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The Sponsorship Game : Companies Pay Millions for the Chance to Be an Event's 'Official' Brand

January 04, 1994|BRUCE HOROVITZ

This is the unofficial column about companies that officially sponsor stuff.

It would only be official if it had a corporate sponsor--like Coke, which is the official soft drink of the Super Bowl. Or Delta, Disney's official airline. Or Goody's Headache Powder, popularly known in the South as NASCAR auto racing's official pain reliever. No news yet about an official earplug.

This is that time of year when companies claiming to be the "official" this or that come out of the woodwork. The Tournament of Roses Parade had six official sponsors. The college bowl games now belong to the likes of Mobil and Federal Express. The Super Bowl will have more than a dozen official sponsors. And the upcoming Olympics has 10 corporate sponsors that are paying $40 million each to be globally--if not intergalactically--official.

Behind all this "official-ness" is the simple desire of corporate sponsors to link up with events that make people happy. There is often a rub-off effect, where consumers ultimately feel good about--and eventually buy--products that cozy up to their favorite team, stadium or cause. That's why companies spent $2.4 billion in North America in 1993 sponsoring everything from street fairs to orchestras to sports extravaganzas. In 1994, the figure is likely to exceed $2.8 billion, said Lesa Ukman, president of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago-based newsletter that tracks sports, entertainment and social-cause marketing.

"Companies view it as money in the bank," Ukman said. In a recent IEG survey, 50% of the respondents said they prefer to buy products from companies that sponsor events they like.

There is only one official way to become an official sponsor: pay money. Want to be an official sponsor of the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament? It'll cost $10 million. Or how about the official snack food of Universal Studios? For that honor, Frito-Lay has paid more than $1 million. But official links don't always cost so much. Stomach reliever Gaviscon pays less than $10,000 to be the official antacid of--no joke--the World's Championship Chili Cook-off.

Official designations are here to stay.

"It's akin to receiving the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," said Larry Ackerman, partner at the New York corporate image firm Anspach Grossman Portugal.

"But officialdom is not necessarily the route to business success," he said. It's also important that companies create catchy marketing programs around their official designations.

There is a certain mystique attached to being the official product of a major event, said Al Ries, chairman of the Greenwich, Conn.-based corporate image firm Trout & Ries.

"Sponsors don't want consumers to know that these things are purchased," Ries said. "They want people to think it's awarded--like the Nobel Prize."

The makers of Hebrew National Hot Dogs were so tickled about consumer response to their status as the official hot dog at New Jersey's Meadowlands Sports Complex--the home of the New York Giants football team--that the company has branched out as the official hot dog at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in the Bronx--home of the New York Islanders hockey team.

"Some people might laugh at us for calling ourselves the official hot dog of anything," said Martin Silver, executive vice president at National Foods, maker of Hebrew National. "But it gives us tremendous consumer exposure."

There was no official hot dog at this year's Tournament of Roses Parade. But IBM was the official computer. And L.A. Cellular was the official cellular phone provider.

"The tournament must have a need for what the sponsor provides," explained Steve Leland, director of sponsor relations for the parade. "We don't have an official food processor because there is no need for food processing."

But there is a great need to clothe the Rose queen and her attendants in high fashion. Enter Nordstrom, "the official wardrobe supplier to the Rose queen and her royal court."

Besides picking up the tab for the seven outfits worn by the Rose queen and her attendants, Nordstrom also paid for the float from which the women did their waving.

Does the exposure make cash registers ring at Nordstrom?

"We're not interested in how it translates back into sales," said Steve Schreiber, general manager at the Nordstrom store at the Glendale Galleria, which provided the wardrobes. "We're interested in how it makes us part of the community."

Few of the sponsors take "official-ness" as seriously as Coca-Cola. It is the official soft drink of more than 900 sporting events, sports teams and cultural institutions. No single brand has official designation for more things than Coke, said Ukman, the sponsorship expert.

Coke is the official drink of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Assn. and the National Hockey League. And that's just for starters.

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