Chris Lang becomes a sponsorship hall-of-famer

The Lang Marketing Group founder says there's still room to think outside the box, know consumers better and take risks.

Last week, Lang Marketing founder Chris Lang was named to the Sponsorship Marketing Council of Canada’s Hall of Fame.

The annual induction is given to individuals who have demonstrated excellence and evolution with the market in the field of sponsorship. And while Lang has been part of the industry for more than 50 years – he’s served as a key advisor for every Olympic Games since 1968 and helped found sports properties including Hockey Canada, ParticipACTION, the Coaching Association and Skate Canada – he’s not one to look back at the industry and be completely satisfied.

On the contrary, Lang says there’s still a lot of work to be done, as the industry is now shifting and changing faster than ever. “I still don’t think corporations understand enough about all we can do with sponsorships. And we don’t call them sponsorships, we call them partnerships.”

Lang says in his experience with marketers, sponsorship represents about 16% of their total ad spend, and he says this could be much higher if all partners come together. “The thing that has amazed me is how weak we are in the process,” he says, adding that marketers and agencies need to look harder at consumer insights and build better-integrated marketing plans around their sports partnerships.

Here’s what Lang had to say when MiC caught up with him recently.

Five decades in the industry is nothing to sneeze at. How has the practice evolved since you started?

Effectively, if you study the evolution of the business that we’re in, there have been four key stages. In the 70s, sponsorship was all about advertising around a property – think Molson and hockey. Then we moved onto actual sponsorship, with the Bank of Nova Scotia being a key player in actually sponsoring properties. Then we threw in philanthropy, like you’ve seen with TD and music. And now we’ve added true partnerships to the mix, you see ‘official partner’ titles, like with CIBC and the [Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA)].

And that’s all because the industry has moved with the consumer. In the days of advertising, the consumer wanted more involvement, so we created sponsorship. Then we found that organizations wanted to get more involved. Now we’re into partnerships. So you start with consumers, then you find the alignment. That’s really the same as any other industry: the big shifts start with consumers.

Another thing to ask when trying to find the right alignment is: what else can you do? Take Tim Horton’s. Location? Good. Price? Good. Quality? Good. But what else can you do? For Tim Hortons, its Camp Day has been significant. It’s affected how people feel toward the product and the company who supplies it as much as the product.

Since the industry has been through so many phases, where do you see it going from here?

I think we in the industry always have to focus on the consumer more, and what their interests are. How can we take those interests and activate on it, take a property and adjust what it’s doing? So far, there’s not enough focus on that. A lot of the properties that we deal with don’t really understand the consumer interest. Whether it’s going to the hockey game and going to the airport, you have to not just ask, ‘How do I provide what I’ve learned to do because I’ve been in the business so long?’ You have to ask, ‘What else can I do?’

What’s changed about how we actually get to know the consumer?

There’s much more science to it now. There’s research, and more and more, agencies are now focusing directly on the consumer through science, whereas before there was a lot of guessing. Technology plays a massive part in how we communicate. I have 10 grandchildren, and I don’t communicate with them through the phone. They don’t use the phone. The medium is becoming terribly important and is probably more important in the message. It’s so important that we understand our media platforms, because that’s how you understand the consumer.

Sponsorships and sports are seen as hand-in-hand. Where are the opportunities outside of sports?

You need to be topical. Start with asking, who needs money and who needs help? You look at education. Another example would be hospitals. If you look at how governments have put certain bodies under pressure to produce more money… I am just stunned at how much time people who visit patients spend at the hospitals. Look at where the social issues are, where your attention is pulled. You know, 10 years ago, we opened up transportation by working with the GTAA. That wasn’t typical then, but it’s very typical now.

What are some of your favourite examples of creative sponsorship?

The earliest one I can think of is if you go way back to ’72 and the Canada Cup of 1972. This is not as typical, and in fact it was interesting that Molson wasn’t the sponsor. Carling O’Keefe [now owned by Molson] was the sponsor. But with everything they did in the space, Molson owned hockey. So today, if you asked someone which brand was the sponsor of that Cup, most people would tell you that it was Molson because they owned hockey.

Another more typical example to me is Bell and mental health. I think they’ve done a wonderful job promoting it every year, and I think they get great value for it.