The "So What" Rule in Sponsorship

There is a strong trend to inclusivity in the modern adventure space, from celebrating small local adventures to calling for more diversity in adventure coverage. And your adventure can be rightly celebrated by yourself, your family, friends and followers. But that is not the same as persuading sponsors, media or the public at large to give their attention to your project. 

If you want to make a claim on the eye-balls and money of strangers, you need to be able to counter one simple objection: “So What?”

Get Sponsored , by Jeff Blumenfeld

Get Sponsored, by Jeff Blumenfeld

The “So What” Rule comes from Chapter 1 of the book Get Sponsored: A Funding Guide for Explorers, Adventures and Would-Be World Travelers (published 2014). It is written by Jeff Blumenfeld, a US PR executive with an unusual specialty - adventure marketing.

He connects explorers and their projects with corporate sponsors looking to create awareness by demonstrating product performance in extreme conditions. He’s been in the business for 40 years and has received a great many expedition pitches. 

The first thing any company receiving your sponsorship pitch wants to know is - Why is this interesting?

Jeff writes that “Sponsors are called upon to constantly make the distinction between an adventure, an expedition, or simply someone’s fun time in the great outdoors… Without a significant raison d’être, sponsors will most likely bury your request in their “Help Fund My Vacation” file.”

The challenge today is not so much to climb Mount Everest or explore the depths of the sea, but rather to figure out a way to pay for it all.
— Jeff Blumenfeld

A fun time in the wilderness is not inherently any more interesting or worthy than a fun time at the seaside. A commercial adventure travel trip does not carry more weight than a package beach holiday just because the word ‘adventure’ is included. They are great for the people involved, and possibly interesting to follow along for the dedicated fan, but they have no value as a media story or a sponsorship proposal. 

For your project to interest strangers it has to have an angle or hook, something to help the project stand apart. Jeff writes, “Without a strong hook , there’s little chance your project will attract media attention. No media attention means a lacklustre response from prospective sponsors.” 

Companies value the adventure-associated media coverage they may get through sponsoring your project for two reasons. It is cheaper than buying advertising and it is seen as more credible than advertising. If your project catches fire with the media, the sponsor’s return can be phenomenal.

Biking the Atlantic - funded by champagne

Just because you want to pedal across the Atlantic doesn’t mean corporate America needs to line up to fund your dream.
— Jeff Blumenfeld

One of the many interesting case studies in Get Sponsored concerns the 1992 Biking The Atlantic project (done in a peddle-boat). After a tortuous journey of failed funding and false starts, Dwight Collins secured US$ 35,000 from Moët & Chandon champagne. Despite still being woefully underfunded, he then managed the fastest yet human-powered west-to-east crossing of the Atlantic. 

Dwight Collins in his Moët-branded peddle boat. 

Dwight Collins in his Moët-branded peddle boat. 

"Moët was thrilled," writes Jeff. "News of their involvement was covered as a sports story, as a general news item, and as a human-interest feature, reaching a cross section of their target market in the process.

"The brand received additional exposure when they arranged for an empty champagne bottle to be thrown overboard with a note inside offering the finder his or her weight in champagne. It was found four months later washed ashore in Brittany ....  “Normally, we’re featured on the wine pages or in the society column,” the brand’s Aura Reinhardt told Industry Week. “This gave us the opportunity to associate ourselves with journalists in other fields.” "

Simply put, newspaper, radio, and TV coverage means sponsor pay-back.
— Jeff Blumenfeld

How can an adventurer overcome “So What”?

What does it take for your trip to become an expedition rather than an adventurous holiday?

Jeff writes that “An expedition is a journey that involves scientific study or field research — an effort to better understand the planet, determine what lies over the next hill, or test the upper limits of human performance, whether that entails jumping from the edge of space , diving 560 feet on a single breath of air, or climbing Mount Everest without oxygen. In short, it’s a trip with a purpose.

For that trip to become a sponsorship-worthy proposition, it needs to create something that didn’t exist before - “a project that somehow makes a difference in how we understand the environment, the geography of a region, the human condition, or the limits of human performance. Pick a project that will also resonate in the media.

7 Ways to Create a Hook for your Adventure

1. Do scientific studies or field researcH

This can include citizen-science projects.

2. Explore somewhere no one has been before

There are still many unclimbed mountains, and countless caves waiting to be explored. 

3. Test the limits of human endurance 

This is probably a leading category, with human-powered endurance challenges dominating the modern adventure space.

4. BE the first to do something 

This remains a very common hook in adventure proposals. “Sponsors want to know about firsts, because being first is news-worthy,” writes Jeff. However, “more and more Everest climbers are slicing the “ first ” pie increasingly thin as sponsors become increasingly jaded. Two brothers from Locust Valley, New York, hope to someday become the first identical twin brothers to summit Everest at the same time. What’s next? Triplets?” 

That first should still be something of genuine significance. Many things haven’t been done, not because they are hard, but because they don't matter.  

just because something hasn’t been done before, doesn’t always make it relevant
— Simon Parker, from "Is our obsession with world firsts getting out of control?"

5. Retrace the Footsteps of Earlier Explorers

This may be to bring attention to a forgotten or overlooked story, or to illustrate changes between then and now. Always research and then reach out to the current descendants of the original sponsors. 

6. Raise environmental awareness

This is another common hook in modern adventure, as people use projects to direct attention to climate change and human impact on the planet. It normally involves a strong educational angle.

7. Raise funds for charity

“Tying in with a nonprofit — preferably a compelling cause that can attract sponsors and media attention — can be a successful technique to partially fund your adventure or expedition,” writes Jeff.  

Climbing a mountain, pedaling across the Atlantic, or racing across Death Valley pushing a baby jogger full of food and water — that’s the easy part. What’s really hard is keeping sponsors happy.
— Jeff Blumenfeld
Jangbu Summit Everest.jpg

This blog post is based on the opening chapter of Jeff Blumenfeld’s book Get Sponsored: A Funding Guide for Explorers, Adventures and Would-Be World Travelers, published in 2014.  

Jeff Blumenfeld, adventure marketing specialist.

Jeff Blumenfeld, adventure marketing specialist.

Jeff's journey in adventure marketing began with an adventure marketing promotion in 1982 for Du Pont. Du Pont made insulation for cold weather clothing and they had sponsored American climber John Roskelly to help promote their new polyester sleeping bag insulation, Quallofil. Jeff was asked to dream up a strategic marketing plan to make best use of that relationship. 

As Jeff’s fledgling PR agency blossomed, they were inundated by sponsorship requests, and in 1994 Jeff created Expedition News, initially just a fax sent out to dozens of potential sponsors, in the hope they would high Jeff’s PR firm to run an adventure marketing campaign. That monthly newsletter is still going out today. Find it at Expedition News.

Jeff is a member of The Explorers Club, former chairman of its public relations committee, and writes quarterly for The Explorers Journal. He is also a member of the American Alpine Club and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. 

Find Jeff on the web: