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Roundtable Discussion: Double-Take Sponsorships

Roundtable Discussion: Double-Take Sponsorships

9 minute read

  • Unconventional partnerships, although odd at first glance, may in fact have multiple benefits and be grounded in a deeply rooted strategy
  • Sponsorships which do not have an apparent strategic fit may in fact achieve tremendous marketing breakthrough   
  • Partnerships discussed include Gillette/eSports, Walmart/Academy Awards, Pabst Blue Ribbon/Oregon Ballet Theatre, and IBM/Tom Watson

As sponsorship marketers, we review thousands of deal announcements every year, discussing their merit and analyzing their implications for both our clients and the industry at large.  There are certain strategic variables that we as an industry collectively leverage when discussing the strategic fit of a property and sponsor, from demographic overlap to alignment of brand personality. It is on these variables that some partnerships cause us to do a double-take. After a first glance though, there may be more than meets the eye.

The following is a transcribed discussion between MKTG’s Matthew Logue, Matt Klar, Geoff Biss and Iain Sime.


Geoff Biss:

We have seen some recent examples of sponsorships in the last couple of weeks that appear to be unconventional on the surface. Not all partnerships are necessarily as straightforward as beer and football. Some make you do a “double-take.” One that really jumped out to me last week was Gillette and eSports. Apparently, Gillette has been active in eSports for a sustained period, but recently extended their portfolio by featuring a professional gamer in a commercial spot. 

Iain Sime:

Yeah, Gillette has partnered with eSport company ESL, the world’s largest eSports company, as well as eSport athlete Enrique “xPeke” Cedeno. We’ve seen a lot of eSport properties secure non-endemic sponsors, like Geico and Coca-Cola. But now we see Gillette. They have a roster of athletes including Roger Federer and Neymar, and they have added to that with an eSport athlete. 

Matthew Logue:

When I first heard about this, I was pretty dismissive of it. I saw this TV spot with a fresh-faced young guy, who frankly doesn’t look like he needs to shave. I kind of questioned some of the authenticity. But the longer it sat with me, the more I think it’s interesting. Brands like Gillette are constantly in a fight for differentiation. So to do something that puts you in an exclusive mindset is probably a smart idea. I think there’s actually some authenticity to that. If I were going to compete in a stadium full of fans, I’d probably want to look my freshest; so to get a nice shave and feel good probably puts me in a peak mindset. eSports skews male and appeals to tech-savvy decision-makers who are in the consideration stage when it comes to razors. 

Matt Klar:

I do not think it matters if this partnership makes sense to people outside of eSports participants. I think eSports as a property-type is fairly niche, and as long as Gillette is adding value to the eSports fan or participant, then it doesn’t really matter what people outside that world think. From what I have read, they’re activating via offering personalized razor handles and can’t-buy experience to eSports fans and participants. So if I’m participating in the eSports world and Gillette is on-site, and adding value to my experience and how I experience the property, that’s all that really matters.

Geoff Biss:

I agree. This is a young group, and they are decision-makers. When you go to an eSports competition, it really is a group of fresh-faced, young millennials, and they’re going to be looking to purchase their first razor. It’s not just who they’re marketing to, it’s how they’re marketing to them. At this year’s World Championships, fans will be able to customize their own personal razor handles with 3D printers, and as we know, millennials crave personalized items and experiences.

Matthew Logue:

It’s also an industry that’s due for a shake-up from the big players. You see up-starts entering the market, like Harry’s or Dollar Shave Club. There’s potential that this category can get completely whipped out and re-invented to a home delivery model, and brands like Gillette need to push like crazy to ensure they’re relevant. Therefore, I think it is a great effort, and we will see where it goes.

Geoff Biss:

Another sponsorship that caught our interest was a recent partnership between Wal-Mart and the Academy Awards. When you think of sponsors of the Academy Awards, you typically think prestigious, luxurious brands like Rolex. But then you see Walmart. The Academy Awards and Walmart? Team, does this make sense?

Iain Sime:

Wal-Mart is going to air 60 second ads during the awards featuring four directors: Antoine Fuqua, Marc Forster, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg - who will all create short films featuring six items on a Walmart receipt. A lot of people consider Walmart to be a bargain brand, and when you think Oscars, you think red carpet and the elite of the elite. However, the Academy Awards are also one of the most viewed programs of the year and truly are a mass appeal property. 

Matthew Logue:

I think it’s pretty clear that this has to do with the demo that watches the Oscars. It’s the type of viewing occasion that occurs Sunday night with families gathered around the television. There’s actually quite a good fit there. And I think it’s about time we saw Walmart do something on the big stage. I can’t recall Walmart doing anything major with a partner, besides being the smiley-face that lowers prices. I think in today’s world where you see tiered-levels of value, where value-brands like Walmart are constantly challenged by premium-value, I think it’s good to shake things up. I think the director-activation isn’t anything new though. I feel like this has been done before. I don’t necessarily agree with the activation, but I like the partnership.

