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Sports marketing from the retailer’s perspective

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Sports marketing from the retailer’s perspective

Part 1 of 2

The Automobile Dealers’ Association has provided an irresistible incentive to have its members really work to enlarge the organization,” read the item in the September 1920 issue of Tires, the predecessor of Modern Tire Dealer.

“Harry Gardner, executive secretary, conceived the brilliant idea of obtaining a dozen baseballs personally autographed by Babe Ruth, the King of Swat, and then offering them as prizes to the first 12 members to bring in an application for membership from a New York dealer. An affidavit is given with each baseball, guaranteeing the genuineness of Babe Ruth’s signature.”

The draw of sports figures and sports teams has been coveted by associations and businesses since the turn of the last century. Their appeal can be long-lasting; 92 years after the “brilliant idea” by Harry Gardner, GITI Tire (USA) Ltd. featured Babe Ruth in its latest MTD ad!

It seems like everyone is heavily relying on sports marketing to increase their sales. Independent tire dealers are no exception. In the first of a two-part series on sports marketing and its effect on our industry, we asked three prominent independent tire dealers about their programs. What are the pros and cons of sponsoring a team or hiring a celebrity spokesperson? Is it cost-effective?

The three dealers are: Dunn Tire LLC, a 31-store chain based in Buffalo, N.Y.; CJ’s Tire & Automotive Services, a 12-store chain based in Birdsboro, Pa.; and Sullivan Tire Co. Inc., a 56-store chain based in Norwell, Mass.

Dunn Tire: NFL and NHL

Dunn Tire’s 31 locations stretch from Erie, Pa., to Syracuse, N.Y., which is why its sponsorship of the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills is a no-brainer, according to Chuck Haring, director of marketing and advertising. Partnering with Kumho Tire U.S.A. Inc. also helped.

“In western New York, the Buffalo Bills represent one of the most powerful brand associations available to a marketer,” he says. “We partnered with Kumho Tire on this, as they are using sports marketing associations in some of their key markets to build their brand awareness.


“Dunn Tire already has high awareness levels in our footprint, but the marketing partnership with the Bills offered us a chance to associate our brand directly with the Bills and put our marketing message in front of Buffalo Bills fans and followers through Web-based media, in-stadium media, and e-newsletters and special electronic messages. It was critical for us and Kumho that we leveraged this partnership to drive retail activation and sales. We were able to do that with ticket backs, game day program ads and electronic coupons.”

Dunn Tire also sponsors the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres in partnership with Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations LLC.

“We saw a great opportunity to partner with Bridgestone and the Sabres because of Bridgestone’s status as the official tire of the NHL,” says Haring. “It was logical for us to put together a program capitalizing on Bridgestone’s high awareness level amongst NHL fans. Plus, the Buffalo Sabres have one of the most devoted fan bases with some of the highest market penetration in the NHL. The Sabres control their own television broadcasts, so we were able to build in Bridgestone/Dunn Tire co-branded TV spots in highly rated game broadcasts.”

At the college level, the dealership sponsors University at Buffalo athletics and St. Bonaventure basketball. “We also have the naming rights to a local racetrack in Buffalo called Dunn Tire Raceway Park.”

All Dunn Tire’s sponsorships are team-oriented. There are no celebrity spokespeople.

“We prefer not to associate our brand with anything other than our brand,” says Haring. “We spend a lot of time and money making sure we deliver to the customer what we say we will deliver.

“We promise the customer ‘Service You Deserve. Professionals You Trust.’ The minute you put your brand image in the hands of someone outside of your company, you run the risk of your image being affected in some way that you don’t have control over. We don’t want to go down that road.”

Haring admits it is “extremely difficult” to measure Dunn Tire’s return on its sports marketing investment.

“I’ve used the words ‘branding’ and ‘awareness’ a lot, but that is what most of sports marketing is. And unless you do before-and-after consumer surveys, or build in a response or activation mechanism of some kind, it’s hard to know what level difference the marketing makes.

“You know you are moving the needle, but you don’t know how far. For our Bills and Sabres sponsorships, we built in a measurement device in the form of a coupon good for dollars off Kumho or Bridgestone tires when bought at Dunn Tire. We’ve seen a lot of these come into our stores.”

The investment varies wildly, depending on the sponsorship, he says.

“For major sports teams such as NFL or NHL, it can be very expensive. But programs can be tailored for almost any budget.

“Local colleges and universities can be much more affordable, and offer great exposure to the campus community including students, faculty and staff. And many of them have employee discount programs that you can get your business involved in to get store traffic.”


CJ’s Automotive: Minor and major leagues

CJ’s likes to strategically place its signage where the action is, whether that be inside FirstEnergy Stadium during Reading Phillies minor league baseball games, or courtside at Wells Fargo Center, home of the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers.

