SBJ/March 3-9, 2014/Marketing and Sponsorship

Tweets lead to Cheesecake Factory endorsement

Tennis’ Radwanska is ‘one of our biggest fans’

American restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory is known for its hefty portions and four-figure calorie counts, not for its sports marketing. Agnieszka Radwanska is a Polish athlete playing a sport, tennis, with a modest-at-best visibility in the United States.

So it might seem strange that the restaurant chain Tuesday is scheduled to announce Radwanska as its first endorser, doing so at its location in Rancho Mirage, Calif., near where Radwanska will begin wearing the company’s logo on her visor at the start of the BNP Paribas Open. The event is the WTA Tour’s biggest stop.

Radwanska at the Cheesecake Factory’s booth at the BNP Paribas Taste of Tennis last year
Photo by: THOS ROBINSON / GETTY IMAGES FOR BNP PARIBAS
THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY


Most recent quarterly results
REVENUE: $469.99 million
NET INCOME: $27.48 million

Source: Company 10-Q report filed with the SEC

“We hope it spurs conversation about, ‘What is that restaurant doing on her visor,’” said Donald Evans, the company’s chief marketing officer. “The answer is, she is one of our biggest fans.”

The endorsement grew from social media, which will play a major role in promoting the ties between the Polish star and the American outlet. For years, Radwanska, now the third-ranked player in the world and who reached the 2012 Wimbledon final, has tweeted her enthusiasm for The Cheesecake Factory when touring in the United States. (Outside of the brand’s 181 U.S. locations, there are three Middle Eastern outlets owned by franchisees.)

Six months ago, one of her representatives at Lagardère Unlimited, Drew LeMesurier, cold-called the company — but not for a deal.

“Initially, I wanted to get her VIP treatment at one of the restaurants,” said LeMesurier, director of talent marketing for Lagardère. That meant cutting the waiting lines the restaurants frequently boast, and maybe some gift cards.

It’s not an uncommon request; just ask Evans. Celebrities ranging from Justin Bieber to David Spade, and past and present NBA players such as Shaquille O’Neal and James Harden, are well known acolytes of the menu’s 250 offerings. “We help them out when they go to our restaurants,” Evans said.

So why did Radwanska land an endorsement deal with the company — a multiyear pact totaling six figures — when there are so many other celebrity customers? Indeed, the Celebrity DBI, which measures potential endorser popularity for corporate customers, does not rank Radwanska. “We have data on 1,100 athletes,” said Kathy Gardner, a spokesperson for DBI, a unit of Repucom. “These are determined primarily by client request, and no one has asked for her yet.”

Rendering shows logo on Radwanska’s visor.
Photo by: COURTESY OF LAGARDERE
Part of the answer draws from a long tradition in golf and tennis endorsements: the marketing people like the sport. Evans, who handled the deal himself, admits he is a tennis fan who played the sport competitively in high school, so when LeMesurier’s call came, he took it.

Then there is Radwanska’s apparent sincere affection for the food and her to-date unpaid promotion of the brand. “We felt like while it is not the biggest athlete, we need to feel good about who we are working with,” Evans said.

The Cheesecake Factory also does not rely on traditional marketing, eschewing print and TV ads for word-of-mouth and social media. That paradigm could underutilize a well-known U.S. athlete, who likely would want more cash than the company budgets for promotion. And, as in many food businesses, consumer decision-making tends to skew female, so a woman athlete fit the criteria for an endorser, Evans said.

Radwanska is required to wear the visor with the company logo in the U.S. under terms of the deal, and she’ll have a set number of appearances. One assignment comes on July 30, which the chain is hyping as National Cheesecake Day. The heart of the deal is social media, though, and Radwanska is expected to continue her long-standing promotion.

“She really indirectly had been an ambassador for us for years,” Evans said. “Now it becomes official.”

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