The operators of the large domed sporting stadium in Melbourne’s docklands are finding out the hard way that sponsorship is a two-way street, especially when it involves naming rights.

Last October, Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad was announced by the venue operators as the new naming rights sponsor for the stadium formerly known as Telstra Dome.

But as late as last week, with the pre-season competition well underway, principal tenant the AFL was still refusing to call the stadium by its new name — “Etihad Stadium” — because of a dispute about details including pourage rights and club stadium deals.

Listening to Melbourne talkback radio this morning, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that it had been officially renamed “whatever-it’s-called stadium”. People are actually using phrases like that not only because they are confused about the status of the name, but also because they sense a problem of fit.

The trouble with this sponsorship isn’t just that Etihad is relatively unfamiliar to Australian consumers; it had at least been advertising here for some time before the sponsorship was announced. Nor is it necessarily because people are tentative about how to pronounce the name, see the name as too “foreign”, or are unsure of what line of business it’s in, although all may be contributing factors.

The main issue is that the images of the operators of the “what’s-it dome” and the AFL are potentially undermined by a naming-rights sponsorship that doesn’t “take” or just doesn’t feel right. Does Etihad feel like a natural sponsor of sport, more particularly Australian sport, and especially a Melbourne sporting stadium principally known for hosting AFL (leaving aside Andre Rieu concerts)? Well, we know so little about the brand, that’s a hard call to make and consumers are naturally tentative about it, especially when the name change and sponsorship haven’t been promoted.

Sporting and cultural organisations often overlook the two-way nature of the sponsorship and co-branding process in the rush to find dollars to fund their activities. But they do so at their peril.

Sure, the sponsor gains exposure but also leverages brand awareness and brand associations from the team, event or cause it sponsors.

But, intentionally or not, the sponsored entity doesn’t only get the sponsor’s money: it also acquires parts of the sponsor’s brand equity, and that can have downsides as well as upsides.

For example, there’s no doubt that Collingwood, historically associated with the eponymous tough, working-class, inner-Melbourne suburb, acquires a certain air of prestige and professionalism through its sponsorship by luxury car brand Lexus. It’s fair to say that Collingwood’s principal sponsor, Emirates, took some time to be accepted by the Magpie faithful, but its credentials as a sporting sponsor were strengthened around the same time through other sporting sponsorships, including the Melbourne Cup, the Rugby World Cup and Arsenal in the English Premier League.

The “yada-yada stadium” problem is also being faced by the smaller indoor venue in Melbourne’s SwanStreet/Melbourne Park precinct, previously Vodafone Arena. During 2008, it was rebadged overnight as Hisense Arena without any apparent fanfare. I first became aware of it when I drove past the stadium and saw the signage.

Like most consumers, my first reaction was “Hi-what?”. News eventually filtered out that it was a Chinese electronics brand new to the Australian market. A prominent arena sponsorship seems to me like a very strange way for an unknown brand to spend a whole lot of marketing dollars in a new country.

I’ve since shopped for a TV, microwave, fridge, printer and phone and I’ve never seen a Hisense product. I teach advertising and I can’t recall seeing a single TV commercial or print ad anywhere for Hisense. In other words, the Hisense brand simply has no traction in the Australian consumer marketplace.

My observations suggest that many consumers are uncomfortable using the name Hisense Arena simply because they don’t know the brand. For many, just that lack of familiarity and salience of the sponsor’s brand could well mean an event staged at Hisense Arena sounds less accessible and less appealing than one staged at Vodafone Arena.

And that’s potentially damaging for the stadium operator, for sports and promoters who use the stadium and for Melbourne’s enviable sporting and entertainment reputation.

  • Dr Stephen Downes is a market researcher and lectures in the postgraduate advertising program at RMIT University.