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Volume 22 No. 44
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Dr Pepper pours it on

How the soft drink brand used its conference ties to reach the top shelf of college football’s postseason

Dr Pepper didn’t set out to be the brand that owns college football’s postseason. It just worked out that way.

No one knew 22 years ago that a simple sponsorship of the inaugural SEC championship game would eventually lead to a portfolio that includes the College Football Playoff and deals with all five major conferences.

This week, Dr Pepper will entertain close to 10,000 people at the four major conference championship games — the Big 12 no longer has one. Retailers, bottlers and employees will be among the guests. Its


SBJ Podcast:
College writer Michael Smith and Assistant Managing Editor Tom Stinson discuss Dr Pepper's hold on the college football postseason as well as Geico's move to sponsor the floor-apron space at college basketball courts.

halftime activation will award more than $600,000 in scholarships. Its commercials, featuring Larry the concessions guy, will dominate ESPN’s airwaves.

“It’s our single largest investment from a marketing standpoint,” Jim Trebilcock, Dr Pepper’s executive vice president of marketing, said of college football. “We found an avenue in, and we owned it early on.”

Dr Pepper's deal with the College Football Playoff is believed to cost the brand $30 million to $35 million a year.
Photo by: Dr Pepper
Dr Pepper’s self-made platform expanded this year to include a six-year presenting sponsorship of the CFP’s trophy, which has toured the country throughout the regular season. The deal, which gives the brand full marketing rights to the CFP and its trophy, and advertising in all six CFP bowl games and the national championship game, is believed to cost Dr Pepper $30 million to $35 million a year, more than some title sponsorships for CFP bowl games.

“Early on, Dr Pepper identified college football as something that was big, something that was growing, and something it could own,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said.

There was a time, however, when Trebilcock worried that Dr Pepper might not be able to keep its status with the CFP, whose deals are sold by rights holder ESPN. Dr Pepper was presenting sponsor of the BCS championship trophy, and the brand sought that same position in the CFP. But from the time a four-team playoff was announced, Coca-Cola made it a priority to unseat its smaller competitor to be the official soft drink.

Trebilcock, worried that Dr Pepper’s marketing resources couldn’t compete with Coke’s dollar for dollar, went on the offensive. In the days after ESPN won the CFP’s rights in November 2012, Trebilcock called Rob Temple, ESPN’s senior vice president of sports management within the sales and marketing team.

Before ESPN had a rate card or even a go-to-market strategy, Trebilcock told Temple that he wanted Dr Pepper to be part of the playoff.

“I wanted to be the first one,” Trebilcock said. “We told them that. We kept pressing them, ‘Where are you? Where are you? We want to be in. Tell us what it’s going to cost.’ They finally did and we worked through it.”

Some 16 months later, in March, ESPN announced that Dr Pepper would be the CFP’s first official sponsor.

In between, with Coke applying a full-court press to ESPN, “there were some tense moments,” Trebilcock said.

“This was high stakes,” he added. “If we didn’t get this deal, we could lose our biggest property. And I wasn’t going to let that happen.”

The hole opens for football

Fred Posey never figured that he would change the course of sports marketing in college football. Posey was an athletic trainer at the University of Alabama through the 1950s, and later in life went to work for the Buffalo Rock bottling company in Birmingham.

He was working in public relations for the bottler in 1992 when the SEC launched its inaugural championship game

The SEC was Dr Pepper’s first major move into college football.
Photo by: Dr Pepper
at Legion Field. Posey, with his background in athletics and his interest in the SEC, called Dr Pepper headquarters in Texas to see if the soft drink would pay to be a sponsor in the game.

“We agreed to do it as a favor to the bottler,” Trebilcock said. “From his days in the SEC, he knew [former Commissioner] Roy Kramer. He had the relationships and orchestrated the whole thing.”

With that seemingly basic idea, an association between Dr Pepper and college football was born.

Dr Pepper later title-sponsored the Big 12’s championship game, when the conference had one, and the ACC’s as well. The soft drink, now part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, added sponsorships for the most recent title games with the Big Ten and Pac-12.

“Dr Pepper has gotten to the point where the brand has a real tradition in college football,” said Ryan Lehr, creative director at Deutsch LA, the ad agency that works with Dr Pepper. “You almost chronicle the growth of college football with the Dr Pepper relationship. They’re linked with the sport now.”

The CFP trophy tour, conference championship games and the four-team playoff provide Dr Pepper with a seasonlong platform. The halftime football toss, which gives college students a chance to win tuition money if they can throw a football through an inflatable can of Dr Pepper, has become ubiquitous across college football’s postseason.

“For us, it was a way to carve out something that was clearly important to our consumers, and important to our retailers because they really activate the heck out of it,” said Trebilcock, in his 27th year with the company. “They couldn’t get these assets anywhere else. The store managers and bottlers get heavily engaged as well. It works across all of our many constituents.”

