Already the Special Olympics has drawn a record $30 million-plus in total corporate sponsorships, and the number is still climbing, driven by marketers' growing infatuation with big events.
Major sponsors include McDonald's Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Eastman Kodak Co., IBM Corp., Adidas, General Motors Corp.'s GMC Truck and M&M/Mars, plus dozens of others. Each has inked deals allowing exclusive exposure at various levels, plus product and logo signage sweetened by extensive media coverage of the event.
But the Special Olympics, held every four years for athletes from around the world with mental retardation, was not in such good shape four years ago.
In 1991 a crisis was averted after philanthropic dollars dried up as corporations slashed spending on all causes amid downsizings and layoffs. Under the previous system, fewer sponsorships were available and the number of those participating had declined sharply.
Organizers fought back with a tough marketing game plan. Targeting results-hungry companies, they designed a complex new sponsorship platform aimed at linking the Special Olympics' charity mission with bottom-line programs to drive sales.
"We realized we had to revamp our approach to prove to companies that event sponsorship makes good business sense-that it moves cases of soda, and sells boxes of candy," said Peter Wheeler, executive director of the Special Olympics.
The plan was so successful that the Special Olympics will receive extensive network and cable TV coverage-as part of its sponsorship platform-when the nine-day games begin July 1 in New Haven, Conn. More than 7,000 athletes from 140 countries are expected to participate.
Added firepower for marketers: two new expo parks offering marketers opportunities to sample and demonstrate their products. More than 40,000 spectators are expected each day of the event in the expo parks, with no admission cost.
Another key strategy: luring marketers whose brands are synonymous with major sporting events, to lend cachet and excitement.
"We wanted to put the heat of sports marketing together with the feel-good aspect of supporting the Special Olympics .*.*. to turn this into a much bigger event," Mr. Wheeler said.
Full sponsorships cost more than $1 million each; other affiliations ranging from major sponsor down to suppliers are available at much lower costs. Overall, the Special Olympics expects to raise another $5 million before the games begin.
Taking its sponsorship program even further, the Special Olympics committee organized several summit meetings among sponsors during the last 12 months, resulting in additional off-site marketing efforts and tie-ins between sponsors.
Fleet Financial Group says the Special Olympics is the biggest such event the company has ever sponsored. The games form the core of its 850-branch New England-based subsidiary Fleet Bank's 1995 marketing campaign, handled by Arnold Fortuna Lawner & Cabot, Boston.
"We've found about 16 different ways to market our logo through the Special Olympics, from inside our banks to our external messages. We're targeting a very broad audience through our participation," said Karyn Cordner, a marketing spokeswoman at Fleet Bank.
Fleet also created an additional tie-in with Special Olympics sponsor M&M/Mars, in which tellers will sell M&Ms at banks beginning in June to raise additional funds for Special Olympics.
"We saw the opportunity to extend our sponsorship even more, and our pairing with M&M for a tie-in worked perfectly to our mutual benefit," Ms. Cordner said.
The Special Olympics is already inking plans for 1999. Said Mr. Wheeler: "Overhauling our sponsorships has built so much momentum we expect to significantly increase sponsorship next time around."