By Meg Major, James Dudlicek
From victory lanes to checkout lanes, sports marketing programs are helping aggressive trading partners score touchdowns for their brands' bottom lines.
In the not too distant past, high-profile sports marketing alliances predominantly resided in the camps of the packaged goods segment of the food industry.
Luckily for both retailers and consumers, however, more fresh suppliers are expanding their playbooks with integrated sports marketing sponsorships that are proving to be increasingly valuable in the realm of building loyalty, deepening engagement and strengthening sales of their brands.
To be sure, the potential to make a huge impact in some cases is undeniable, and far broader in scope than might meet the eye. Consider, for starters, the 75 million Americans who are NASCAR fans, 43 percent of whom identify themselves as medium to heavy beef eaters. The audience is split 40/60 for females to males, which is particularly important because, while women do the bulk of grocery shopping, men are the primary beef consumers.
Such enticing demographics are fanning the strategic marketing flames of such astute suppliers as Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Meat Solutions, whose Blackwell Angus beef brand celebrated a major victory in 2011 with an expanded sponsorship of Roush Fenway's Nationwide Series team. The brand was the primary sponsor of No. 6 driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who capped his sophomore season in convincing fashion by clinching the Nationwide Series Championship.
Recalling the initial decision to position Cargill's Blackwell Angus steaks as an affordable luxury for mainstream consumers during an economic downturn, coupled with increasing popularity and proliferation of Angus beef brands, Fred Sousa, AVP of Cargill Beef Marketing, says the brand's leadership team was committed to developing the most powerful and effective strategy to make the brand instantly recognizable in the meat case.
During the brand development process, Sousa notes, "we learned that medium-to-heavy beef eaters share several common interests," high among them being auto racing. Beef purchasers and avid NASCAR fans, he continues, "are nearly identical in terms of demographics, psychographics and behavior, so those compelling statistics were collectively right up the alley where we wanted to be."
Revved and Ready
"There are a lot of race teams out there, but our partnership with Roush Fenway Racing" – NASCAR's largest team operating in both the Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series with a stable of acclaimed drivers like Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne and, of course, Stenhouse – "aligns very well with who we are and what we do. When they wake up, their central goal is: How are we going to get this driver and car into the Winner's Circle?" he says. "It's similar to what we do here at Cargill, when we are focused on delivering the best product to our customers, who can, in turn, delight their shoppers."
From victory lane to the checkout lane, the affiliation has translated into plenty of juicy opportunities for the Blackwell Angus brand and the retailers that carry it, Sousa notes, citing engaging POS materials featuring the signature No. 6 Ford race car, as well as promotional giveaways featuring licensed Blackwell Angus race merchandise. The alliance further allows the beef brand to conduct special car and driver appearances in select stores, which Sousa describes as an "incredibly effective way to drive store traffic while imparting shopper loyalty."
As professional sports' longest season, with year-round activity and more than 70 races from February to November, NASCAR Nation is unique in how it integrates fan loyalty into every aspect of their lives, including purchase decisions, because of the knowledge that their purchases directly support the teams and drivers they love. "Without the sponsors," Sousa says, "NASCAR fans know the sport wouldn't be possible."
In-store promotions and giveaways typically spark a significant sales lift, and Sousa says the brand's store-level activities also help build closer connections with meat department staff, who subsequently become far more actively engaged in the product they're selling, thanks to incentives like branded hats and aprons, which further generate interest and fan support.
Sousa's a big fan of the social media connections that have resulted from the Roush Fenway/NASCAR alliance, which he says "has helped us more openly interact with consumers and gauge feedback while creating a new outlet for the brand." The partnership has also yielded impressive website traffic for blackwellangus.com and blackwellangusracing.com, which have collectively increased nearly 300 percent while capturing an incredible 263 percent increase in page views, along with equally rapid gains in search, referred and direct traffic stats.
Sousa also praises the associate engagement opportunities of the affiliation with Roush Fenway Racing and Stenhouse, who graciously attended last summer's grand-opening celebration of Cargill's innovation center in Dodge City, Kan. According to Sousa, Stenhouse's participation in the event "really helped our employees understand what our NASCAR sponsorship means to our business."
If timing is everything, then clearly, Cargill's initial sponsorship of Stenhouse in 2010 as one of the first fresh beef sponsors of the NASCAR Nationwide Series has been a smokin' success. "Ricky went from worst to first," quips Sousa, "first as Rookie of the Year, and now champion of NASCAR's Nationwide Series. We couldn't have asked to align with a better driver, nor could we have asked for a better finish. Best of all, we're thrilled for what this win can do for our Blackwell Angus retail partners."
On the 50-yard Line
Marsh Supermarkets Inc. – based in Indianapolis, the home of this year's Super Bowl – has two major DSD programs planned for center store. "Destination Indy," a partnership with Frito-Lay, Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch, began in early September and continues through the Super Bowl, says David Siegel, Marsh senior VP of sales and merchandising. "This is a comprehensive, three-phase program that includes prominent in-store merchandising, feature activity, ad support, Catalina Marketing initiatives and consumer-driven giveaways," Siegel says. "We will be sharing information on Facebook and our website, both of which are important tools."
