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Wakefield on Marketing Through Sports (In the News)

Sept. 5, 2005

Marketing through sports

by Steve Coomes, Senior Editor


03 September 2005

It's been decades since Dr. Larry DeGaris played Little League baseball, yet he remembers the names of companies who sponsored the league's teams. Those brands are inextricably wedded to those teams and rivalries, and players' parents felt obligated to support those businesses.

Engendering that same customer loyalty is the goal of mega-brands paying millions to sponsor big time sporting events, said DeGaris, principal of Madison Sports Marketing, a research and consulting firm in Harrisonburg, Va. Those firms want exposure to an audience that knows their generosity supports that event. That arguably makes sports the most beneficial marketing initiative for any business owner, he said.

"With sports, you're looking at an audience that's intensely loyal to a team," said DeGaris. "You want people to know your store has a relationship with that team ... because it ... creates not only a sense of obligation, but a warm feeling toward the sponsor."

Perhaps no sport has maximized sponsor participation like stock car racing and its premier league, NASCAR. Not only are racecars turned into billboards, the drivers controlling them are blanketed head to toe in sponsors' brands. Every press interview is sprinkled with sponsor references, and drivers regularly attend public events where they reach out and touch fans. The resulting love triangle between fans, drivers and sponsors generates unrivaled fan loyalty to those corporations

Domino's Pizza was the primary sponsor at this summer's Busch series stock car race at Michigan International Speedway.

footing the bill.

"NASCAR fans know that without sponsorship, there would be no racing," said Patricia Baker, owner of The Big Picture Agency in Middlefield, Mass. "They know that by buying Domino's Pizza, they're supporting the sport and the team."

Sports marketing also is successful because of its high level of fan interactivity. Viewing a football game generates emotional responses running much deeper than soaking up a sitcom. Viewers cheer and/or jeer their team's every move, and they buy team apparel to show their loyalty. That's not the case with "Friends," "Seinfeld" or "Fear Factor."

"Sports is really the only vehicle out there that's so experiential," said Dr. Kirk Wakefield, a professor at Baylor University in Waco Texas. "People get involved in it, so if a company activates its brand well, it gets fans connected."

Mounting a full-court press

For years, sponsors have bought ads in game programs or hung signs on centerfield fences. But sports marketing programs are much more effective when sponsors involve fans at multiple levels.

Alan Nero, chairman and founder of CSMG Sports in Chicago, likened a well-executed on-site marketing/sponsorship effort to "a full-court press approach," one that addresses fans at the gates, where they receive coupons, on the P.A., where they hear announcements about a current promotion, through signage, where they see the brand's logo, and where possible, at autograph sessions, where they meet a team's stars.

CSMG once linked the Peter Piper Pizza chain with Arizona Diamondbacks pitching ace Randy Johnson for a promotion Nero said was so well received, it paved the way for Peter Piper to become the sole pizza provider at Banc One Ballpark, the Diamondbacks' home turf.

CSMG ran a lower-profile but equally successful promotion for Rustoleum paints, where it handed out coupons to baseball fans and supported the deal with radio advertisement. Area Rustoleum outlets reported a strong coupon redemption rate of 30 percent.

In 2003, Domino's Pizza took its

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first step into NASCAR marketing in becoming the sanctioning body's "Official Pizza," and as a secondary sponsor of driver Michael Waltrip's #15 car. That program since has grown to include TV ads, boxtopper mentions, multiple Domino's-related public appearances by Waltrip, primary sponsorship of his No. 99 Busch-series car, and the sponsorship of the Domino's 250 Busch series race at Michigan International Speedway.

Domino's chief marketing officer Ken Calwell said the money invested in racing is returning handsome dividends.

"When we first considered this, we found NASCAR fans are two to three times more likely to buy a product from a NACSAR sponsor than a competitor's brand," he said. "We did that same research again later, and we found they are five to six times more likely to buy our pizza than a competitor's."

