Sales & Marketing

The five times sponsorship failed and blew up in the faces of brands

7 min read

12 August 2015

Former editor

For any SMEs looking at how sponsorships or innovative branding exercises can boost sales, we’ve pulled together five cases of when that marketing money was probably better left in the bank.

From TV to social media, there have never been more ways for a company to push a product or brand and hopefully lure new customers. However, there’s a reason why those at the top of their game in marketing get paid so much. They need to avoid the kind of problems we’ve unearthed below.


When online property listings platform Zoopla became the principal sponsor of English Premier League team West Bromwich Albion in 2012, the company was probably thinking that it was aligning itself with an ambitious, Midlands-based club which was going to do wonders for brand exposure.

The £3m two-year deal saw Zoopla plastered over the front of West Brom’s shirts, a big move as part of the company’s plans to usurp rival Rightmove as the market leader.

However, that branding exercise came to a screeching halt less than two years later when Zoopla pulled its sponsorship after West Brom striker Nicholas Anelka made what was deemed to be an anti-Jewish gesture after scoring a goal.

The French footballer unveiled a “quenelle” gesture as his celebration, prompting outrage from the football community and Jewish organisations.

To make matters worse for West Brom, the founder and CEO of Zoopla, Alex Chesterman, is Jewish himself. After demanding its branding was taken off shirts if Anelka was fielded in the next match, Zoopla ultimately decided to pull out entirely and “focus its attention” on other marketing activities.

This example shows that, despite football being a great way of introducing a brand to a wide range of people, it’s always a risk when you have no control over the players who essentially serve as ambassadors.

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With reality television on the rise, the powers that be at takeaway chain Domino’s Pizza decided to get a piece of the action and sponsored diving show Splash! in 2013.

Fronted by Olympic diver Tom Daley, the show saw a group of questionable “celebrities” coached on how to high dive properly.

However, Domino’s adverts, featuring at the start and end of every break in programming as “bumpers”, were slightly contradicted when followed by government warnings about the fat content of pizzas – yes, specifically pizzas.

Businesses such as Domino’s, McDonalds and Burger King are finding it increasingly hard to market offerings in the face of strong pushback from health organisations and government initiatives. But Domino’s must have expected the ad men at ITV to be slightly sensitive to the matter and space out the two contrasting shorts a little bit more.

Visit page two to find out how Virgin couldn’t even provide trains to an event it was aligned with, and how Phones4U appeared to make a joke out of rape.


Back to sport for this one. When a business decides to sponsor a lower league club, the dream is that said team will manage to play themselves to a big stage and give the brand national exposure.

So, when Preston North End made it to a televised League One play-off final at the mighty Wembley Stadium in May 2015, shirt sponsor Virgin Trains must have been doing a bit of lip licking.

But it ended up being too much of a good thing when the very Virgin trains that were supposed to be ferrying Preston fans back up north after the game were suspended due to engineering works.

The game ended up being dubbed the “replacement bus final” – pretty embarrassing for Virgin. As a way of winning back fans, Virgin announced a special offer for those staying in London on the night of the game and then returning the next day.

Phones 4U

The now defunct Phones 4U represent another example of a TV advertising slot looking a little odd when lined up against the scheduled programming.

Before the business entered administration and disappeared from the British high street, a 2012 advertisement incurred the wrath of viewers after it appeared to make light of rape.

A scene from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” on Channel 4, showing a violent rape scene, had just finished when TVs cut to an advertising bumper (when brands sponsor a specific type of programming) and displayed Phones 4U’s offering.

Months of planning, designing and, probably, focus group feedback, was all blown up when the advert featured a woman making love – before then turning to the camera to reveal she was faking it.

Media regulator Ofcom received 17 complaints about the Phones 4U ad – with the phone retailer sponsoring drama and film on Channel 4, E4 and Film 4.

National Guard

Our final embarrassing moment comes from the US, and goes to show that spending millions of sponsorship doesn’t necessarily get you the results you’re after.

The National Guard, the US equivalent of our Territorial Army, appear to have a big marketing budget and spent $88m and $38m on sponsorships of motor racing series NASCAR and IndyCar.

Describing it as a branding exercise that “helps create a fundamental awareness of the National Guard as a career option”, it was pretty embarrassing that $126m could only secure a handful of applications, and even fewer actual enlists.

It just goes to show that a company can pick a popular event or pastime to align its message and branding to, but that doesn’t actually mean it will be targeting the right people – as the National Guard found out to its financial detriment.