Fan Frenzy: Balancing Access and Security

The new NBA season began last night. All eyes were on Boston as the Celtics hosted the Miami Heat and its much ballyhooed trio of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. The league is riding a huge wave of fan interest following an exciting 7-game finals series between the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers as well as a free agency period that was dominated by the question of where James would play this season. The excitement surrounding the NBA today reminds me of a period in the 1980s when Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson were the faces of the league. Great basketball was the brand story, not boorish behavior on the court or illegal behavior off the court.

Amid all of the hype of the new NBA season, I read a quote from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra in USA Today that caught my attention. Talking about extra security in place at the team’s hotel, Spoelstra said “I liked it. There was more security and more barricades so fans couldn’t get close to us, rather than in years past where they could walk right up to you.” These comments should not necessarily be taken at face value. It is understandable that security and player safety is important. After all, these athletes have a job to do and the stakes are high.

A cynical view of Spoelstra’s comments, though, would suggest that fans can be an irritant or unwanted distraction for NBA players. Did he mean he wants to keep NBA fans away? Sure, there are people whose desire to hang around the pro sports scene borders an unhealthy obsession, and then there are memorabilia dealers who show up with armloads of cards, balls, and other items looking for autographs that they can then sell for a quick buck. But, most fans simply want a glimpse of their favorite team or players, maybe a quick photo, and a chance to express their admiration.

The Miami Heat’s situation is unique in that the team features three superstars and has built a media frenzy around them. The Heat does need extra consideration when it comes to protecting players from a crush of fans that could pop up anywhere the team is playing. The risk is becoming too isolated from customers who care about you most. Social media is one solution to this dilemma as it gives fans access to players’ thoughts and daily lives… but at arm’s length.

Look Beyond the Norm for Customers

A study conducted recently by Scarborough Research yielded interesting insights about a segment of sports fans often taken for granted: females. A tendency exists to automatically think of 18-34 year-old men as a lucrative market, but women are often lumped into the family segment rather than viewed as a distinct customer group. The Scarborough study examined the demographic and consumption characteristics of female college football fans. The Southeastern Conference garnered the most interest among females who are avid college football fans; 19% of this group has attended an SEC game.

Scarborough’s indexing methodology compares a customer segment to the population. Among the findings that compared avid female SEC fans to the general population, they are more likely to be African-American, hold white collar positions, own their own home, have HDTV, and installed a home security system. Companies in many different product categories that use sports as a marketing vehicle may be surprised by the opportunities to reach women through college football.

While the findings of the Scarborough study may not give definitive direction to marketers in terms of keys to success for reaching avid female college football fans, the results should serve as a reminder to look beyond preconceived notions about who your customer is. In the case of college football, the number of women who are avid fans may be smaller than men, but their passion for the sport and buying power should not be overlooked. It is not always a men-women or young-old issue; the point is there may be a group of customers for which you do not fully recognize or appreciate their potential. Look beyond the usual ways customer segments are defined; what you may find could surprise you!

Center for Media Research – “Avid Female College Football Fans”

A Customer Engagement Fantasy

Fantasy football has moved past being a football geek’s passion. Estimates of the number of fantasy football players run as high as 15 million. The interest in fantasy football is not lost on marketers looking to link their brands with fantasy games. A simple but unimaginative way to market through fantasy football is sponsoring a game by buying ad space on a game provider’s website. The exposure received on popular game portals at Yahoo and ESPN can be beneficial to a brand, but what if fantasy football players think about your product while they play? Better yet, what if they use your product while they play? Moving from exposure to engagement is desirable, but it is often a matter of easier said than done.

An example of how one brand is seeking to leverage fantasy football as a marketing platform is Papa John’s Pizza. The pizza restaurant is now the “Official Pizza Sponsor of the NFL.” Buying sponsorship rights is the starting point for engaging fans; it gives sponsors the privilege to develop marketing programs that can be used to access the sport property’s audience. Papa John’s plans to reach passionate fantasy football players through at least two tactics. First, a beginning of season promotion invites consumers to register for a fantasy football draft party that includes Papa John’s food delivered by former NFL star and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter. Second, Papa John’s will run a contest in which fantasy football league commissioners will register their leagues to be judged on criteria still to be determined, with the winner receiving a trip to the real 2011 NFL Draft.

