With nearly a decade in the motorsports industry, I am well aware of just how vital corporate partnerships are to the sustainability of the sport. The partnership development, acquisition and activation process has always been top of mind in my career.
Companies need champions to represent their brands. In today’s marketplace, consumers embrace the human element and rally behind brands that participate in sports. Through corporate partnerships with sports properties, companies use sports as a key separation tool to outperform their competition.
An effective corporate partnership program can go well simply plastering the brand mark in front of a sports audience. There is myriad ways that companies take advantage of a sports platform. One of the most attractive traits of a corporate partnership program is that such programs are highly customizable. Companies can be very creative in developing elements that appeal directly to the brand and company objectives.
In “Sport Marketing,” Mullin, Hardy & Sutton write that corporate partnership “adds dimension to the product-audience communication; this communication can create experiences that appeal to all senses, encourage participation and feedback, provide opportunities for sampling and merchandising, and convey some of the excitement and drama inherent in sport.”
In my experience in motorsports, whether it be the team, agency or media levels, I noticed five key areas in corporate partnership development.
- Business Relationships
- Consumer Promotions
- Internal Initiatives
- Cause Marketing
When I worked in a partner acquisition role for a Grand-Am Road Racing team from 2006 to 2008, I leaned on these five areas to steer the initial, exploratory conversations with company executives to learn about their goals, objectives and current strategy. Here’s a broad stroke look at these areas, including a few examples for each, that shows how they can fit into a motorsports marketing program.
On its own, branding looks a lot like a mere advertising play. It consists almost primarily of splashing the company logo in front of an audience. Too often, it’s a mere attempt to sell a product.
In a corporate partnership, however, a company makes a commitment to support a popular activity; it’s more people-oriented than advertising. In the book “The NASCAR Way,” author Robert Hagstrom notes that a partnership, on the other hand, “generates a more subtle message that, if successful, creates a lasting bond between consumers and the company.” In short, advertising is the attempt to sell a product, while corporate partnership is the attempt to create a consumer bias.
“What draws people to NASCAR is the experience of the sport, following the teams and the drivers, and that’s the part people identify with and relate to,” Tim Calkins, clinical associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, had told USA Today in 2004. “People immerse themselves in the culture of NASCAR, and it comes to define a little bit of who they are.”
In NASCAR, particularly, fans are among the most brand-loyal fans in major U.S. sports. According to Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, at least 40% of NASCAR fans can correctly identify brands associate with NASCAR, and 76% of NASCAR fans are likely to consider a brand that’s an official NASCAR sponsor, while 75% would recommend a NASCAR-sponsoring brand.
“NASCAR fans are … loyal to the sport, and sponsors associate themselves with the sport in the hopes of transferring some of that loyalty onto their brands,” said Nicolay Panchev, Turnkey’s vice president of consumer research, in an interview with the American Marketing Association.
In terms of a NASCAR team partnership, a company’s brand livery may adorn the racecar, team uniforms, transporter and team collateral material. Merchandising may also help build the brand.
This seems to pertain to two facets. For starters, a company can activate its partnership program to reach key vendors, suppliers and other companies it does business with. Secondly, a corporate partnership can tie multiple, complementing businesses together in the same program.
In the first, a company may take to event hospitality to further develop some of its most important relationships by spending a day with these individuals in the track-side chalet, the garage area with the team, and then either on pit road or in the stands during the race. The second facet is more or less a club environment, in which companies partner together or do business as a direct result of their affiliation with the sports property.
Leveraging business relationships, whether through the business-to-business concept or other affiliations, can be an important part of the recruiting and renewal process. Speaking of his organization’s Fuel for Business effort, NASCAR Managing Director of Partnership Marketing Justin Johnson told IEG in 2006, “ROI can be a hard thing to measure. If I can tell a sponsor that they gained new accounts as a result of the relationships, that’s an ROI model that works.”
Chevrolet: One of my favorite pieces as a sports business writer was a profile on the 2002 Warner Bros.’s venture in NASCAR through a partnership with Chevrolet, Action Performance and Richmond International Raceway. The Warner Bros. promo, “Looney Tunes – The Rematch” – was tied to the race entitlement, the Monte Carlo 400. Chevrolet race cars, 11 in all, featured Looney Tunes characters emblazoned on them throughout the weekend. Action, for its part, produced a line of merchandise around the event. Chevrolet Monte Carlo Assistant Brand Manager Terry Dolan told me in 2002, “Many companies that buy race entitlements stop their marketing at that particular juncture, but Chevrolet has built a full integrated marketing campaign around the race.” In my SBD piece, I wrote, “The objective of this campaign is simple — for Chevy and Warner Bros., it’s to build brand awareness; for Action, it’s to sell merchandise; and for RIR, it’s to sell tickets — but the activation and execution of the effort is complex, with each of the four properties complementing each other.”
Shell: In 2011, Shell Oil Company and Penske Corporation embarked on a multi-year cross-business alliance. With Penske Corporation being a successful transportation-based business, the relationship goes well beyond a corporate partnership deal with just Penske Racing in NASCAR and Team Penske in IndyCar. Through what was described as a global relationship, Penske and Shell formed an alliance that enables further product development for fuels, lubricants and engine technologies.
