NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- They are by now iconic, the bathing beauties splashed across the pages of Sports Illustrated magazine, seemingly having the time of their lives, beckoning you to join them. Now, for the first time ever, you can. With the Feb. 10 publication of its 2009 Swimsuit Edition, the Sports Illustrated Group is kicking off a business initiative focused on "experiential marketing."
SI President Mark Ford defines the new effort as alternative marketing or branded entertainment. To lead the organization-wide push, SI will invite fans to interact with its 45-year-old swimsuit brand not only in print and online but in person, too. SI named the experience "Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 24/7 New York to Vegas."
Experiential marketing is a new revenue stream that the SI franchise will actively pursue going forward with all of its brands as well as the swimsuit franchise.
"We had a business that was really magazine-centric," said Mr. Ford, who has worked with SI during the past three years to beef up its digital presence on SI.com and take the sports dynasty across multiple platforms. "This is another big step for our brand to expand our footprint and develop an interest that we know is there."
SI worked with sports-marketing company Velocity for Swimsuit 24/7, as well as with a small in-house team. For future efforts, SI will outsource most of the experiential planning to Velocity and keep an experienced "core SWAT team" within SI, Mr. Ford said.
Unique sponsor goals
Sponsors for Swimsuit 24/7 include the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Southwest Airlines, Nissan North America, PepsiCo's SoBe line of drinks and MGM Mirage. Among the possibilities for VIP guests and a few lucky consumer prize winners: flying from New York to Vegas on a promotional Southwest airplane, partying at the MGM Mirage Luxor and test-driving the new Nissan 370Z -- all in the company of swimsuit issue's lifeblood: the models themselves. For the less fortunate, there will be "behind-the-scenes" videos posted on SI.com and YouTube, among other sites.
SI Chief Marketing Officer Andrew Judelson said Swimsuit each 24/7 sponsor had a unique goal in mind. The visitors authority, for example, wants to encourage New Yorkers, some of its key players, to visit Vegas. Southwest, by contrast, is close to taking over a terminal at New York's LaGuardia Airport and was "looking to create buzz," he said. It is likely that one of the airline's new routes will be from New York to Vegas.
As part of its partnership with SI, Southwest will fly 19 swimsuit models and VIP guests, including select corporate sponsors, clients and SI leaders, out to Las Vegas on Feb. 12. The airline will do so in one of its Boeing 737s, wrapped from nose to tail with large images of a swimsuit model -- an attention-grabbing stunt that will continue for 60 days after its maiden voyage, with flights around the U.S.
"We have an interest in reaching out to sports fans and sports lovers," said Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger, noting SI's huge reach. "Getting that kind of exposure while partnering with [SI] was a great way to have a fresh approach to Southwest's name in the marketplace and give customers something new and exciting, like the wrapped airplane."
"Southwest is known for being quirky and fun, so this fits in with our personality well," she added.
"Every marketer is looking for ways to measure return on investment," Mr. Ford said. "[Experiential marketing] is one of the top areas in the overall media mix that provides ROI beyond other media choices they might have."
Spending on alternative marketing, branded entertainment and interactive marketing rose nearly 18% to more than $34 billion in 2007, according to research firm PQ Media. And it is expected to increase even more in the next few years.
Important shift to experiential
The shift toward experiential marketing is one of SI's top priorities as it becomes a multiplatform brand. In 2005, the swimsuit edition brought in 96% of its revenue through print-ad sales and 4% through digital. But this year, 60% of revenue will come from print, 30% from digital and 10% from experiential marketing.
"We feel that we've accomplished a big goal: We've diversified our media," Mr. Ford said. He expected that experiential marketing may rise another 5% in 2011 but said, "We're pretty close to where we're going to be."
Mr. Ford said while event sponsors were not required to purchase print or digital ads, "We strongly believe that the most effective way to advertise to SI members is a combination of the three in the media mix."
"It's a chance for in-person contact, to create brand awareness for their brand, to feel and touch their brand on the consumer level," Mr. Ford said, adding that it's also a chance to customize advertising packages for clients.
SI is not new to experiential marketing. It started throwing branded parties for the Olympics in 1984 and has continued over the years with the Super Bowl, among other sporting events. Most recently, SI created events around college football with Nissan North America in 2007 and 2008. But SI believes this wave of experiential marketing will be larger in scope and it will invite more consumers to participate. Nissan will work with SI to elevate awareness around its new performance car, the 370Z, which launched Jan. 1.
"The lift that we see in brand response when we run and test advertising in the college football area [with SI] is wonderful for us," said Chad Jacoby, Nissan's senior manager of media.
"[SI] is a marquee property, and we're launching our marquee vehicle," said Erich Marx, Nissan's director-marketing communications and media.
Swimsuit 24/7 will also feature promotional wrapped buses driving around Manhattan and a 1,200-person invite-only party at the Vegas nightclub LAX with a to-be-named "A-List talent." SI will reveal the cover of the new swimsuit issue on CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" with a surprise stunt.