NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- This might be the most unusual sports marketing activation since they started putting team logos on coffins.
The passion of college sports fans to buy almost anything with their favorite school's emblem attached to it will certainly be tested with a new partnership in which the University of Texas and Texas A&M will both be selling ... energy.
Yes, energy. Branded energy.
Gas. Electric. Power. The stuff that lights up your house.
In a deal put together by sponsorship broker IMG College and Branded Retail Energy, a Dallas-based company that markets electricity through affinity partnerships, the schools will create university-branded power companies. Texas Longhorns Energy and Texas A&M Aggies Energy will begin selling electricity and natural gas to consumers in deregulated markets in the state next month.
"We're very conscientious about our brand. We want to be careful with that logo and that symbol," University of Texas Senior Associate Athletic Director Chris Plonsky said. "When BRE and IMG brought it to us, we went 'Huh?' But it made sense because the issue of sustainability, especially on large college campuses that use a lot of energy, is important to us."
That was the hook -- pardon the pun, Hook 'Em Horns' fans -- to the whole deal. Texas Longhorns Energy will be powered by one of the nation's top retail electricity providers, Champion Energy Services, and will provide renewable green energy to alumni and fans in deregulated regions of Texas. Each new customer account will generate funds for sustainability initiatives for the respective schools.
"I haven't come across a university president yet who didn't have a committee on sustainability," says Larry Weil, chief marketing officer for Branded Retail Energy.
In return, the affinity program will give consumers of TLE the chance to accumulate points for merchandise, tickets to athletic events and more. Ms. Plonsky said the university has about 450,000 alumni in the U.S., nearly 300,000 of whom still live in the state of Texas.
"I've seen the comments that say it's a gimmick. It's not a gimmick," Mr. Weil said. "This is very targeted. We're targeting folks who care about the university, using social media in a very precise way, and giving them a choice to give back."
There is no traditional advertising, no billboards, no widespread TV.
"We'll promote this at watch parties, alumni events, at the [football] stadium," Mr. Weil said. "Really, this is not an offer to the general public. This is an offer to a very specific customer."
And it's only going to get bigger. Previously, energy companies had been tentative about their marketing. Reliant Energy in Texas has a stadium naming rights deal with the National Football League's Houston Texans.* KeySpan Energy put its name on the 7,000-seat minor league stadium that houses the Brooklyn Cyclones, an affiliate of the New York Mets.
"Their primary purpose of doing so is for the association with a local team to soften the image of what is perceived as the unresponsive utility company," said Robert Boland, assistant professor of sports management at New York University. "This seems to be a next-step effort for a formerly monolithic power company to compete in a new consumer environment by offering a supposedly green product and associating closely with the Longhorns."
There are 14 states across the country that have deregulated the power industry, including well-populated states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio. Mr. Weil says he expects similar marketing and partnership deals with energy companies to emerge in the relatively new category.
"Hey, how do you go from tap water to Fiji Water in 10 years?" he said. "This isn't about that kind of 'premium product,' so to speak, but it's a similar scenario. In 10 years, we won't be talking about how gimmicky people think it is."
~ ~ ~
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Texans' stadium. Reliant Energy in Texas has a stadium naming-rights deal with the National Football League's Houston Texans. Minute Maid is the naming rights sponsor of Major League Baseball's Houston Astros.