Recent activity among car rental companies–a category that has not seen much in the way of breakthrough sponsorships in recent years–is likely to prompt renewed interest from properties in positioning themselves as able to build brands and generate incremental business for players in the industry.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car this month announced a multiyear, estimated eight-figure sponsorship of the NHL and its teams, while The Hertz Corp. recently struck a first-time partnership with the PGA of America.

In addition, Avis Budget Group, Inc. is reportedly negotiating a partnership with the U.S. Golf Assn.

Those companies are aligning with properties to gain a point of differentiation in a category often viewed as a commodity.

“We believe in the power of a brand; supporting things that consumers are passionate about earns us consideration in their shopping set and gives us a competitive advantage,” said Holly Campbell, Enterprise’s vice president, creative, media and sponsorships.

Hertz soon may announce sponsorships in addition to the PGA of America deal as part of a brand makeover set for next year. The goal of the new initiative: To make the Hertz brand more contemporary and approachable.

Hertz reportedly plans to roll out an integrated marketing campaign in ’10 aimed at connecting with consumers on an emotional level. The campaign, dubbed Journey On, will be supported in part through a tie-in to the upcoming holiday film Up in the Air.

Chief marketing officer Mike Senackerib is spearheading the program.

Despite a double-digit drop in demand as both leisure and corporate travel has slowed in the wake of the economy, the car rental category has managed to hold its own. The leading companies have delivered profits this year by cutting costs through fleet reductions and charging higher rates for their remaining inventory.

Overall revenues for the U.S. car rental market have steadily headed north since bottoming out in ’03. The industry posted $21.8 billion in revenue in ’08, up 32 percent from $16.5 billion five years earlier.

Enterprise Expands National Sponsorship Program
Enterprise is an operating subsidiary of Enterprise Holdings, Inc., the recently renamed parent company that acquired both the Alamo and National rental car businesses in ’07 and is the largest car rental company in the U.S.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car partnered with the NHL in part based on success from its two other national sponsorships: the NCAA and Professional Bull Riders.

The PBR partnership in particular has provided key insights into the effectiveness of sports marketing, Campbell said.

“We have been able to measure awareness and intent to use Enterprise, and see those grow over the years. When you support things that people are passionate about, it does good things for your brand.”

With the NHL, the company wanted local consumer touchpoints and promotional opportunities, Campbell said, noting that Enterprise has a presence in 27 of the league’s 30 markets.

The sponsorship builds on Enterprise’s previous connection to hockey as an advertiser during NHL game telecasts over the last several years, Campbell said.

“We were already a big advertiser during NHL programming, so this rounds out the partnership. We can run NHL-specific creative media to let folks know we’re an official sponsor.”

Enterprise is only the second NHL sponsor to bundle deals with all 30 teams into its league partnership (which also includes an agreement with the NHL Players Assn., as is standard for NHL partners), said Keith Wachtel, the league’s senior vice president of integrated sales. Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages’ Gatorade was the first to strike such a deal.

“Our mandate is to help clubs generate more sponsorship revenue,” said Wachtel, who negotiated with each team on Enterprise’s behalf. The league office also has taken responsibility for making sure all deliverables are fulfilled.

Teams provided various benefits such as dasherboard signage or electronic scoreboard ID based on available inventory. Each team receives the same amount of money from Enterprise’s fee regardless of the specific assets they committed, Wachtel said.

Enterprise is activating the partnership with presenting status of the “Plus/Minus Leaders” statistics feature on NHL.com and NHL Network to promote its Enterprise Plus loyalty rewards program. The company also plans to leverage the tie through local market sweepstakes and text message campaigns, Campbell said.

The NHL and its teams will use Enterprise for their car rental needs, Wachtel added.

Enterprise uses its corporate partner status with the NCAA for year-round marketing through an affiliation with the governing body’s 88 national collegiate championships. The tie affords exposure through media rightsholder CBS’s various outlets, as well as online and on-site marketing opportunities.

Enterprise also uses the tie as a B2B play to gain incremental business from colleges and universities, as well as to recruit employees. “It’s a great platform for us to reach new graduates,” said Campbell, citing the fact that Enterprise hires more new college graduates each year than any other company.

Enterprise also leverages the NCAA and PBR by offering discounts to fans, pro athletes and other stakeholders.

The company measures success by tracking media exposure and incremental vehicle rentals, as well as through brand tracking studies, Campbell said. Enterprise dropped its 3.5-year sponsorship of NASCAR following the ’08 season.

Although Enterprise Rent-A-Car is the largest sponsor among its parent’s subsidiaries, National and Alamo each have a major partnership as part of their marketing mix. National Car Rental, which targets corporate travelers, is the official rental car company of the PGA Tour and of the Champions Tour’s Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf team tournament in Savannah, Ga.

Alamo Rent A Car uses its partnership with Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort to reach leisure travelers. The brand’s agreement with Walt Disney Parks & Resorts runs through ’11.

Selling Sponsorship To The Car Rental Category
Below, advice on what to offer prospective partners from the rental car industry:

Provide discount offers to audiences, members, etc. Nearly every car rental company promotes discounts to sponsored properties’ attendees, participants and other stakeholders.

That’s the strategy of Avis Rent A Car System, LLC, which uses its three-year-old sponsorship of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Assn. to promote travel offers to skiers and snowboarders, a demographic that frequently rents cars.

“The basis of our relationship is driving business for them,” said Ted Morris, USSA’s vice president of sales and marketing.

The partnership has earned results: The sponsorship generated more than $500,000 worth of business in the first year of the contract and has maintained that level in subsequent years, Morris said.

The deal provides USSA with a minimum guarantee, as well as a bonus for additional business, Morris said. “The more people rent, the more money we receive.”

USSA promotes the Avis discount on its Web site, in its monthly newsletter and on site at events, he noted. The company also provides discount rates to USSA employees, Morris said.

Jamie Taormina, Avis Budget Group’s director of off-airport marketing, spearheaded and manages the USSA tie.

Promote loyalty programs. Rental car companies frequently look for opportunities to tie in rewards programs, either to recruit new members or to offer perks for existing customers.

For example, National activates the Legends of Golf with the Emerald Club Pavilion, a spectator facility located near the first tee, the ninth hole and the putting green. Attendees with a National Emerald Club card receive free entry to the pavilion; those without can purchase weeklong pavilion passes for $75.

Generate buzz around products and services. To fight being viewed as a commodity, rental car companies can use sponsorship to highlight specific offerings.

Case in point: Avis this summer activated its sponsorship of a Penske Racing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team with the Avis Pit Crew Challenge, a series of competitions between members of the No. 12 Penske Racing crew and Avis employees in select markets, including Charlotte, N.C. and Chicago.

The challenge featured two segments in which Avis Quality Assurance crews and Avis Maintenance and Damage crews battled the No. 12 crew to complete a checklist of cleaning and repair items.

Avis distributed coupons offering $12 off weekend rentals to attendees.

“This event is not only a way to showcase the Avis world-renowned ‘We Try Harder’ service; it’s also an opportunity to provide…fans with a money-saving offer to experience the service first-hand,” said Bob Lambert, Avis Budget Group senior vice president of commercial sales, in a statement.

Be prepared for in-kind deals. While national deals almost always include a cash component, car rental companies typically strike in-kind deals with local and regional properties.

That’s the case with Avis Budget Group, which provides vehicles to The Hampton Classic horse show in exchange for sponsorship benefits.