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Volume 20 No. 42

Marketing and Sponsorship

Northwestern Mutual has retained Milwaukee-based GMR Marketing to develop an activation strategy for its NCAA corporate partnership.

Northwestern became an NCAA partner in January, which gave the financial planning and life insurance company a quick run-up to March Madness. Northwestern, which advertised heavily on the CBS and Turner broadcasts of the NCAA tournament, as well as ESPN’s coverage of the College World Series, called its NCAA deal the largest marketing and advertising initiative the company’s ever had.

It issued an RFP for an agency of record in the spring, and Chad Dern, Northwestern’s director of brand and advertising, led the search, which started with eight agency candidates. GMR was informed that it had won the business last week. This marks the first time Northwestern has hired a sports marketing agency for such a role.

Northwestern’s only other sports sponsorship is a deal with PGA Tour golfer Mark Wilson, but the thrust of GMR’s work will be around the NCAA deal, the company’s first national sponsorship.

“A lot of what we’ll be doing with GMR will be evaluating the different activation opportunities,” Dern said. “How do we activate our NCAA sponsorship at the local level?”

What that activation looks like remains to be seen. Dern said that Northwestern’s overall outlook will focus on its financial planning and how to help student athletes prepare for the next stage in life after college. But the details of how to bring that message to life are evolving.

GMR has two other clients that also have NCAA partnerships: Hershey’s and Lowe’s. The agency also works closely with MillerCoors, which has a large portfolio of university sponsorships.

“This really continues the momentum we have in the college space,” said Greg Busch, GMR’s executive vice president of client management. “We’ve put a lot of energy and resources behind our work in the college space and this furthers the scale we’ve been building.”

Busch said that senior vice president Steve Dupee will be GMR’s point person on the Northwestern account.

So far, Northwestern has been the presenting sponsor of the NCAA tournament’s First Four games, as well as a presenting sponsor of “Sporting Chance,” an NCAA film that celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX.

The New York Road Runners will allow corporate partners to use entry spots in the 2012 ING New York City Marathon for sweepstakes promotions. The pilot program, called “Golden Ticket,” marks the first time the NYRR has given marathon spots to sponsors explicitly for promotional purposes.

NYRR President and CEO Mary Wittenberg said the group would likely designate 50 spots for the program, and that sponsorship representatives would ensure the spots were used for sweepstakes promotions only. The NYRR has primarily allowed participants into the marathon through a lottery, charity fundraising and participation in 10 NYRR events.

Each year approximately 125,000 runners apply to participate in the race, and the NYRR grants 60,000 entries, with approximately 45,000 runners showing up on race day.

“Our partners have wanted to do it for a long time,” Wittenberg said. “For years we have been thinking of revising that policy and leveraging the entries to build awareness and excitement for the race.”

As of press time, French media partner L’Equipe was the only partner to finalize a deal to receive spots, and it will have five entries for 2012. An NYRR spokesperson said the group is negotiating deals with Nissan, Timex, Asics and Foot Locker. The financial details of the deals were not available.

François Morinière, CEO of Group L’Equipe, said the company will run a sweepstakes program called “Win and You’re In” through its online loyalty program, which has approximately 600,000 members. Members will take an online quiz on French sports trivia, with winners being entered into the sweepstakes for the marathon entries.

Morinière said the New York City Marathon represents an aspirational marketing piece for L’Equipe’s burgeoning running business. In 2010, the company debuted the L’Equipe 10KM, a 10-kilometer running race in Paris.

“Running is a brand extension for L’Equipe we hope to have for the future,” Morinière said. “It is a high value for people in France because it is so difficult to get in [to the New York City Marathon].”

Wittenberg said the program is still in its early stages, and that she did not anticipate the number of promotional spots rising above 100 total. She said the NYRR would likely make spots available to other international media partners, as well as its domestic TV partner ESPN.

“We can use these spots to build further programming around the marathon,” Wittenberg said. “If broadcasters have entries to build interest in the marathon, there is huge value.”

Fred Dreier is a writer in New York.

Terry Lefton
Considering the excitement generated by an NBA campaign in which the lockout cut 16 games from the 82-game schedule, there were a number of NBA observers who wondered if starting the season on Christmas every year would be a good idea. We never thought we’d hear that from the merchandising side of the house. However, even after a shortened season that cost the league retail orders that come with the start of the season as well as into the critical holiday retail period, we’re starting to wonder.

NBA consumer products chief Sal LaRocca said that retail figures established during the Miami Heat’s five-game NBA Finals win over the Oklahoma City Thunder included the highest per-cap for a clinching Game 5 and the highest average per-cap for a three-game Finals at one venue. While LaRocca said it was too early to state definitively where hot-market sales from the Heat’s second championship will net out, “early indications are that we are possibly looking at one of the top two or three in our history and certainly within the top five.”

The NBA’s hot-market sales standard was set by the Chicago Bulls’ second “three-peat”

It’s early, but the Miami Heat’s latest title looks solid for a spot in the NBA’s hot-market sales top five.
championship in 1998, “but that was well before we’d built our business globally and before the advent of the Internet,” LaRocca added.

Even with the truncated season, it looks downright rosy when it comes to licensed product sales. LaRocca said he expects domestic NBA sales to increase over last season. Incremental sales generated by a vibrant postseason, the emergence of Jeremy Lin and the relocated Brooklyn Nets are leading reasons, but not the only catalysts for the NBA’s unexpectedly quick licensing rebound.

“There was a lot of retail apprehension last summer heading into the season, but as soon as we said we are going to play, a lot of national retailers came back quickly,” LaRocca said. “You can’t make up for that holiday business once you’ve lost it. However, business came back to us in a pretty big way from major retailers like Champs, Wal-Mart, Modell’s and Sports Authority.”

Online sales are also producing major returns. sales from the start of the league’s fiscal year in October have already eclipsed the prior fiscal year’s record haul.

SOUTH OF THE BORDER: Since it is the top-selling Canadian brew in the United States, most of Labatt’s U.S. sponsorship budget supports hockey platforms. It has team deals with the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins, as well as a USA Hockey sponsorship and a pond hockey tournament in 10 markets that is entering its sixth year.

However, in key Northern U.S. markets, Labatt does step out of the box with other sports. Accordingly, it has signed a three-year extension of its Detroit Tigers sponsorship, usually supported with team-logoed cans and other packaging. Also renewed for a year was a long-standing sponsorship of the Buffalo Bills, the city where Labatt USA is headquartered.

Hockey generally carries the flag for Labatt Blue in the U.S., while Labatt Blue Light has been affiliated with other properties, but the lines have been blurring.

“Hockey will also carry the flagship for the brand’s Canadian heritage, but in key markets, Labatt wants to show it’s as important to consumers as any brand,” said Peter Stern, whose New York-based Strategic agency handled the deals for Labatt.

Terry Lefton can be reached at