Marketing opportunities can be relatively easy to spot in a sense; after all, it is not a stretch to see the connection between eating pizza and watching football. The challenge is developing creative tactics that allows a brand to take advantage of the connection. In this case, if Papa John’s only bought advertising on a fantasy football game site it would be missing an opportunity to make more meaningful connections with fantasy football players.

The planned promotions that Papa John’s will use to target fantasy football players may not be lead to the outcomes envisioned. Communication of the promotions will be key to their success. Papa John’s is moving in the right direction by trying to tap into the interests of fantasy football players. And, the choice of Facebook as the platform for promoting the promotions is ideal because fantasy sports are a form of social networking themselves, so why not use a social network to connect with the target audience?

Bad News as a Catalyst for Change

Bad news is usually not good for business. The saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” may apply to entertainers and other personalities who benefit from keeping their names in front of the public… even if it is because of an arrest or embarrassing actions. But, most brands do not benefit from their names being associated with negative events or news.

A recent example of bad publicity that impacted an entire group of businesses was an ESPN “Outside the Lines” story about the food safety concerns at major league sports venues. The bottom line was that the vast majority of foodservice locations at sports venues have been cited for violations when inspected. After watching the story, one wonders if people singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” should omit any lines about buying peanuts, Cracker Jacks, or any other items from a stadium foodservice operator. When it comes to food, there is most certainly such a thing as bad publicity!

Is there marketing opportunity in bad news? Yes, and marketers must seize the chance to turn lemons into lemonade. The news does not have to be publicized as it was in the case of the sports foodservice industry to be actionable. Internal information that shows an increase in customer complaints, a rise in the number of lost customers, or lower profits are examples of events that could be a catalyst for change.

In the case of sports foodservice, the ESPN exposé should serve as a call for companies to review all aspects of their operations including hiring, training, food preparation processes, and the quality of products offered by their suppliers. Instead of a defensive, withdrawn response to questions about product safety like the responses given by foodservice companies Aramark and Centerplate in the “Outside the Lines” story, the more appropriate response is “what can we do to deliver a better experience to our customers?” Sports venues have expanded their foodservice options to more upscale (and higher profit margin) fare, but their efforts may be more fruitful with a focus on a quality, consistent, and healthy experience for their patrons.

When bad news visits, embrace it as an invitation for change. It will not leave until the conditions that brought into your life in the first place are addressed.

Use Celebrity Endorsers to Engage, not Impress

Celebrity endorsers have been used for decades by advertisers seeking to benefit from the familiarity and likeability of athletes, entertainers, or other famous people. Often, marketers do not fully leverage their association with celebrities. For example, ads in which the endorser is merely pictured or otherwise does not engage the audience with the story behind his or her association with the brand misses an opportunity to connect with the audience. A memorable example I once saw was an ad in a marketing trade magazine several years for a mailing list service that featured NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana. His picture was in the ad, and while he flashed a nice smile it never was clear what his connection was to the product. I never knew Joe Montana was a mailing list expert (but he is a marketing expert if he could get a company to pay him to endorse the product!).

In contrast, I like the approach used by Unilever to integrate celebrity endorsers into its campaign for Dove Men+Care skin care line. The company has enlisted Major League Baseball personalities such as St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi in a video series. The “Journey to Comfort” campaign will feature 90-second videos as well as longer clips featuring the baseball stars (see a Pujols video here). A sweepstakes is part of the campaign, too, with the grand prize being a meeting with Pujols and watching him take batting practice.

Dove’s “Journey to Comfort” campaign is not guaranteed to move the sales needle, but then again no campaign has that capability. What the campaign does guarantee is a glimpse into the lives of three baseball heroes. The endorsers share personal experiences and stories in the videos that will allow fans to see a different side than the baseball accomplishments for which Pujols, Pettitte, and Girardi are known. A video campaign like the one Dove is conducting has the potential to effectively target men through their interest in baseball, getting their attention with the access to three well-known MLB personalities. The campaign sells Dove Men+Care in a subtle manner, connecting the brand to the lives of men via the MLB endorsers. And, it is a stronger customer relationship to the brand that will ultimately positively impact sales.

