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Few things inspire as much passion and loyalty as sports. Whether it's a Game Seven battle between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, or a local Little League matchup of two neighboring towns, sports competitions move people to cheer, cry, fight, high-five, and sometimes, break the remote control or whatever else is within reach.
Sports fans shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to root for their favorite teams and players in person, and then spend millions more on merchandise to show off their pride at home. Some go so far as to have their sports allegiances tattooed on their bodies.
With an audience this invested and captivated, it's no wonder why many of the convenience industry's retailers and suppliers are stepping up to the plate and using sports marketing to differentiate themselves from their competition, raise awareness of their brands with new customers, and ultimately, build traffic and sales.
"The loyalty and interaction with the fans is most important," said Ann Barker, director of motorsports and licensing for ChevronTexaco Corp. of San Ramon, Calif., which has sponsored the No. 42 car in NASCAR's Nextel Cup series for the past two decades. "This is another way you can get their attention, and create offers that they are passionate about. And that makes them passionate about your brand."
Turning that fanaticism into a return on investment, though, requires a program that goes beyond just slapping a sign in some stadium or arena, according to experts.
7-Eleven Inc.'s new sports marketing program is the most integrated in the company's history. It aims to strengthen customer loyalty and position the nation's largest convenience store chain as the 24/7 destination for sports fans seeking a cold beverage or snack while at a sporting event or watching from the comforts of home.
To achieve this, 7-Eleven currently has multi-year sponsorship agreements with 18 professional sports organizations and venues within the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA), in addition to an agreement with Texas Motor Speedway and its continued sponsorship of the Indy Racing League.
The agreements are all customized depending on the market, but each includes radio and TV advertising, venue signage, coupon distribution at events for its proprietary fresh-food products and beverages, and a 7-Eleven presence on the teams' Web sites.
Promotional activities also vary and feature a combination of halftime or game-night contests; special "7-Eleven Day" games; street team sponsorships; store appearances by players, cheerleaders and mascots; pep rallies and tail-gate parties; team charity participation; distribution of exclusive premium prizes and products branded with the 7-Eleven and team logos; and in-store distribution of pocket-size team schedules.
The biggest coup of the chain's new sports marketing program was getting the Chicago White Sox MLB franchise to switch the starting times of all home games at Comisky Park to "7:11" p.m.
7-Eleven said its research showed that attending or watching sports is one of the top ways its core customers spend their leisure time. Therefore, these sponsorships are an ideal way to connect and "continue to win customers' loyalty in years to come," according to the company.
ChevronTexaco views its NASCAR racing sponsorship as a nearly year-round opportunity to drive home a strong statement about the quality and performance of Texaco, a brand built upon the themes of trust and heritage, Barker said.
"There's not a better example of performance and teamwork than what you see in NASCAR racing, and certainly, the performance we have on the racetrack is a great example of our Texaco and Havoline brands, and the quality of those products," she said. NASCAR fans also tightly match the brands' target market, she added.
The gains made on the racetrack, however, are just the beginning and must be followed up with activation at the retail level. There are currently more than 2,400 Texaco-branded stations, all retailer/marketer-operated, and that's where the rubber meets the road.
Sponsorship is all about taking the energy, the commitment and the loyalty we have for a property, like a race team, and translating that into getting the fans' attention and encouraging people to go and purchase your product," Barker explained.
The company does so with promotions like this summer's 42 Days of Racing, which rewarded customers making a gas purchase with a free, limited-edition, 32-ounce fountain cup, featuring graphics of the No. 42 Juan Pablo Montoya Texaco/Havoline race team. Customers could enter a sweepstakes online for a chance to win a grand-prize trip to the final six races of the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup season.
Also being well-received in stores are Texaco's racing-branded credit cards and just-launched Juan Pablo Montoya- branded gift cards, according to Barker, who noted that with just over 100,000 gift cards available, they've become quite a collectible.
(For more on Texaco driver Juan Pablo Montoya, see IAQs on page 90.)
Other ways Texaco brings its NASCAR sponsorship to the retail level are by selling licensed racing merchandise in select stores, as well as getting the company's dealers involved with hospitality events for their customers and special promotions, particularly for those stores in proximity to the racetracks. "Our dealers are some of our most passionate partners in this sponsorship," Barker said.
All of these efforts, and others throughout its 20-year affiliation with the sport, have resulted in a highly successful sponsorship, ChevronTexaco said. And because NASCAR fans are an extremely loyal bunch -- both to the sport and sponsors -- the chain has found its long-standing sponsorship provides a real competitive advantage for the Texaco brand.
"The Texaco star on that car is the most visible on the track," Barker said. "People want that star on their NASCAR merchandise, and they want that star at the stores they shop."
With so many sports, teams and venues to choose from, and varying levels of play from local to professional, c-store retailers rely on different criteria when deciding which sports marketing activities to invest in. The essentials for BP America's West Coast division are: media value; brand presence; alignment with target audience; focus on core seasonality (April-October); reach to the general and Hispanic markets; and willingness of partner teams to develop customized programs for the chain.
BP's ampm sponsorship as the official convenience store of the Los Angeles Dodgers fits the bill. The program includes outfield wall signage, pre-game and post-game coverage on Hispanic radio, participation in the annual Viva Los Dodgers tailgate party and a presence on Dodgers' Web sites, advertisements and tickets.
