Southwest works up NHL ad effort

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A Sun Belt airline linking with a sport played on ice?

It would have been unheard of only a few years ago. But as hockey moves south and Southwest Airlines moves northeast, the low-cost carrier has inked a wide-ranging marketing deal with the National Hockey League and the networks that carry its games.

The four-year agreement gives Southwest the designation as the official airline of the NHL and the chance to run its usually humor-heavy ads during league games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. The ads will begin airing in January -- after Southwest's long-time agency GSD&M, Austin, Texas, crafts hockey-oriented creative -- and will run through the Stanley Cup playoffs.

In addition, the cameras placed inside each net to provide rink-level shots will become the Southwest Airlines GoalCams, and the airline will become a title sponsor of one of the intermission reports on games telecast on ESPN and ESPN2. Southwest also gets to place billboards around the rinks during ABC games in prime locations for camera pick-up, even in arenas bearing competitors' names such as the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., and the United Center in Chicago. Promotions on NHL.com also are included.

The airline declined to release the value of the deal. But in an industry where price and schedule are crucial in consumer decision-making and the importance of advertising is often questioned, Southwest has never been stingy with marketing outlays. The airline annually spends more than any of its competitors -- some $112 million last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

BUILDING ON SPORTS

The NHL agreement is only the latest sports sponsorship for Southwest, which, more than any other airline, makes sports a pillar of its brand-building. Seven of the top 10 airlines have their names on sports venues -- American Airlines on two -- and others sponsor teams locally. But none has used sports so pervasively as a conduit to reach the frequent business travelers who drive industry revenues.

Southwest recently agreed to extend its deal with the National Football League, which makes it the official airline of that league for three more years. The deal was to expire this fall. Southwest also sponsors professional basketball, baseball and hockey teams locally.

"Generally, people are passionate about sports, and we hope they transfer some of that passion to us because we're associated with something that they love," said Christy Hall, Southwest's senior manager for sports and licensing.

Southwest says the NHL link may provide a better way than the NFL affiliation to reach male business travelers. The airline says research shows NHL viewers mark the highest concentration of male frequent fliers 25 to 54 of any major sport, with a median age of 36. Sports also dovetails with Southwest's positioning as a humble, not-too-serious carrier that views itself as the "people's airline."

`A BETTER AIRLINE FOR PEOPLE'

"They're making a statement that they understand their customers' lifestyle and interests and, therefore, they're a better airline for people," said Jed Pearsall, president of Newport-R.I.-based Performance Research, which monitors the effectiveness of sports sponsorships. "Given a choice of two airlines where a consumer may see no difference, [a sports sponsorship] might tip the scale in their favor."

A decade ago, a deal between Southwest -- which is based in Dallas and has linchpin markets such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles -- would have been unlikely. But the NHL has made a push into the South and West in recent years, putting teams in cities such as Phoenix, San Jose, Nashville and Dallas.

Seven of Southwest's top 10 markets have NHL teams and an eighth, Las Vegas, is seeking a franchise.

Meanwhile, the airline has been looking to grow in the Northeast, where hockey traditionally has been a passion. In the last several years, Southwest has added service to Providence, R.I., Manchester, N.H., Hartford, Conn. (which lost its NHL team to new Southwest market Raleigh-Durham in 1997) and Albany, N.Y. In October, the airline will begin offering service to Buffalo, N.Y., home of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres.

A RUNNING START

National sports sponsorships build brand awareness in current markets and give the airline a running start when it enters new territory.

"People are familiar with us to a degree because they've seen our spots on TV and some of the things that we've done, so the entrance into new markets is made a little bit easier," said Andy Allmann, Southwest's sports marketing manager.

The airline uses the national awareness as an entree, then employs sports again to curry favor in the community -- often by sponsoring a local team. The airline, for example, is in discussions with the Buffalo Sabres about such an arrangement.

"Our goal is always to be the hometown carrier," Ms. Hall said.

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