Bertrand Piccard is a wanted man. He’s often in the spotlight for his Solar Impulse, a plane that flies without fuel. At events, journalists jostle with sponsors to get the attention of the record-setting Swiss adventurer. How important are such projects for corporate partners?
After the recent unveiling of the Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) – which Piccard and André Borschberg plan to fly around the globe in 2015 – it became evident that achieving such a feat isn’t the only challenge the adventurers face.
Within earshot of a swissinfo.ch journalist, representatives of one of Si2’s main partners were moaning.
“We didn’t get any special treatment compared to the media. I think there should have been more of a programme just for us,” said one person, whose colleague replied, “Aren’t we supposed to get Piccard three times a year? For the AGM or something?”
They continued in that vein, questioning whether their company had gotten enough exposure at the event – which attracted hundreds of people from the media and business worlds.
“How do they decide where to put the logos [on the plane]? I don’t know if we got a good spot,” worried one person. “And they were wearing the other jackets!”
Expensive projects typically need sponsors to help them achieve their goals. For Solar Impulse, these so-called ‘partnerships’ are vital as the project is fully funded by corporate partnerships and private donations.
“Official partners and main partners bring a financial contribution between CHF10-20 million ($11-22 million) each, plus different value in kind contributions depending on their field of expertise – embedded engineers, technological support, materials, insurances, communication, etc,” Solar Impulse told swissinfo.ch. The overall budget is CHF150 million.
But what’s in it for the sponsors? How do they ensure that they get a return on their “investment” without being too obvious about it?
As Zurich business psychologist Christian Fichter told swissinfo.ch, sponsorship is mostly about image transfer.
“Companies hope to get associated with the same attributes that characterise the project. A sponsored project may be seen by the public as technically sophisticated, future-oriented, innovative or beneficial for society. If a company sponsors such a project, these attributes shape the image of the sponsor,” Fichter said.
Examples of projects considered prestigious could include Formula 1 for high-tech luxury car makers, or the Street Parade for telecom service providers. This chance to be seen is valuable for potential sponsors thanks to the so-called “mere-exposure effect”.
“Constantly being exposed to a sponsor's brand name in the context of a positive event improves the likeability of this sponsor,” Fichter said.
Formula 1 is a good visibility vehicle for UBS, Switzerland’s largest bank and a global partner of the famous racing series. In addition, UBS has been sponsoring Art Basel for 21 years. This ties in well with the bank’s Art Competence Center, which helps wealthy clients manage their art investments.
In Brazil, Swiss luxury watch brand Hublot is currently getting a lot of face time as the official timekeeper of the football World Cup.
‘Not about sponsoring’
Solar Impulse has five main partners, including Swiss luxury watch brand OMEGA.
“Of course, our brand's visibility both on the planes and at Solar Impulse's events elevates OMEGA's profile,” acknowledged OMEGA in a statement to swissinfo.ch. It also described its partnership as mutually beneficial.
“OMEGA can use its international reputation to raise awareness of the project’s goals and accomplishments while having the opportunity to contribute our expertise to areas beyond the world of watchmaking. It allows us to showcase the technological innovations and contributions we have made to the project,” Omega noted. In addition to timekeeping services, OMEGA developed a system test bench that Solar Impulse uses when preparing for flights; it analyses the performance of the solar panels under various conditions.
Another main partner is Swiss-based electrical engineering company ABB. But it’s “not about sponsoring”, as ABB spokesman Antonio Ligi told swissinfo.ch in a statement by email, using carefully chosen PR language.
“This is about a vision which ABB believes in and a technological partnership to make this happen. ABB is very proud to be part of this vision. The world needs clean energy more than ever, both to power the present and to secure the future,” said Ligi. ABB has also supported various causes and events like museums and the Special Olympics.
So what does a company need in exchange for such a partnership to be worthwhile?
“Visibility, no scandals, and success,” said Fichter. “Visibility is easy to achieve. Just hang up those posters all over the place. I'd rather see sponsors do this a little less obtrusively, sometimes.”
Fichter noted that avoiding scandals was harder to achieve. “That's why many companies stopped sponsoring cycling events, where many cases of doping surfaced a few years ago.” But the most difficult thing to achieve is success, said Fichter.
Of course, sponsoring a “winner” will yield a winning image for the company – but it’s not always easy to pick one. For example, there’s no guarantee that Si2 will achieve its goal. Still, somebody has to pay the bills for labour, materials, hospitality and give-aways.
“Each contract is discussed with the [partner company’s] CEO and includes a certain number of events or speeches that Solar Impulse is committed to do,” said Solar Impulse, pointing out that the partners cover all expenses associated with the partnership.
So maybe the person hoping for a souvenir from the Si2 unveiling should have asked his boss.
“There weren’t any give-aways,” he complained, “Just a few key-rings, but we didn’t even get those.”