Marketing Daily – “Dove Links with MLB Figures for Videos, Sweeps”

Sponsorship Rights Fees: Know When to Say When

In the high stakes game that is NFL sponsorship, MillerCoors has folded. The winner: Anheuser-Busch. A-B signed a 6-year deal to become the official beer of the NFL beginning in 2011 that will pay between $43 and $50 million per year over the life of the contract. The asking price became too high for MillerCoors, and a determined A-B committed the dollars necessary to again partner with the country’s most popular professional sports league. MillerCoors has enjoyed a successful run as NFL sponsor, and during that time it launched the popular ad campaign featuring former NFL coaches’ press conference sound bites used as fodder for offbeat questions asked by Coors Light drinkers.

Did MillerCoors make a mistake by not retaining its NFL rights? Distributors liked the NFL sponsorship because they saw a correlation with sales. And, MillerCoors brands were able to hang on to market share in recent years in a sluggish market for beer sales. Yes, sponsorships like the NFL deal can lead to desired brand impacts such as top-of-mind awareness, brand image enhancement, preference, and increased sales. Sponsorships require a return-on-investment mindset, just as any business investment entails. The situation faced by MillerCoors is not unique. Other companies have walked away from high profile sponsorships of properties such as the Olympics and NASCAR. It is possible to reach a point beyond which sponsorship spending levels do not generate incremental benefits. And, we must remember that the NFL rights of upward of $50 million must be supplemented with additional spending on advertising, sales promotions, social media, and other initiatives to leverage the NFL association.

The partnership with the NFL has been beneficial for MillerCoors. Unfortunately, many business relationships end similar to many personal relationships: divorce. The NFL’s desire for higher rights fees did not mesh with MillerCoors’ needs to responsibly manage its marketing dollars. A consolation for MillerCoors is that it still can tap into the popularity of pro football through its coaches’ ad campaign and separate sponsorship deals it has with 22 of the NFL’s 32 teams, not to mention the possibility of new creative directions.

Anheuser-Busch introduced the idea of “know when to say when” in a responsible drinking campaign in 1982. The advice given in that campaign has applicability in 2010 for MillerCoors as it understood the point at which it had to bow out of negotiations with the NFL. Sponsors must strike a balance between associating their brands with properties that can deliver marketing impact and brand stewardship that allows for balanced allocation of resources.

Selling Sponsorship ROO in an ROI World

Sponsorships are business relationships, and like personal relationships, many of them end in failure. One of the most frequently cited reasons for sponsorship failure is a lack of clearly defined objectives. In other words, if a sponsor does not have a well defined outcome for a sponsorship it would not be surprising for it to flounder. Related to the problem of lack of objectives is the setting unrealistic outcomes tied to sponsorship. Unlike sales promotions that typically have a call to action, sponsorships may be more beneficial in creating impact in terms of greater brand awareness or defining a brand’s personality. These outcomes move a consumer closer to buying, but it is does not make the cash register ring today. Thus, it is unrealistic to apply return on investment measures to a marketing activity that does not have an action-inducing component.

The view being advocated is not to let sponsors off the hook for the dollars they spend. Accountability is needed greatly today to insure marketing efforts contribute to building strong brands. Sponsorship selection must include clearly stated objectives as to the intended gains in brand relevance among a target market. The length of the selling cycle varies greatly among products, so a “buy now” message that works for soft drinks does not work for more expensive, complex products. But, marketers of such products can reap the benefits of sponsorship. The key is to define the outcomes that are to be experienced from their investments as well as measure whether objectives are achieved.

Marketing Daily – “Return on Objective Key in Sports Partnerships”

The Quiet Constituency in Tennessee Vols Saga: Sponsors

Recent incidents involving the University of Tennessee athletics program would likely rather be forgotten by many followers of the Big Orange. Three Vols football players were arrested in November for their involvement in a robbery of a convenience store. On New Year’s Day, four men’s basketball players were arrested on drug and weapon charges. Then, last Tuesday head football coach Lane Kiffin made an abrupt departure after only one season to take the head coaching position at the University of Southern California. Kiffin’s resignation set off a fury of protests from students on campus, feeling that their football team and university had been betrayed by Kiffin.