Is that reflected in increased sales and, ultimately, long-term loyalty to Domino's? Calwell said the company continues to mine and study the data behind that answer. In analyzing Sunday (race day, typically) sales, Domino's has stripped out all factors that could boost or bust purchasing habits, and each time, it consistently sees sales growth of 3 percent to 6 percent when it runs race-day promotions.

Interesting, but not fully convincing, Calwell, said.

"Sometimes I have to go with my own intuition when I look at these things," said Calwell. "I grew up doing triathalons when the sport had only a teeny following. And I can tell you that the folks who stepped out as key sponsors, whether it was Timex or Gatorade, I supported them because I knew there would be a lot fewer races if they didn't sponsor the sport. I didn't even like Gatorade that much, but I bought it because I was appreciative of their support."

A well-used and wider-ranging approach is to sponsor a major stadium, something done both by Papa John's and Pizza Hut. Not only is the corporation's name spoken with every mention of those venues, an exclusive pizza vending contract typically comes with it.

Love the locals

Experts also believe NASCAR fan loyalty is deeply rooted in an emotional attachment to the "Everyman" appeal of its drivers. Many are down-home, regular folk who are approachable at public appearances, who appear "normal" on camera and who work for their paychecks every week.

"The fact that drivers don't get paid if they don't race, consumers relate to that," said Big Picture's Baker. "Race fans are much closer to drivers than they are to stick-and-ball players making 50 million sitting on the bench."

Still, "Everyman" can be found on many teams and at every level of sports, experts said, and smart sponsors will find away to couple up with him or her in a marketing program. Yet more often than not, that person is an entire team that competes against clubs from surrounding towns and cities. Highly public support of the home team allows the sponsor to bask in the glow of emotion surrounding the hometown favorite.

Whatever level of support is given, it must be relevant to that activity's fans. When launching his now-famous shoe company, Nike founder Phil Knight, shod an entire college track team for free, while selling his handmade shoes from the trunk of his car. Said CSMG's Nero, no one at those events doubted Knight's allegiance to the University of Oregon track team, and today, no shoemaker doubts the world's allegiance to Nike.

"A comparatively small investment can yield tremendous benefits," said Madison's DeGaris. "What would it cost to buy shoes for a soccer team, or a baseball team's catcher's equipment? That's not a lot of money, but investing in those potential relationships at that level can be very valuable."

DeGaris also stressed that small operators with a As long as it's a comprehensive program, the results will be excellent.

-- Patricia Baker


The Big Picture Agency

limited geographical presence should make promote themselves as hometown heroes. Mention in advertising that customers' money stays at home and is plowed back into the area's economy.

Never forget, Baker added, that one of the cheapest and most effective marketing tools is your food. People love freebies, especially edible ones, and they love contests, too.

"People like to participate in contests in which more than one person wins because that increases their chances of winning," she said. "They love to walk away with something they didn't have pay for. They think, 'I got a T-shirt, and all I did was fill out a form.'"

Whatever the promotion, make sure, experts said, that the crowd at the event matches the crowd that buys your product. A high-end restaurant isn't likely to generate an appreciable return from sponsoring a children's baseball team, but a family-oriented pizzeria likely will.

Additionally, don't pour money blindly into an effort you can't track; make certain any promotion your run is measurable, i.e., use coupons that reveal the event or entity to which they are tied.

Promote your efforts vigorously to the press. Assignment editors love feel-good stories about businesses contributing to worthwhile causes. What draws their attention, however, is a unique approach, such as contests and giveaways, not just the fact that a company is throwing money at an event.

Lastly, choose wisely those events or entities you sponsor in order to avoid spreading your business and marketing budget too thin. Even Domino's, Calwell said, chooses to sponsor a few events very thoroughly, rather than a bunch of them superficially. Baker said to find the events that draw the crowd you want to reach, and cover every marketing opportunity if offers as best you can.

"As long as it's a comprehensive program, the results will be excellent," she said. "If you don't understand the sport or the event, or don't know how to maximize the advertising or PR, then no sport's going to work for you. That's why there are companies like ours, to help people do this well."

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