely into those narratives, they should jump at the chance.
Surprisingly, not all do. I believe one of the missed opportunities of the 2010 Winter Olympics was in the RONA Fab Shop. As part of its Olympic partnership, RONA created a carpentry training platform. Under the supervision of qualified RONA staff, selected disadvantaged residents of the Vancouver area were put to (paid) work building podiums, gates and whatnot for the Games. At the conclusion of their rotation, they were one year into their apprenticeship as journeyman carpenters. RONA leveraged this to great effect internally, but never gave it the public face that I felt it deserved.
Contrast that with the 2012 Paralympics. In the lead-up to the London Paralympics, the Canadian Paralympic Committee launched its Superathletes campaign. The key insight in Superathletes was that the compelling narrative in the Paralympics is not the competition, but the journey that each athlete took simply to be there. The Usain Bolt story in 2012 lasted less than 9.7 seconds. The story of any Canadian Paralympian was a story years in the making. Since 2012, the Canadian Paralympic Committee has made significant sponsorship gains, and I believe the Superathlete narrative has played an important role in that growth.
Just recently, Nissan launched the Nissan Kickoff Project, the new name for last year’s Back in the Game. Through the program and in partnership with the CFL, Nissan is breathing new life into moribund high school football programs. This year, Nissan is putting more media support behind the program, and why not? The 22 videos Nissan produced for last year’s program have earned millions of views. I urge you to set aside a few moments, then click here to understand why.
And then there’s the Sport for Development Centre, a partnership between the MLSE Foundation and Toronto Community Housing, which is scheduled to open its doors in 2017. Mike Bartlett, Executive Director of the MLSE Foundation, will be presenting on the new Centre at Sponsorship Toronto on November 3. In discussing this session with Mike, I suggested that done right, it would be a content factory. Mike didn’t challenge that claim. It’s a remarkable project with an ambitious vision to shape how the world can use sport as an agent of social change. In pursuit of that ambition, the Centre will be altering the trajectory of individual lives. Each of those lives will be a narrative unfolding along the lines of the meta-plot that Steven Booker described. In the process, a neighbourhood will be transformed.
What brand wouldn’t want to be part of that?