One constituency that has not been heard from during this spate of unwelcome events is the corporate sponsors of Tennessee athletics. National brands such as Coca-Cola, Ford, State Farm, and Verizon Wireless are among the sponsors on the Vols roster. These sponsors as well as others spend large sums of money to associate their brands with UT sports. Why? They want to access the loyal audiences that follow Tennessee sports. In theory, the image of the property being sponsored (UT athletics) influences the image people hold of sponsors. If that is the case, do sponsors really want their image to be shaped by the negative events of recent months? I do not believe that is the outcome they had in mind when signing on as sponsors.

How should we interpret the sponsors’ silence? Do they not care that the happenings in the Tennessee athletics department could reflect negatively on them? Or, do the sponsors have confidence that UT athletics director Mike Hamilton will effectively manage the situation and maintain the integrity of the Vols brand name? In either case, it is very important that Tennessee athletics proactively manage the program’s image. The action taken (or lack of action taken) sends signals to different stakeholder groups about the brand. For the sake of the fans of the Big Orange as well as corporate partners, the signal that needs to be sent loud and clear is that leadership will take whatever steps necessary to portray Tennessee positively.

New Position for Super Bowl Ad Mainstays: Sidelines

Advertising aired during the Super Bowl each year creates nearly as much excitement as the big game itself. Why not? It is an event in which 90 million or more viewers are tuned in, and the lore of Super Bowl commercials makes viewers more receptive to commercials than they are the other 364 days of the year. The popularity of the Super Bowl has driven up the price for a 30-second spot to the point that this year’s game will cost advertisers $3 million.

The Super Bowl is as popular as ever, but Super Bowl advertising may be another story. Some longtime advertisers have opted not buy spots this year. Most notable is Pepsi, which announced its intention to focus on a cause-related initiative, The Pepsi Refresh Project. FedEx, another veteran Super Bowl marketer, has indicated that it, too, will not buy commercial time. Escalating ad rates have led Pepsi and FedEx to question whether a Super Bowl ad buy is the best use of resources. Evidently, the answer was “no.”

The Super Bowl is a marquee event, but in today’s highly connected world there are many options for reaching and engaging audiences. The decisions by Pepsi and FedEx in no way suggest that marketing through sports is losing its power or appeal. These companies have audiences to reach beyond what the Super Bowl can deliver. Super Bowl ad sales remain strong as more than 90% of the spots are sold already. Given that we are in the early stages of emerging from a recession, that figure is impressive. Super Bowl advertisers come and go; it would not be surprising to see Pepsi or FedEx step off the sidelines in the future and advertise during the Super Bowl again.

MediaBuyerPlanner – “Pepsi Drops Super Bowl Ads”

The Tiger (Negative) Effect

I blew this one. In a blog post on December 1, I maintained that Tiger Woods’ value as a celebrity endorser would likely be impacted little by the fallout triggered by his traffic accident on Thanksgiving morning. That assertion was based on an assumption that his transgressions were limited in scope. We have since come to learn otherwise!

Now that Tiger has announced an indefinite leave from golf and the PGA Tour, sorting out the damage done becomes a bit easier. Three parties hurt by this situation are:

3. Tiger’s sponsors – Companies that have Woods under contract as an endorser are having to deal with the embarrassment of the situation, but their brands stand for more than Tiger Woods. The more heavily invested a company’s marketing platform is in Woods, the greater it will be hurt. Accenture is a sponsor whose marketing is heavily linked with Woods. On the other hand, Gillette has many other endorsers that it can shift focus toward and minimize its association with Tiger Woods if it chooses.

2. Tiger Woods – His brand image and reputation have taken serious hits, but not before raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsement earnings. And, there is the opportunity for redemption. While his brand equity in the marketplace may never return to pre-scandal heights, there is potential to remain a viable brand.

1. PGA and golf in general – The biggest loser is the PGA Tour. We have seen glimpses of what a Tiger-less PGA Tour is like when he missed time following knee surgery. TV ratings drop and event attendance declines. While some events hold star power such as The Masters and U.S. Open, many tour stops benefit from Tiger Woods being in the field.

Let’s hope Tiger Woods makes a comeback. He’s good for golf, but more importantly, his return to golf would signal progress in rehabbing problems in his personal life.