Dressed for sponsor success

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Troll into the tents of New York's fashion shows and you could check out a new car, try out a new hotel bed and taste-test some liquor-all before you get to your seat by the catwalk.

As Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week wound down in New York on Valentine's Day, it wasn't just designers who had to pack up the tents. The twice-annual fashion shows have become a showcase for marketers, even those who couldn't tell one plaid pattern from another.

For the sponsors, it's the ultimate VIP opportunity: They can bring clients to an invitation-only event where they can rub elbows with celebrities and the brand can get national media exposure with all kinds of fashion and celebrity connections. Fashion Week has made an impact on the public "on a very vital level," says Carol Goll, general manager-brand event marketing at Mercedes-Benz USA. The press coverage and word of mouth is extensive, she says.

instant glamor factor

"Fashion has become a significant aspirational product," says Don Ziccardi, CEO of Ziccardi Partners Frierson Mee. Being seen at the shows grants a product "instant glamor," says Mr. Ziccardi, whose New York agency handled Moet & Chandon champagne when it sponsored the shows in 1999 through 2001. That sponsorship created "a lot of telegenic coverage" in general-audience media such as "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood," he says.

For Seventh on Sixth-the organization formed by the Council of Fashion Designers of America to organize the shows-sponsors bring vital cash to the table, as well as goods to stock the tents. Some sponsors will also underwrite individual designers' shows or supply product. For example, Groupe Danone's Evian Natural Spring Water and Allied Domecq's Courvoisier served drinks at this season's shows, and cosmetic company Shu Uemura provided makeup for several shows and made up attendees in the tents.

"Without the financial support of the sponsors, we could not put the tents up," says Fern Mallis, executive director of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

Corporate sponsorships have been the backbone of Fashion Week since it began in 1993, grouping what had been independent designers' shows. After a series of embarrassments-collapsing ceilings at Michael Kors' show and a power failure at Isaac Mizrahi's-prompted scathing articles in the fashion press, the CFDA's membership agreed to organize a concerted effort on par with Paris or Milan.

The first sponsors lined up were fashion magazines, says Ms. Mallis. Conde Nast Publications' Vogue agreed to a $100,000 contribution, which she leveraged into matching sponsorships from its chief rivals, Hearst Corp.'s Harper's Bazaar and Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S.' Elle. Other magazines followed, as well as the first corporate sponsor, Evian, which was looking to brand its product in a new way, says Ms. Mallis.

It was the magazine connection that led to the first big-name sponsor, General Motors Corp. Hachette's then-President David Pecker-whose company, not coincidentally, publishes Car & Driver-made introductions. GM was Fashion Week's name sponsor until 2001, when Mercedes-Benz became the exclusive auto sponsor.

levels of involvement

Sponsorships levels vary, from the single presenting sponsor-Mercedes-Benz-and eight to 10 main sponsors that underwrite shows and lounges, to exhibition sponsors, which set up photo displays or other exhibits in the tents. Sponsorships are usually exclusive by category, and it can get competitive. This year, Gen Art, a group show spotlighting young designers, had to turn down sponsorship from L'Oreal's Feria hair color because L'Oreal's Redken line was already a Fashion Week sponsor.

There's an effort made to limit the number of sponsors and to check for matters of taste, Ms. Mallis says. Although R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Winston sponsored a smoking lounge in past years-fashion folk are big smokers, notes Ms. Mallis-she says Seventh on Sixth has turned down tobacco company sponsorships recently, as well as a men's hair color line and some "tacky" body creams.

rarified air

The group is currently seeking an airline sponsor to replace Air France, which withdrew its sponsorship after the Concorde crash in 2000. A telecom company is also on the wish list and talks are ongoing with a possible champagne sponsor, Ms. Mallis says.

Even initially, "it was not a hard sell, because what we have to offer is an industry of pacesetters and opinion leaders ... The people who make `Hot' hot. And we have them for a week," says Ms. Mallis. That captive audience and the extensive coverage of the shows are unmatched by one-day event sponsorships, she adds.

But potential sponsors need to be on their toes, says Neil Kraft, president of Kraftworks, a New York agency with a fashion clientele. Not every marketer is a natural fit for Fashion Week, he says.

The shows bring in a small live audience, so merely putting the company's name on the tent doesn't generate enough trial to make it worthwhile, Mr. Kraft says. But he adds that sampling at the shows does promote trial by trendsetters, which can be useful as part of an integrated PR effort.

"Getting a star shot drinking your drink at the shows is worth a million dollars in publicity," he says. "It makes sense when there's an endemic use and there's PR-able use."

That's why many sponsors tie in their Fashion Week activities with additional efforts and product promotions.

"We weave the brand into the fabric of the culture," says Stephanie DeBartolomeo, group director of marketing for Allied Domecq's Sauza and Courvoisier. For the cognac, Fashion Week helps to build on its rap-song inspired "Pass the Courvoisier" popularity among urban consumers.

"Fashion Week is a huge urban and lifestyle icon," she says.

parallel design

Immediately following Fashion Week, Courvoisier is launching a limited-edition bottle by designer Patricia Field, which will be in stores this spring, while Mercedes-Benz scheduled an event where two of its designers discussed the parallels between auto and fashion design.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts' W Hotels, which made its third Fashion Week appearance, looks to set up a presence that supports the key marketing focus of the company, says Lisa Zandee, corporate director of sales and marketing. At the 2003 shows, it set up press rooms to promote its new "well-being rooms" and "Pillow Talk," a first-quarter sweepstakes promotion (AA, Feb. 3).

Sponsors also stake the high ground with philanthropic efforts, especially causes aimed at women. During last fall's shows, Courvoisier teamed up with four designers to produce a line of accessories and auctioned them to benefit charities of the designers' choice. Mercedes-Benz has teamed up in the past with fund-raisers for pediatric AIDS and breast cancer research, and this year the carmaker is supporting "The Heart Truth," a fund-raiser for heart disease prevention among women, as well as the annual "Fashion Targets Breast Cancer" fund-raiser headed by the CFDA.

All these activities help build a "halo effect" of hipness around the brand, and the extensive coverage of the shows goes much further than a few ad pages, say the marketers involved.

"It's a softer sell," Mr. Ziccardi says. "It's more of a psychological `Wow.' "

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