Baseball fans are accustomed to lots of advertising, from a starting lineup presented by an automaker to a paint brand sponsoring a closer's pitch "painting" the inside corner of home plate.
But the fact that one of the largest data companies sponsored the 2014 Major League Baseball All-Star Ballot and Final Vote online might strike even the most jaded fan as a bit odd. For the second year in a row Experian sponsored online voting for baseball's best and most beloved players who will meet for the mid-year match between the American and National Leagues Tuesday in Minneapolis at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins.
This year rather than its FreeCreditScore.com brand, it was the Experian name itself -- one that along with other large data firms including Acxiom and Epsilon has been demonized by legislators critical of the data broker industry -- that branded the All-Star digital ballot. This season the Experian name is also emblazoned on outfield walls in the home fields of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Arizona Diamondbacks, New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. Fans use online and printed ballots to vote for position players and pitchers in each league who they'd like to see play in the so-called midsummer classic, which gives the winning MLB league home field advantage in the World Series.
Previously, it was the FreeCreditScore.com name in the outfield and on the ballot, but the company wanted to differentiate itself from competition in a field that's had its own perception issues as some "free" credit-score offers are anything but.
"With all the 'free' brands that are out in the marketplace, it became a matter of what people are going to trust when they go to get their free credit report," said Greg Young, director of public relations at Experian Consumer Services.
The Experian name is known to businesspeople who use its marketing data and breach resolution services, but it was only about a year ago that the firm shifted to highlight the Experian brand name in its consumer-facing efforts.
"We moved towards Experian as the flagship brand," said Mr. Young. Experian, headquartered about 40 miles south of Los Angeles in Costa Mesa, also sponsors the Los Angeles Lakers.
Experian raked in $4.8 billion in total revenue in 2013. According to its 2014 annual report, its consumer-facing credit scoring-business accounted for 22% of its revenue; the remainder was generated by business-aimed services.
The MLB ballot sponsorship includes the same package of offerings the brand bought the past two years, including digital display ads, homepage takeovers and sponsorship of emails sent to fans by MLB from the start of the voting season April 25 till July 3. Mr. Young would not share the cost of the sponsorship though he said the company's ballot sponsorship was the same as the ones Experian bought for 2012 and 2013.
While its b-to-b marketing is more targeted, the company wants to reach a wide audience with the baseball branding. "Baseball hits a wide demographic so that makes sense for us," Mr. Young said.
Pure b-to-b play
One sponsorship initiative does combine sports with the firm's b-to-b marketing. Over the past year Experian has sponsored Williams Martini Racing in an effort to relate its business-aimed data services to the numbers-focused Formula One racing team.
"I think it resonated more with all the Experian business units and, frankly, is more about the b-to-b groups than the consumer," said Mr. Young of the racing sponsorship.
A recent tie-in with Williams Martini brought its development driver Susie Wolff, and Rob Smedley, head of vehicle performance for the racing team, to Twitter for a live chat with Greg Bonin, principal scientist at Experian's DataLabs, which handles data analysis and research for marketing and risk management.
Experian did not sponsor the printed All-Star ballots distributed at ballparks, and the company does not get access to any contact information MLB gleans from All-Star ballot voters, according to Mr. Young. "We're primarily about digital acquisition, so the ability to click on something and see our brand in digital, that's where people buy the product, so while we do have in-stadium signage, for the most part we operate in digital," he said.
Experian also sponsored the league's Final Vote for this year's All-Stars, which ran from July 6 through July 10 and let fans choose one player from five in both the National League and American League. The company also sponsored a sweepstakes to win a trip and tickets to the big mid-season game and its related events, the Home Run Derby, and All-Star Futures Game, which features players from major league team farm systems.
In December, Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., admonished Acxiom, Epsilon and Experian, threatening to use more forceful ways of getting the data providers to divulge information about how they do business and with whom. "To date they have not given me complete answers," he said of the three firms. "I'm putting these three companies on notice today...that I am considering further steps and I have steps I can use to get this information."
The Senator has not made any additional public moves to obtain more information from the firms. The Federal Trade Commission in May asked Congress to establish new rules requiring data companies such as Experian to be more transparent about their practices and to give consumers more control. Sen. Rockefeller and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill in February giving consumers access to data held by brokers serving the marketing industry, allowing them to correct information or opt out from use of that data for marketing purposes.
Mr. Young suggested getting the Experian name out in front of everyday consumers "will help as people learn all the value there is with data."
The All-Star Game itself is sponsored by Target. Coverage begins on Fox tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET.