Small business sponsorships carry big business potential

At large, heavily-sponsored events, small businesses with limited budgets often can’t afford to put their logos up with the big players. But the five-person team at Aerographics Creative Services found a different way to sponsor events without shelling out money — work for free.

Aerographics — an Ottawa-based graphic design company — has been sponsoring local and national events for 35 years.

Initially, the small business achieved sponsor status by offering advertising campaigns and branding services free of charge in exchange for exposure.

When it comes to backing local and national events, the company still employs the same approach.

“What it does is connects us with everybody in the city,” says Dave O’Malley, the company’s president and creative director. “There’s a lot of work involved. It’s difficult at times, sometimes you look around and everybody in the office is working on pro bono projects, especially around festival time.”

But O’Malley says Aerographics’ pro bono projects actually paid off when early discounted work evolved into future clients.

“In the long run, it has made us really connected with a network of people and we meet people at all levels as a result,” he says. “It’s just a result of what we do, it’s not a plan or anything. We’ve always been part of this community and I think that’s what’s kept us alive.”

O’Malley estimates the company sponsors 20 events per year, including local festivals like Ottawa Bluesfest, the Canadian Tulip Festival and national events such as Motorcycle Ride for Dad and Vintage Wings of Canada.

He says the networking that he has done through his company’s service-based sponsorship has introduced him to “thousands and thousands of people in Ottawa” and has been invaluable to the company’s sustainability.

Smaller is better: Customer base is key

Sponsorship is certainly one of the most effective marketing tools for promoting a company’s image and product — but one that is usually reserved for big businesses with deep pockets.

While it may be hard for small businesses to make a splash, targeting sponsorship at large-scale events is not the only way to get exposure.

As with any marketing campaign, sponsorship is about targeting the right customer base, and sometimes smaller can be better.

Small businesses should shoot for sponsorship opportunities in the community where people might know the company’s services, says Peter Stewart from the Ottawa Centre for Regional Innovation entrepreneurship centre.

“When you’re doing sponsorships, it’s creating awareness,” says Stewart, who offers guidance and mentorship to growth-stage companies. “You’re not really going to increase sales, you’re going to help yourself become more top-of-mind. You want your name wherever your customers are going to be.”

Stewart says small businesses need to become more particular about sponsorship as they evolve.

Role reversal: Targeting sponsorships

Event organizers often seek out sponsors that support the theme or concept of the occasion.

Finding the right sponsorship clientele was important for Max Grootenboer, the co-founder and director of the first annual Winterfest — an Ottawa festival devoted to hip-hop culture.

He says it was a challenge to attract sponsors to an event that had no previous track record.

“When you’ve got a product that’s not yet stamped or not yet proven, it’s hard to approach people and ask them for funding,” says Grootenboer.

“You can provide not only a platform for the artists, but the businesses as well, to link with like-minded businesses.”

But the 22-year-old Ottawa native adds that local community shops were eager to jump on and support the new two-day festival.

“It struck so close to the heart for many people,” he says. “Initially, we were just cold calling, looking for sponsorship here, looking for sponsorship there, letting them know what it was that we were trying to do. Most of these businesses really liked the premise to promote a culture that’s looked aside at in many parts around the city and the country. So they hopped on and wanted to help this grow.”

Winterfest had nearly 40 sponsors in its inaugural year. Grootenboer says local events are a great way to bring everyone together in support of a common theme.

“You can provide not only a platform for the artists, but the businesses as well, to link with like-minded businesses.”