Throughout January, Marsh coordinated with Coca-Cola, MillerCoors and regional snack maker Mike-sell's on "Win Big This Championship Season." Siegel explains: "This program will also have feature activity and a significant in-store presence, along with ad, marketing and a consumer sweepstakes."
Meanwhile, Marsh will have several other programs and activities planned throughout its stores, "from our fresh departments focusing on providing superior platters and trays for Super Bowl parties, to one of the most comprehensive apparel and novelty programs ever launched at Marsh," Siegel says, including a Super Bowl stein made exclusively for the grocer.
"Marsh will also be involved in a January Valassis Super Bowl FSI program," he adds, "leveraging the marketing strength of the Super Bowl while teaming up with some of our best trade partners, with an opportunity to bring incremental value to our consumers."
Despite the misfortunes of its hometown team this year, Marsh is predicting an exceptional Super Bowl selling period. "We have strong strategic plans, are in the right place at the right time and have the vision, passion and, most importantly, the great Marsh associates necessary to win it all," Siegel declares, despite a struggling economy that would inhibit many consumers from hosting lavish celebrations.
"The Super Bowl has grown into one of the largest party and gathering occasions of the year. Though there is no denying that we are in a serious economic lull, we believe the forecasted incremental economic impact to the greater Indianapolis area of over $250 million, and the plans we have in place, will result in very positive results," he says, noting that Marsh has sought input from non-competing industry peers in the Dallas area. "The first Super Bowl being played in Indiana gives us an opportunity to bring our A-game to a whole new level."
Some, like Princeton, N.J.-based Snack Factory, which makes the Pretzel Crisp snack line, have cast a wide net to capture the attention of hungry tailgaters throughout football season. At the center of Snack Factory's campaign were its new Bold & Spicy flavors.
"While the new Jalapeño Jack and Chipotle Cheddar flavors were announced in June, shipments to retailers across the country began in early fall, just in time for football season, tailgating and Super Bowl," explains Perry Abbenante, VP of marketing for Pretzel Crisps.
As part of the marketing strategy for the Bold & Spicy line, the brand devised tailgating-themed displays using branded cooler tables, and placed football weekenders with racks and case stacks of Bold & Spicy flavors in the beer aisle as a tie-in for football entertaining. The brand also cross-promoted with Vermont-based Cabot Creamery Cooperative on a special BOGO offer at tailgating displays in deli departments at participating stores.
Pretzel Crisps also took its promos to the streets, or rather parking lots. "Partnering with retailers in our key markets, our field teams have started retail tailgating events to introduce shoppers to the Pretzel Crisps brand," Abbenante says. "The tailgating events feature samplings of our new flavors and tailgating activities like the pretzel toss, in which shoppers can participate. We have also developed a Bold & Spicy Tailgating Awards program that honors top fans of college and pro football teams with samples of our new flavors, banners and other branded tailgating supplies."
Diamond Foods launched its first-ever national television campaign in support of its Kettle Brand snacks last October during "Monday Night Football" and the opening game of the World Series. "We are very pleased with the strong performance of all of our brands, as well as expanded distribution and footprint in the mass-merchandiser channel, which is important for future growth in our snack portfolio," says Andrew Burke, executive VP and CMO at San Francisco-based Diamond, which also markets the Emerald and Pop Secret brands. "With this growth, we believe we are seeing the benefits of our brand investments and look forward to launching the Kettle campaign to support that brand with all of our trading partners."
Moving from the crunch to the burn, the company behind Texas Pete Hot Sauce visited tailgating events throughout the 2011 Southeastern Conference college football season. Fans who visited the Texas Pete Timeout Grill received free product samples, met Miss Texas Pete and the Texas Pete mascot, and enjoyed the action of other games on several big-screen televisions.
"It's been a great season, and we have had the pleasure of meeting so many of our Texas Pete fans at the games," says Glenn Garner, director of marketing for Winston-Salem, N.C.-based T.W. Garner Food Co. "Texas Pete and the SEC are a great match, and we look forward to continuing our sponsorship with the conference."
Mars Chocolate North America's beloved M&M'S brand will feature a new 30-second commercial during the first quarter of Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, the second trip to the Super Bowl for the mouth-melting confection, taking over for the company's Snickers brand, which has been featured during the last two Super Bowls. While Snickers "will prove to be a tough act to follow," concedes Debra Sandler, chief consumer officer at Hackettstown, N.J.-based Mars, "we're confident our M&M'S spot will have everyone talking on the morning of Feb. 6."
Perhaps the least likely candidate for bowl game airtime, The Dannon Co. also plans to advertise during Super Bowl XLVI, making it the first yogurt company in history to do so. "We're bringing yogurt to the Super Bowl to share with millions of Americans the great taste and unique benefits of this delicious, better-for-you food," Sergio Fuster, SVP of marketing at White Plains, N.Y.-based Dannon, says of the third-quarter spot. "We are committed to helping people lead a healthier lifestyle, but not at the sacrifice of great taste. No matter who's playing in the game on Feb. 5, we are guaranteed to inform and entertain the broadest possible base of Americans about the delicious and nutritious yogurt we make."
Adds Michael Neuwirth, Dannon's senior director of public relations: "From the introduction of Fruit on the Bottom in 1947 to Activia in 2006, we've been bringing Americans new and delicious ways to enjoy yogurt. With the first-ever yogurt advertisement during the Super Bowl, yogurt is ready for the big game."
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