Dr Pepper now takes up to 7,000 guests to the SEC championship game, and more than a thousand each to the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 title games. Those guests might be fast-food franchise owners, convenience store operators, grocery store executives or just anyone who does business with the brand.

Not only did the conference championship games provide Dr Pepper the association with college football, it also was an uncluttered space.

Competitor Coca-Cola has hundreds of college relationships, most of which come with pouring rights, but Dr Pepper went another route by targeting the conference championships.

“They’re competing, obviously, against the big boys and girls,” Scott said. “Dr Pepper can’t compete at that level in everything, so they have to be a little more surgical.”

Dr Pepper was able to acquire rights to the championship games almost solely through ESPN. The network owns the rights to the CFP, the ACC’s championship game, and it shares the rights with Fox to the Pac-12 game. In addition, ESPN is the rights holder for the SEC’s corporate partner program, where Dr Pepper is a league partner and title sponsor of SEC Fanfare at the championship game in Atlanta.

Being able to go to ESPN for almost all of the college football postseason helped Dr Pepper navigate what can be a confusing collegiate landscape.

“Rights can get very complicated at the school level, so we decided to support the conferences and build up the conference initiatives, as opposed to individual schools, which is where our competitors play,” Trebilcock said.

“Pouring rights weren’t the goal here. The goal was to create a platform that would launch Dr Pepper onto the national scene and provide a unique experience that we could own.”

Fight to make the playoff

With Coca-Cola threatening to take the playoffs in what was becoming a bidding war with Dr Pepper throughout 2013, Trebilcock knew it was time to circle the wagons. IEG reported that Coca-Cola’s sponsorship spending in 2012 was just under $300 million; Dr Pepper’s spend was around $50 million. The threat from Coca-Cola, with its numerous school deals and an NCAA corporate champion deal, was very real.

And without the CFP in Dr Pepper’s portfolio, its commercial dominance of the postseason would be severely

The Dr Pepper-sponsored trophy has been a hit as it’s traveled to college campuses and stores, generating major exposure for the soft drink brand.
Photo by: Dr Pepper

When he took a full account of his resources, which include sponsorships with all five major conferences, Trebilcock knew that his relationships with the commissioners were among his best assets. The commissioners might not sit at the negotiating table with ESPN and Dr Pepper, but they do represent the property in the CFP. It was one arrow in Trebilcock’s quiver that Coke didn’t have.

So, from the time ESPN won the CFP rights in the fall of 2012 through most of 2013, Trebilcock set out on what he playfully calls his “roadshow.” He went to see every one of the five major conference commissioners, some on multiple occasions.

“I just wanted to lay out our commitment to the conferences,” Trebilcock said. “I wanted to be able to look at the commissioners face to face and show our commitment. I think it was really important to do that.”

On one winter morning in 2012, Trebilcock changed his flight plans to New York and instead took a last-minute flight to Birmingham to see SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. They met at Slive’s favorite breakfast stop — Salem’s Diner. Trebilcock called it a “little hole-in-the-wall egg place.”

“All I wanted to do was show Mike how important he was to me,” Trebilcock said.

Ultimately, the incumbent was too hard to unseat. Trebilcock believes Dr Pepper’s relationships, its history and its activation plan for the CFP worked in tandem, just as much as the size of the check. The commissioners also knew that if Dr Pepper didn’t have the CFP, the brand might not be inclined to spend so much money on their conference championships.

“We’ve been partners with Dr Pepper a long time,” ESPN’s Temple said. “Jim very much drove the process. He’s got a clear vision and he communicated that throughout the process. But early on, he had to be patient. We had to figure out our strategy.”

The whole process fits Dr Pepper’s approach to sponsorship, which is to proactively go after the deals that fit the brand’s objectives, rather than wading through sales pitch after sales pitch to find the right deal.

Dr Pepper will have between six and eight 30-second ad units in the national championship game, and another half-dozen in each of the six CFP bowl games. Some of those final details are still being worked out.

But in Trebilcock’s mind, the CFP deal, while expensive, is already a success.

More than 50,000 people applied to participate in its halftime football tosses, and the trophy tour has helped the brand engage with close to 35,000 fans, all of whom have had their picture taken with the trophy and created untold social media opportunities. Dr Pepper’s social marketing agency, New York-based Code and Theory, establishes a social media war room each Saturday through the season to measure social activity around Dr Pepper, the CFP and Larry Culpepper, the character from the soft drink’s ad campaign.

Trebilcock estimated that close to 15 people in marketing touch the college football business, and that doesn’t include an agency lineup that includes Ketchum for public relations, Deutsch LA for advertising, Market Fusion for research and Code and Theory.

“You can tell the passion and belief they have in the game,” Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive director, said of Dr Pepper. “When you tie together what they’ve done in the regular season with the trophy tour along with all they do in the postseason, it shows the value they place on college football.”