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Feb. 26, 2001

By Stephanie Thompson

On Feb. 17, ConAgra Foods had a surefire sales-builder for Van Camp's beans: a consumer-marketing plan entirely focused around a prominent Nascar driver. One day later, the driver, Dale Earnhardt, was dead.

Van Camp's isn't the only company whose marketing fortunes were tied to Mr. Earnhardt, who perished

Deadly crash in the final lap killed promotional icon
in a crash during the final lap of the Feb. 18 Daytona 500. Sports-marketing experts peg "The Intimidator's" endorsement deals at $20 million or more. Sonic Corp. had a three-year deal to sponsor the Earnhardt team, trumpeted only two weeks ago as the largest such effort in the company's history. Hershey Foods Corp. and Philip Morris Cos.' Kraft Food's Nabisco were running national promotions with Mr. Earnhardt. Even more visible were closely allied sponsors GM Goodwrench and Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Nascar sponsors, however, tend to be sanguine about the dangers of racing. "We're not sponsoring tennis or basketball here, we're sponsoring Nascar, and this is a sport where people get killed," said Brian Dunmore, director of corporate sponsorship marketing at Sprint Corp.

'So personal'
Sprint has had firsthand experience with a driver death. The company last year had to eat the cost of the program it created around Adam Petty when the fourth-generation driver of the Petty racing clan was killed during practice. "The great thing about Nascar is that it's so personal. The tough thing about Nascar is that it's so personal," said Mr. Dunmore.

He added, "You affiliate yourself with the team, but are associated with an individual because the personalities transcend the car they drive and even the sport itself, and when you lose someone, the basis of your marketing campaign is gone."

Such is the situation for Van Camp's. For 2001, the No. 2 player in the $450 million baked-beans category decided to eschew traditional media, including TV, in favor of an in-store program centered totally around Mr. Earnhardt.

"In a category like this, capturing consumers at the shelf is the most cost-effective way to go about growing our business," Dave Donaldson, brand manager for Van Camp's, said before the accident. The program was set to debut in May.

The sponsorship package Van Camp's inked with Mr. Earnhardt's Nascar team, Richard Childress Racing, gave the brand access to what Mr. Donaldson calls "highly leverageable properties," namely Mr. Earnhardt's image, his signature, and his black No. 3 car - one of the most recognizable on the circuit. The plan was to use those properties nationally on packaging, in newspaper inserts and for customized retail displays to immediately drive sales.

Promotion on hold
Now, Mr. Donaldson said, the promotion is completely on hold, awaiting determination of how the Earnhardt family and the Richard Childress team choose to proceed. Because of the timing of the promotion, however, limited numbers of cans bearing the racecar driver's likeness and signature may leak out to stores.

Sonic, too, pinned high hopes on its Earnhardt relationship, developed after a long search for a fitting national sponsorship. At the time of the deal's announcement,

Scott Aylward, CEO of Sonic's shop Barkley Evergreen & Partners, Kansas City, Mo., said, "Establishing a relationship with the seventh-most-popular athlete in the nation provides great national exposure for Sonic and its franchisees." Sonic executives will not make any decisions about the future until it meets with team owner Mr. Childress following memorial services, a spokeswoman said.

'Sweet deal with Dale'
Other sponsors of the No. 3 car, driven in yesterday's race as the No. 30 car with an entirely new paint scheme and driver - Kevin Harvick - have also put their plans on hold. Hershey has discontinued its "A sweet deal with Dale" promotion, which offered fans popular No. 3 car merchandise with proofs-of-purchase, and Nabisco's Oreo has also pulled its in-store displays featuring Mr. Earnhardt's likeness.

Mr. Earnhardt, the "Michael Jordan of motor sports," was also a pop-culture icon. During the Grammy Awards broadcast last week, a member of U2 wore a black t-shirt with a 3 on it representing Mr. Earnhardt's Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

General Motors Corp., through its Monte Carlo, GM Service Parts Operations' Goodwrench unit and Pontiac Grand Prix, was a major sponsor of Mr. Earnhardt, his car and his team. Last week in USA Today, Chevy ran a memorial ad, created by Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., commemorating its relationship with the driver. Interpublic's Dailey & Associates, West Hollywood, Calif., also is preparing a memorial ad for Mr. Earnhardt, who appeared in ads for its client, oil marketer Tosco, for half a dozen years. Those spots were quickly pulled following the race.

"One hundred eighty thousand people are going to [Nascar races] over the weekend and they are hoping to see a crash," said Jim Smith, founder and managing partner of Ground Zero, Marina del Rey, Calif. "It's a blood sport."

Understanding that inherent risk in Nascar, other sponsors have hardly soured on the sport. "Study after study shows that Nascar fans are the most loyal, both to the sport and to the companies that support [it], and the level of visibility sponsors get is unbelievable," said Mr. Dunmore. And, realistically from a commercial perspective, he said, with a ratings increase of 11% for the Fox broadcast of the Daytona 500, "if you take the tragedy away, it was a heck of a day."

Contributing: Kate MacArthur, Jean Halliday, Alice Z. Cuneo

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, the following quote was incorrectly attributed to Brian Morris, president of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Dailey & Associates, West Hollywood, Calif.: "One hundred eighty thousand people are going to [Nascar races] over the weekend and they are hoping to see a crash. It's a blood sport." The quote should have been attributed to Jim Smith, founder and managing partner of Ground Zero.

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