The new partnership with the Phillies will last five months. “We have a significant sponsorship there in signage, in game activities, giveaways and more,” says Bill Bainbridge, director of marketing. “I think the minor league baseball partnership has all the benefits for a regional retailer (that) the big boys get from their home plate signage-plus.”

FirstEnergy Stadium draws between 8,500 and 9,500 fans for every home game.

Bainbridge says he approached Michelin North America Inc. with a co-op idea for signage at 76ers games.

“It was a discounted deal that we think has been very good for us. Tying our brand, with Michelin, to a pro sports franchise and their other sponsors has generated quite a few brand impressions and helped raise the perception of our company. And with the deal, we got a few tickets to a few games that we used to perk customers and employees.”

CJ’s also is sponsoring the Philadelphia Phillies pre-game radio show on the major league baseball team’s flagship station, 94WIP, a CBS affiliate.

“This is a big deal, as the show will run one hour before the games, most of which start at 7 p.m. so we get the prime p.m. drive time of 6 to 6:30 when many people are either still commuting or fans are on their way to the ballpark.”

The three sponsorships cater to CJ’s core customer base, according to Bainbridge. “We think these associations will be very good for our brand and also good advertising opportunities to promote sales, events, etc.”

About 70% of these “investments” will be co-oped with one of CJ’s suppliers (Michelin, Hankook Tire America Corp., Falken Tire Corp. or Yokohama Tire Corp.) and about 30% will be out-of-pocket marketing expense.

“Measuring ROI is not definitive or all-inclusive,” he says. “We can measure the response to our calls to action, store traffic and such that is measurable. And, of course, with all signage, we get reports about impressions, but the value of this measurement is always subject to interpretation.

“For me, sports marketing is about long-term branding and affecting consumer perception about CJ’s. It’s about brand association. It’s about having fun with consumers, corporate customers, and employees.”

Sullivan Tire: Celebrity spokesman

The list of Sullivan Tire’s current affiliations is a long one. It starts with baseball, specifically Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox; minor league baseball’s Pawtucket Red Sox, Portland Sea Dogs and New Hampshire Fisher Cats; and the Cape Cod Baseball League.

The dealership also sponsors the NHL’s Boston Bruins and the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Providence Bruins; the Boston University hockey team; Providence College hockey and basketball; Boston College football and basketball; Keene State College athletics; and the University of Maine Black Bears.

Unlike Dunn Tire or CJ’s Automotive, Sullivan Tire, which does business as Sullivan Tire & Auto Service, also has teamed up with a celebrity spokesperson: Dustin Pedroia, all-star second baseman for the Boston Red Sox. The partnership has lasted five years.

“With any branding decision, there is always an element of risk,” says Paul Sullivan, vice president of marketing. “With sports figures, there is certainly the risk of shelf life, and the type of person they are in the community.


“As you incorporate celebrities such as sports figures into your brand, it’s important to be sure that they represent the values of your company, the communities in which you serve and the fan base. Furthermore, do they have a stake in the community? Are they raising a family? Have they made your city their home? Are they involved in charities?”

In the past, Sullivan Tire has partnered with other sports celebrities, including baseball hall of famers Jim Rice and Dennis Eckersley and Boston Celtics hall of fame guard Tommy Heinsohn.

“When you are sponsoring a team you are dealing with the league,” says Sullivan. “The rules are more stringent and there is a greater threshold of entry. Sponsoring a team does, however, give you the advantage of using the team logo. With a player you have more flexibility and there is a recognizable face.”

To evaluate its branding efforts, Sullivan Tire conducts a brand index study every three years. The study is designed to measure the company’s top-of-mind awareness in the market.

“Our affiliation with Red Sox baseball helps us plant and cultivate our branding seed,” says Sullivan. “The Red Sox fan base reaches all over New England and beyond. They have a very diverse and loyal fan base. As an example, because of Red Sox baseball, we had instant name recognition when we opened our first location in Maine several years ago.

“Sports marketing is just part of our branding recipe. There is also the public relations efforts, grassroots marketing campaigns, community outreach, non-profit board participation — and now social media plays a heavy role in our branding and communication efforts.”

Sullivan says the cost is shared. “As long as we continue to buy tires, there is a level of co-op support.”

A successful marketing campaign does not have to have a “big major league spend,” according to Mark Gillard, Sullivan Tire’s advertising and marketing manager.

“Last year, we purchased a block of Thanksgiving day high school football tickets in several of our markets and gave the tickets away at locations. No purchase necessary. It was a big hit in the community, and it drove traffic to the locations during this unusually mild New England winter season.”   

In part two of our series in May, we look at sports marketing from the tire manufacturer’s perspective.

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