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Volume 20 No. 46

Marketing and Sponsorship

The college football season is barely half finished, but Coca-Cola’s Sharon Byers already knows what her lasting memory will be.

Just a few weeks ago, an Ole Miss fan posted a photo of himself and an autographed football from Rebels coach Hugh Freeze on Twitter. In the message, he thanked Coca-Cola for sending him the football unexpectedly.

Coke Zero uses social media hookups to surprise college football fans with gifts.
That kind of social media outreach has been central to Coke Zero’s marketing this fall during college football.

Coke’s digital agency in Atlanta, CSE, has a team of more than a dozen people from its corporate office who constantly monitor Facebook and Twitter. When they find someone commenting on college football with a substantial list of followers (roughly 500 or more), Coke will “surprise and delight,” as Byers put it, by sending them an unexpected gift like a signed football, helmet or game tickets — items the company has access to through its hundreds of college relationships as a sponsor or official product in stadiums.

These social media hookups have provided an outlet for Coke Zero to connect with fans, who then become unofficial ambassadors for the brand through their online posts.

When they post photos and messages on Facebook and Twitter about a surprise gift from Coke, “we know we’re hitting our target and these people essentially are selling the brand for us,” said Byers, senior vice president of sports and entertainment marketing for Coca-Cola.

Byers describes the target as college students specifically, and more broadly the 18-34 demographic that closely follows college football. Coke Zero is the brand that the company has aligned with football for the last four years, she said, and they continue to evolve the brand’s college football strategy, but Byers believes this kind of outreach establishes “advocates for life.”

Earlier this season, a Vanderbilt student tweeted that he and three friends were traveling to Chicago for the Northwestern game and mentioned that they didn’t have tickets. CSE execs found the message and arranged for them to receive four tickets to the game for free. Byers estimates that Coca-Cola will give away thousands of tickets and memorabilia through the social channels and

Coke’s social media outreach has come in other forms as well. On several campuses during game days, Coke has arranged what it calls “meet-ups” near the stadium. Through its social channels, Coke invites college students to a site where more of these gifts are awarded to those who show up the earliest. Some of these “meet-ups” have drawn as many as 100 students and Coca-Cola intends to do a handful each weekend throughout the season, many of which will be held at high-profile SEC games.

Marketing through social media “is an ever-evolving process,” Byers said. “As always it depends on your brand. But for Coke Zero, connecting sports and the idea of surprising people on campus is creating cheerleaders for our brand. We see it really working. … When we see a consumer base responding like this, we do feel like this is something that we can use in a much broader sense in 2013 and 2014.”

When Northwestern Mutual, a new NCAA corporate partner, was offered the chance to buy the playing floor from the Final Four, the company jumped at it.

Never before had an NCAA sponsor been able to purchase the floor from the Final Four and, frankly, Northwestern Mutual executives didn’t even know what they were going to do with it.

Northwestern Mutual bought the floor that the University of Kentucky won the national title on in April.
“I remember getting a call from our CMO in Milwaukee a few days after the Final Four,” said Dan Rivers, who manages Kentucky and Southern Indiana for the firm. “He said, ‘If we buy the floor, can we do something with it?’ I said, ‘Kentucky just won the national championship. I assure you we can do something with it.’ Once we bought the floor, we shifted into overdrive to create a plan for it.”

Northwestern’s plan comes to life this week with an online auction for 300 pieces of the playing floor that brings a little March Madness to October. Each 18-by-12-inch segment of the floor has the signature of Kentucky coach John Calipari and a small Northwestern Mutual mark in the lower left-hand corner.

Proceeds from the auction at will go to children’s hospitals in Lexington and Louisville. Northwestern wouldn’t say how much it paid for the court, but it costs around $100,000.

The two teams in the finals, Kentucky and Kansas, were offered the chance to purchase the floor, as many teams have done in the past, but they weren’t interested. The NCAA always makes the floor available to the tournament’s finalists first.

When both teams decided to pass on the floor, Northwestern expressed an interest and became the first sponsor to ever buy a Final Four court from the NCAA.

“Not only are we creating great brand recognition for the company, we’re raising a boatload of money to fight pediatric cancer,” Rivers said.

Rivers knew that pieces of the actual playing floor had value in the Wildcats’ backyard, but he wanted to work with Calipari, known as a master marketer among coaches, to enhance the floor’s worth. Negotiating directly with the coach, Rivers struck an agreement to share the floor with Calipari. Their deal calls for Northwestern to auction 300 pieces of autographed floor, 500 pieces of the floor to go to Calipari’s foundation, and another 200 to remain in Northwestern’s possession.

Of the 300 pieces being auctioned this week, Rivers expects to generate $300,000 to $500,000, all of which will go to the hospitals. More than 400 potential bidders had registered on the site before the auction even launched.

Calipari hasn’t decided what he’ll do with his 500 segments, but it will benefit his foundation. Northwestern, likewise, hasn’t decided what it will do with the remaining 200 chunks of floor.

Doe Anderson, an ad firm in Louisville, has worked with Northwestern to promote the auction.

“With the fervor for UK basketball the way it is in this state, there’s no doubt there will be a strong market for this,” Rivers said.

Panini America has signed Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to an exclusive memorabilia deal. As the first NFL athlete to join the card marketer’s Panini Authentic business, Luck will serve as a cornerstone of that business, which also includes NBA players Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant.

Panini America CEO Mark Warsop said his company is not trying to build a huge memorabilia business, like a Steiner Sports, but noted synergies with the core trading card business.

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is the first NFL player to sign with Panini Authentic, a unit that launched in 2009.
“With our marquee athletes, this allows us to control the value of their autographs, since they won’t be diluted by other parties,” Warsop said.

Luck, the NFL’s top draft pick,

has already signed a number of Stanford and Colts photos, balls, helmets and mini-helmets. Those products will go on sale this week at the site and at hobby dealers. Pricing will range from $199.99 for autographed 16 x 20 photos and mini-helmets to $299.99 for autographed authentic footballs to $499.99/$549.99 for autographed authentic Colts and Stanford helmets.

Panini will eventually offer game-worn items from Luck, who had previously signed non-exclusive trading-card agreements with Topps and Panini.

Panini launched its Authentic business with the signing of Bryant in 2009. Warsop said that revenue from his memorabilia business doubled last year. Forecasts for this year anticipate growth of 50 percent or more, “but we’re keeping it small,” he said. “Don’t expect us to have 50 or a hundred players two or three years from now.”

Wasserman Media Group’s Will Wilson, Luck’s uncle and agent, said that the memorabilia deal grew out of the trading-card relationship with Panini.

“We share a less-is-more kind of philosophy,” Wilson said.

Luck’s other endorsements are with Nike; Pepsi for Gatorade, Quaker Oatmeal and granola bars; and EA’s “FIFA 13” game.

Based on Luck’s early success, Wilson offered his read on the supposedly depressed athlete endorsement market. “Maybe I’m biased,” said Wilson, adding that he was close to completing an additional local market endorsement, “but we’ve turned some other offers down. So I would tell you there is money out there for the right guy.”