Who's going to win the 100th anniversary running of Sunday's Indy 500? Dario Franchitti? Danica Patrick? Pole-sitter Alex Tagliani?
How about Izod?
The Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. brand took a chance 18 months ago by becoming one of the few apparel brands not named Nike or Reebok to engage a big sports sponsorship when it took over as the title sponsor of the IndyCar Racing Series.
What might have seemed a gamble in November of 2009 now has Izod and IndyCar coming in with the checkered flag. The brand better associated with preppies and the 1980s has somehow managed to revive itself and open-wheel auto racing at the same time.
"Oh, there's no question that IndyCar is pleased with the partnership with Izod for a number of reasons," said longtime auto racing writer John Oreovicz of ESPN. "With Izod, the series is finally being aggressively promoted to a mainstream audience, rather than a limited band of gearheads."
Phillips-Van Heusen chief marketing officer Mike Kelly said the company is putting more than $10 million of Izod's $30 million annual media spend behind the IndyCar Series, with a good chunk of that going toward the iconic Indy 500.
In return, Mr. Kelly said Izod enjoyed double-digit sales growth last year and can expect at least that kind of ROI this year. PVH net sales doubled from 2009 to 2010, though most of that is attributable to last year's acquisition of the Tommy Hilfiger brand.
As for IndyCar, series officials were thrilled when the March 27 race in St. Petersburg, Fla., produced IndyCar's highest television rating since 2007 for an event other than the Indy 500.
Mr. Kelly said an in-depth survey of 30,000 men in the 18-to-34 demo conducted by PVH led him to believe that a strong media play in sports would help the Izod brand.
"Look, the alligator [logo] is an iconic part of American culture. I can run print all day long but it doesn't mean the consumer is seeing it," he said. "We went out and talked to the consumers after not doing that for a long time, and what came out loud and clear is that sports is top of mind. For us to not have a place in sports meant we were ignoring valuable real estate. This single aspirational view of getting the dog and the blonde on a mountain in Iceland doesn't work anymore. Today, what's real, what's tangible, what's authentic is what's connecting, and sports was No. 1."
Mr. Kelly said he saw a kinship between Izod and IndyCar in that both were struggling brands. PVH bought Izod out of bankruptcy in 1995, and IndyCar finally emerged from a nasty years-long dispute between two factions of teams and drivers, the Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams.
"So, Izod was on its butt and today it's a billion-dollar brand, a very healthy brand," he said. "IndyCar was an amazing product with a bad business model that was under-developed. It was simply under-performing. So here's this great product, it's sexy, dangerous, exciting, it's young, and it had a story that wasn't being told very well."
Mr. Kelly thought he could tell that story in a unique way -- with Izod's partnership and aggressive co-promotions with other IndyCar partners. Izod has teamed with Honda, Verizon and Macy's , among others, to promote the IndyCar Series. A Honda Civic giveaway currently going on in Macy's stores nationally features Izod, and Macy's flagship store in New York has featured displays from Verizon, Honda and Mattel as part of Indy500 Centennial theme throughout the month of May.
In fact, Izod and Mattel have teamed for an attempt at a world record for vehicle distance jumping, and to promote it the two built a 100-foot door in the infield of the Indianapolis Speedway that features a bright orange track – like kids used to do long ago in setting up their Hot Wheels in their bedroom.
Mr. Kelly said he did not think all the co-branding diluted his own brand.
"This sports-marketing model is really different as opposed to classic fashion advertising," Mr. Kelly said. "Using these assets and leveraging our association with a Verizon or a Honda, that 's many more millions of dollars of spend that we wouldn't normally get visibility on. This is huge for the brand. It works if you have a good relationship with your partners."