Matt Klar:

If you think of the most famous brand integration at the Oscars, you probably think of Ellen DeGeneres and Samsung selfie. Samsung is not a luxury brand…

Matthew Logue:

It is a lifestyle brand though.

Matt Klar:

Of course. It would not make sense for Walmart to do the gift-packages for award winners and the Hollywood elite. That is where I think luxury brands should exclusively be present. But Walmart appeals to everyone, just like the Oscars.

Geoff Biss:

Yeah, when you think of one of Walmart’s largest direct competitors, you probably think Target, who is actually a partner of the Grammy’s. So these sort of partnership aren’t necessarily new in terms of strategy for a mass retail brand. 

Let us look at another interesting partnership: the Oregeon Ballet Theatre introduced a group-pricing plan in partnership with Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR), called the “Blue Ribbon Society” where groups of eight or more could purchase tickets starting at $10, and included an intermission party featuring free Pabst Blue Ribbon Tallboys, and a crash course in ballet. Pabst is a fairly cheap beer, and one I wouldn’t associate with the culture and demographic of ballet. What do you guys think of this one?

Matthew Logue:

I assume the Oregon Ballet Theatre is in Portland, and that city is very much a hipster-culture. I’ve been to Portland, and to me this makes sense for the city of Portland. Things that don’t make sense anywhere else in the world, make sense in Portland. It’s wonderful for that. I feel like there is enough people in Portland who would be like “Yeah I’ll go see ballet!”

Iain Sime:

Is there any potential for backlash when you have an older audience, and all of a sudden, you have a bunch of young people buying cheap tickets with the PBR promotion? 

Matthew Logue:

You are assuming they are going to turn it into a party. The TSO will often show a movie and have a live orchestra play the music from it.  This execution includes a crash course in ballet. By design, I think if you’re going to this, you know how to behave.

Matt Klar:

Sometimes a sponsor is an important component to validate and reinforce the repositioning of a brand. The Oregon Ballet Theatre could launch as many unsponsored brand campaigns as they want attempting to appeal to millennials. However, if they want to modernize or reposition themselves, sometimes you need a sponsor who is already effectively operating in this mind space. In some respects, this can be seen as Oregon Ballet Theatre viewing PBR as the “property”. They are the ones who truly gain from a transfer of brand attributes from the fun and quirky beer brand.

I wonder what an existing wealth management sponsor of the Oregon Ballet Theatre who leverages the property to host high net worth clients would think. How mindful does Oregon Ballet theatre need to be of co-sponsors who have a different purpose for the property and may conflict with PBR’s activation strategy?

Matthew Logue:

I think many properties ride the line on this issue. I have to imagine they have done something to mitigate that risk such as organize their programming to ensure two events with different target audiences can coexist. 

Geoff Biss:

I want to talk about one more partnership before we wrap this up. Last year, before the Masters Tournament, IBM announced a partnership with 67 year-old golfer Tom Watson. To me, when I think IBM or anyone in the technology space, I assume they want to reach and speak to a millennial audience. When I heard of this partnership, I immediately thought of my dad asking me how to work his iPad. So what do you guys think of this partnership?

Iain Sime:

IBM is not a consumer-facing brand like Samsung or Apple. They are probably looking at more mature decision-makers in business who can relate to Tom Watson.

Matthew Logue:

I think IBM is a legacy brand. I think they are an intelligence brand. They are consultants as much as they are tech-providers. Associating with an elder statesman in a certain sport type isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think you have to be young to be tech-savvy. I don’t think you have to be young to be leading-edge. Watson also shares a name with IBM’s smart computer system, so perhaps there was some fun with that also. 

Matt Klar: 

I think part of this too was that it was Tom Watson’s final Masters Appearance. Therefore, this is not an attempt to build a sustained, decade-long partnership. I think this was IBM’s way of making a splash during a peak awareness moment on the golf calendar where there would be many eyeballs on Tom Watson. To your point, if there was a younger golfer like Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth, I think they would have used the partnership in a different way. I think they would have spoken to the future of IBM, or how they’re recruiting the next wave of talent from Silicon Valley. With Tom Watson, it’s more about wisdom and legacy.

Iain Sime:

As part of this same campaign, IBM used Serena Williams as a partner to promote the Watson smart computer. They have a balanced roster of athletes to meet a cross-section of demographics.

Matt Klar:

Sometimes an unconventional partnership is required to get attention. For those obsessed with the clearest levels of fit and alignment, there is the potential that your sponsorships will be come expected and stale. There is a lot of noise out there and consumers are flooded with exposure to advertising. Something that we as marketers would deem on the surface as “not strategic”, may actually be more likely to breakthrough and be memorable. 

Picks of the Week: February 21, 2017

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