A new addition to the sponsorship this year is the ampm All You Can Eat Pavilion, a special Dodgers Stadium ticket that offers fans seating in the Right Field Pavilion and an all-you-can-eat menu of Dodger Dogs, nachos, peanuts, popcorn and beverages.
The Dodgers' partnership is a good play for ampm, which has about 950 stores in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, because MLB and the Dodgers are extremely popular with its target audience -- males ages 18 to 34, families and Hispanics. Also, the seasonality of baseball season aligns with ampm stores' busiest time of year, BP spokesman Todd Spitler said.
"With this sponsorship, we extend the appeal and reach of the ampm brand outside of our stores, and enhance consumers' perception and affinity for the brand with a program that leverages our media dollars in a meaningful way," Spitler said, adding that next year's focus will be incorporating the sponsorship more at the store level.
Aside from the Dodgers' affiliation, ampm is the official c-store sponsor of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics as well. These programs involve a combination of sponsorship rights, promotions, signage and other media.
Additionally, BP's ARCO fuel brand, sold at about 1,400 stores that include ampm locations, is the official gasoline of the Angels. Both ARCO and ampm are also official sponsors of several NBA teams, such as the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings and Sacramento Monarchs (WNBA), all of which play home games in the ARCO Arena in Sacramento, according to Spitler.
If done right, sports marketing can be a win-win. "We have the ability to leverage not only our own marketing and advertising spending, but that of the teams as well, and it proves to be a very strong partnership when we do that," he explained.
Getting in the Game
Of course, there are many convenience store retailers that can't afford to build programs around professional sports teams and venues, but that doesn't mean they have to ride the bench. One expert suggests reverse sponsorship as an economical option.
David Miller, president of San Diego-based Integrated Sports Marketing, said c-store operators may not have the dollars to spend on sports sponsorships, but they do have retail space to trade. He has worked with retailers, such as ampm and Kroger, on reverse sponsorships tied to the annual Toyota Celebrity Classic golf tournament.
In exchange for providing incremental display space to supplier sponsors of the event -- with the stipulation that products be sold at a sharp price point -- the retailers get their logos displayed at the event and a number of playing positions in the tournament.
"Everybody wins," Miller said. "The retailers are able to leverage their assets to their benefit in a way that makes sense fiscally. Suppliers benefit from the increased case sales that result from the incremental display space, and so do the retailers."
(For more on suppliers' sports marketing programs, see "Team Spirit" on page 26.)
Local sports are another inexpensive outlet for c-stores to score big with customers.
This year, Kum & Go, a 444-store chain based in West Des Moines, Iowa, launched the Kum & Go Game of the Week. The program, a partnership with Mediacom Connections, broadcasts Friday night high school football games live to fans across Iowa, with rebroadcasts running another four days a week.
The games are publicized with promotional spots aired on Mediacom and Kum & Go print ads, which are supported by Mediacom and positioned in local newspapers.
The Midwestern convenience store chain is a long-time sponsor of collegiate and high school sports in the communities it operates, and the brand has a sports marketing presence in all of its major markets, according to Jack Wilkie, senior vice president of marketing.
Kum & Go's sports marketing roster includes a regional sponsorship of the Des Moines Menace soccer team, for which the retailer has developed private-label products -- the most popular being a 10-ounce, all-natural kid's juice drink fittingly called Menace that comes in four flavors and retails in its stores for 99 cents.
Locally, the Game of the Week program was created to take a step beyond scoreboard sponsorship and hard-to-measure game program advertising, Wilkie explained.
"The values associated with high school football, such as teamwork, discipline, work ethic and family, mirror many of our company values," he told Convenience Store News. "Many of our core customers have a stronger tie to their local high school, where they may have attended or have a son or daughter enrolled, than they do a college program.
By reminding high school students, and their families and friends, that Kum & Go supports what is important to them, Wilkie said it helps to build market share with both the hard-to-reach 12- to 24-year-old demographic, and their parents.
"High school sports sponsorship may not have the same glamour that college or professional sports offer, but it's targeted and affordable," he said, adding that the program's effectiveness will be measured and evaluated on its value of brand exposure, customer feedback, and ultimately, customer count growth and sales.
No matter the type of sports marketing program, the bottom line is that it has to mirror the company's external goals, noted Paul Sickmon, founder and president of Knox Sports Marketing in Safety Harbor, Fla. "If your goal is to drive traffic, or to extend your brand, or to utilize athletics for community relations, then that's what you have to measure your sports marketing program on," he advised.
When looking at the sports marketing playbook of the convenience store industry, experts say its record is favorable, but with room to improve. The programs with the best results combine all the elements: media exposure, event exposure, promotional opportunities, hospitality and cause marketing, said Miller of Integrated Sports.
Creativity is also a must, Wilkie added. "Many base [sports sponsorship] decisions on commitments with vendors or business partners; doing what the CEO likes; viewing it as a publicity opportunity; or thinking sports sponsorship is only for big companies with deep pockets. With a little creativity, companies can find ways to support their customers and communities in a meaningful and measurable manner."