Marketers make big plays beyond the Super Bowl

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Most major b-to-b marketers have taken a pass on Super Bowl XXXV and are instead devising new playbooks for sports marketing in 2001.

Although a handful of b-to-b giants, including Federal Express Corp., Electronic Data Systems Corp. and Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) will run ads during the big game Jan. 28, it’s a far cry from last year when both dot-coms and major industry players blitzed the airwaves during Super Bowl XXXIV.

For one thing, there are fewer ad dollars to spread around this year. And with b-to-b companies slicing ever-thinning niches in their markets,

investing in hyped-up sports events such as the Super Bowl holds less appeal. Instead, companies are sponsoring sporting events that might not get a lot of media attention but deliver an audience that could provide solid returns in the long run.

"Sports marketing is not about marquee expenditures and mass coverage," said Tyler Schaeffer, senior VP-director of media brand planning for FCB Worldwide, New York, which handles the Compaq Computer Corp. account. "It’s always about integrating with your sales force and targeting prime prospects."

Dean Bonham, chairman-CEO of The Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports and entertainment marketing company, said the Super Bowl and other major sports events are of questionable value for b-to-b companies. "They’re pulling a cannon out to shoot a gnat," he said. "You’re talking about an audience of 100 million when only about 10 million are legitimate b-to-b candidates. The really creative b-to-b marketers are looking for much more interactive and unique ways of investing in sports marketing."

League nights

Bonham said one sports marketing play that’s gaining favor is hosting league nights, in which a company sponsors a special game featuring pro athletes and invites its existing and potential clients to rub elbows with the players.

"This way, the company is giving the b-to-b target something he or she can’t buy and has never been exposed to, and the client is likely to respond to that in terms of starting a big-picture relationship with the company," he said. Bonham is currently negotiating with three major league sports teams about putting together such league nights. He declined to name the teams or even the sports involved.

Others still see considerable value in marketing efforts tied to key sporting events.

Jane Deery, senior VP-group media director at Carat Freeman, a media and marketing company that represents such technology companies as CMGI Inc. and Globix Corp., said traditional tech advertisers will continue to target so-called "appointment viewers" in their sports marketing efforts this year. She cited as prime venues the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in March, the Women’s National Basketball Association playoffs in the fall, and top golf tournaments throughout the year.

Compaq Computer Corp. is deploying a unique approach to sports marketing this year. The computer maker is a sponsor for this year’s FIA Formula 1 series of 17 international auto-racing events that span the globe. Each event draws up to 280,000 people, and Compaq’s computers help the racing teams communicate with the Formula 1 organization.

"We’re positioning the company as the ‘technology behind the "team,’ " said Steve Huey, VP-corporate marketing/communications at Compaq. "When we look at sponsorships we look at targets in which the audience has a close affinity to the core essence of the company. We want to sponsor events in which the b-to-b executive can say, ‘I get it.’ "

Broadcast negotiations are ongoing for May’s Compaq Classic in New Orleans, an important stop on the PGA Tour. Last year’s tournament was televised on both ABC and ESPN.

When it comes to sponsoring sporting events, companies should have a long-term outlook, according to Al Ries, chairman of the marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries Inc. "Companies have to think in terms of decades," he said. "It takes awhile to associate a name with an event and a longer time for the psyche of the audience to make that association."

Sports as a venue

Three years ago, Nortel Networks Inc. was a struggling telecommunications company that was angling for a competitive edge. The Brampton, Ont.-based company had just acquired floundering Bay Networks Inc. to give it a new network equipment hardware product line and at the time had little awareness among the senior business decision-makers it sought. Nortel used integrated sports promotion and sports advertising programs to change that.

Bruce Horner, director of global advertising for Nortel, said sports was the obvious choice "because it allows us to showcase our brand and gives us a tight linkage to our target market.’’ Nortel is a marquee advertiser on Monday Night Football, college football bowl games and the NCAA basketball tournament. It also markets itself globally through sponsorships of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship and International Rugby Board’s World Cup Championship.

"We use paid media to showcase our involvement in high-profile sports properties,’’ Horner said. Brand awareness for Nortel has grown from practically nil to 83% among its target audience in the last three years, placing it neck-and-neck with archrival Cisco Systems Inc. for mind share, he said.

Shunning the Super Bowl

Nortel has also paid ABC Sports to ensure prime advertising space at this year’s NHL All-Star Game. Such NHL players as the Dallas Stars’ Joe Nieuwendyk and Detroit Red Wings’ Chris Osgood, who have both been featured in a series of Nortel print advertisements, are among the players expected to participate in Nortel autograph-signing opportunities and client dinners staged around the event. "There’s no question that the association helps open doors with customers," he said.

Like many b-to-b companies, Nortel is shunning the Super Bowl. "The event doesn’t deliver the targeted audience the company seeks," Horner said.

Marketing strategist Ries stressed that companies can take advantage of the Super Bowl without dropping serious coin. "You can bring your best salespeople to the Super Bowl city, invite your best clients and have a b-to-b marketing event without ever buying spots," he said.

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