Ford: A few years ago, through B2B relationships, Ford partnered with Sprint for a pace car sweeps that, according to Fortune, was Ford’s “most successful in terms of sales,” and became the vehicle of choice for Safety-Kleen’s fleet of fans. On business-to-business ties, Ford Racing Motorsports Marketing Manager Tim Duerr told Forbes in 2013, “It’s a real big win-win for us, because it allows us to measure some of our investment into the sport. … One of the best ways to do that in NASCAR, is to not only calculate it based upon what’s going on on the track and the impressions made through the media, but also behind the scenes from a business-to-business standpoint.”
Sport has a unique way of connecting with consumers, as fans typically possess a strong affinity to the brands that support their favorite sport, athlete or event. By dangling promotions to these fans, a corporate partner not only deepens their connection with these consumers but also has the opportunity to drive sales and collect data. A sweepstakes or added value giveaway product is a popular hook for corporate partners, as well as special events that draw fans into the brand.
Nabisco: Years ago, Nabisco had plans to activate its partnership with Dale Earnhardt with a three-part promotional campaign that leveraged supermarket end aisle displays. SportsBusiness Journal noted that over 12,000 displays were set up at supermarkets across the country, with each featuring a 4-foot inflatable replica of Earnhardt’s race car. Each retailer ran its own in-store promotion or sweepstakes, with giveaway items that included go-karts, diecast models and remote-control cars. An on-pack offer on Mini-Oreos also offered a diecast collectible for a low price with proofs-of-purchase. Bernstein reported the third part of the plan was a premium giveaway of 25 Dale Earnhardt signature Chevrolet Monte Carlo vehicles through supermarket sweeps in race markets.
NAPA Auto Parts: There are also programs that land a special guest at the race track with an all-access pass of sorts. NAPA Auto Parts comes to mind. In NAPA’s Race Day Experience promo, one fan was an Honorary Pit Crew Member at a select race. The at-track hospitality experience had all the best frills for a fan: meet-and-greet opportunity with the NAPA drivers; an official team crew shirt; a personal tour of the NASCAR garage area, the team hauler and pit road; lunch with the team; participation in the pre-race activities; and, to boot, his name featured prominently on the NAPA race car.
Farmers Insurance: To tap into race fans at home or work on their computers or mobile devices, Farmers Insurance rolled out a “Design the 5” challenge in 2014 that allowed fans the opportunity to help select various design elements of Farmers Insurance-sponsored race car. Participants were entered for a chance to win a trip to the 2015 Daytona 500, in addition to prizes supplied by various other partners associated with NASCAR.
Motorsports is the epitome of a performance-based industry. Corporate partners can tie in their partnership deals to include unique opportunities for executives, employees and other key people within the organization. Some plays include internal company-wide competitions, special appearances by the sponsored athletes and hospitality events at the racetrack.
By its nature, this practice often flies under the radar of the general sports fan, but it can be conducive to the employees of the corporate partner. Dave Grant, principal at consulting firm Team Epic, told SBJ, “It’s a practice that’s actually pretty common and very important. In this day and age, most companies will tell you that their workforce is one of their most critical assets. So if you have a sponsorship in your portfolio and you can make that work to your advantage with your internal constituencies, I think that’s critical.”
FedEx: The regularly included Hub Visits in 2008, during which driver Denny Hamlin met with and signed autographs for over 1,500 employees, as part of its partnership in the sport. FedEx also hosted employees for special hospitality experiences at select NASCAR races in 2008, providing more than 1,100 guests an at-track experience that included pit tours and driver and team owner appearances. Three FedEx markets held their own employee performance competitions, with winners receiving premium NASCAR team-related prizes. Lastly, the FedEx showcar was featured at 50 employee-related events.
Lowe’s: In 2014, Lowe’s employees took 13 million voluntary quizzes as part of their Race for the Cup annual employee learning competition that pitted stores against each other through a simple premise: The more quizzes and training modules an employee completes, the faster their team’s virtual car moves toward the finish line. Employee participation in these modules was up 25% over 2013. The winning store was awarded a store-wide celebration and a visit from NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson.
A cause marketing piece can fit well into the overall scope of the corporate partnership program. In some cases, cause marketing drives the overall concept of the partnership. But in most cases, corporate partner can seek ways to include an element that ties in a charity, particularly by passing through certain entitlements to create opportunities to promote partner charities.
Lowe’s: During the 2014 NASCAR season, Lowe’s Heroes partnered with Team Lowe’s Racing to help upgrade three local Boys & Girls Clubs across the country. In Concord, N.C., Lowe’s revamped a game room at the local Club with fresh paint and Team 48 decals. In Adrian, Mich., store employees and pit crew members updated landscaping outside the club. In Concord, N.H., the company assisted with several upgrades at the local club, including fixing a drainage issue on the roof and installing an edge barrier to enclose the playground and make it safer for the children.
Walgreens: For the 2007 season, Walgreens joined with Eli Lilly to partner with a NASCAR team and use the platform to foster diabetes awareness. Walgreens chose Joslin Diabetes Center as the cause partner for this NASCAR program. Throughout the season, Walgreens and Eli Lilly hosted programs to educate the public in each of the race markets, with the driver participating in appearances at select Walgreens stores. For its part, Joslin applied its educational message and support to the program.
3M: The Red Cross, with a push from corporate supporter 3M Worldwide, embarked on a national campaign in 2008 that focused on NASCAR fans. Under the program, the Red Cross set up tents at NASCAR evenst for fans to pick up literature and sign up online to donate blood. For 3M’s part, the company passed through opportunities for branding with the race team.
As mentioned previously, these five areas are a great start to devising a partnership program. No matter the size and scope of a partnership, any one of these elements, or all of them, may very easily relate to a company’s goals, objectives and strategy.
First Edition: April 2016