That's the perception, at least, among 12,000 sports fans in 47 markets surveyed by New Jersey-based Turnkey Sports & Entertainment. The self-identified sports fans, 60% of whom were men, were presented with a list of 50 brands -- including 10 heavy local sports marketers in each region -- and asked to choose five they admired.
Coca-Cola, named by 26.6%, was the clear favorite, followed by Pepsi (19.9%), Home Depot (18.7%), Toyota (18.6%) and Subway (16.6%). No other marketer scored higher than 14%. (The survey did not include apparel or footwear brands such as Nike and Adidas.)
The results, Turnkey executives and other sports-marketing experts said, suggest that the old model of barraging TV broadcasts of major sports events with 30-second spots starring athletes is no longer the best route to fans' hearts -- except, perhaps, when it is.
"The brands that did well were the ones that really put a premium on aligning well," said Rich Luker, chief strategy officer at Relay Sports & Entertainment. "Somebody like Home Depot is a lot higher than you'd expect because they do things like building sets for [ESPN College] GameDay, which clearly works very well for them."
But different techniques worked better for some marketers than others. Coke has largely eschewed athlete endorsers in favor of high-profile sponsorships of big events such as the Olympics and the NCAA, as well as a plethora of local arena deals, which also are employed by the No. 2 most-admired brand in the survey, Pepsi.
But arena deals also are frequently used by the seven airlines on the list, which -- with the lone exception of Southwest (11%) -- all were cited as admired by less than 4% of those surveyed, by far the weakest showing of any industry.
"Airlines have a bigger chance to disappoint people than soft- drink companies do," said Turnkey CEO Len Perna.
Mr. Perna said the list also reflects a shift from the stereotypical sports fan as a burger-chomping, gas-guzzling alpha male to a more health-conscious, environmentally concerned consumer. That shift, he said, appears to have driven what he called two of the list's major upsets: Subway emerging as the top fast feeder and Toyota and Honda being more admired than Ford and Chevy.
"Subway is clearly playing to the health-and-wellness part of the equation," he said, citing ads featuring its weight-losing pitchman Jared cavorting with hulking NFL star Michael Strahan, as well as moves by Subway to get more involved in motorsports.
The ascendancy of Toyota, though, is more difficult to decipher, given its much smaller footprint in sports relative to its larger domestic rivals. "That's tough to explain," said Mr. Perna.
A look at market-by-market results also shows that engagement in local amateur sports can do wonders for a brand's popularity. The three highest single-market scores for any company were for the Tim Hortons coffee-and-doughnuts chain in Ottawa (60%), Toronto (55%) and Vancouver (53%). In addition to a visible presence at National Hockey League, Canadian Football League and curling events in those markets, the chain -- which may get extra credibility for being named after a six-time Stanley Cup champion -- also backs Timbits, a junior sports league that serves 120,000 kids in its Canadian and U.S. markets.
"We get our roots in sports through communities," a Tim Hortons spokeswoman said. "It's a big part of how our brand grew."
The top score for a sponsor in any single U.S. market was for the Kroger grocery chain in Cincinnati (42%), joining Coke in Atlanta (39%), Budweiser in St. Louis (39%), Midwest Airlines in Milwaukee (38%) and Heinz in Pittsburgh (37%) as local institutions particularly admired by the local sporting faithful.
Want to be like Coca-Cola? Here's how to do itYou align your brand with huge events but also with little-league fields. Stake out a presence in arenas, do as much public charitable work as possible. And, if you can swing it, you spend 100 years collecting positive brand impressions from consumers.
"Being the most recognized brand in the world does have a halo effect," said Beatriz Perez, VP-integrated marketing at Coca-Cola, which was named the most admired sports advertiser in a poll of 12,000 sports fans in 47 markets conducted by New Jersey-based Turnkey Sports & Entertainment. "We've been a part of peoples' lives, their holidays and special occasions for a century, so that's part of it."
Given a list of 50 prominent sports advertisers -- including 10 heavy local advertisers in each market -- 26.6% of respondents named Coca-Cola as one of five brands they admire, nearly seven percentage points higher than the No. 2 finisher, archrival Pepsi.
Micro and macro
Ms. Perez attributed Coke's goodwill among sports fans to its mix of activities at the local and professional levels. The brand is a huge backer of major sports, as the official soft drink of Nascar and the PGA Tour, and as one of the largest backers of the NCAA and the Olympics. But its brand is nearly as ubiquitous on and around local community fields as it is in pro arenas, thanks in part to a longtime relationship with Boys & Girls Clubs of America, among others.
It also favors clever activations -- such a Nascar driving simulator it sponsored at Wal-Mart locations -- over more-traditional athlete endorsers tossing balls around in 30-second spots (not that Coke eschews those, by any means).
And, Ms. Perez added, Coke takes its community work seriously. Its myriad activities in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans contributed to its being named the most-admired brand among the city's sports fans, with 37% of those polled saying they admired the brand, nearly as high a percentage as in Coke's hometown of Atlanta (39%).
"Fans aren't just fans when they're watching the game on television," said Ms. Perez. "They're fans when they're watching their kids play and they're fans when they're out jogging and they see our products all along the way. This [ranking] is a product of all that brought together."