The past two years have been a busy time on the partnership front for Verizon Wireless.

Since 2008, the largest U.S. wireless service provider by number of subscribers has both retooled its sponsorship strategy and expanded its portfolio.

In terms of strategy, the company has moved away from ties that afford tickets, hospitality and other standard benefits in favor of content-driven partnerships that can be leveraged with 360-degree marketing platforms.

New deals for Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group plc, include most notably a four-year NFL partnership signed earlier this year. The deal to replace Sprint Nextel Corp. as the league’s official wireless telecommunications partner has been valued at $720 million including rights fees and promotional and advertising commitments.

Verizon is supporting the NFL platform with pre-existing team deals and several new ties, including cornerstone sponsor status of the New Meadowlands Stadium—home to the New York Giants and Jets—and a two-year partnership with the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration.

In motorsports, Verizon has opted out of its two-year-old NASCAR team sponsorship with Penske Racing in favor of an expanded presence with the Izod IndyCar Series, including an official league deal and full-season primary sponsorship of one of Penske’s entries in the open-wheel circuit.

IEG SR recently spoke with Suzy Deering, executive director, media and partnerships for Verizon Wireless, about the company’s evolving strategy, its recent partnerships, how it is activating deals with content and in-store promotions, and the challenges of measuring return on investment.

Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

IEG SR: Can you share the rationale behind your new sponsorship approach?

Deering: Two years ago we put a stake in the ground to advance our sponsorship strategy. Traditionally, we used sponsorship for signs or hospitality opportunities, and we felt like we could enable so much more as a technology partner.

Our NFL partnership is a great example of that. Our technology helps enable consumers to support their passion, which is ultimately at the heart of a sponsorship.

The NFL is more than a traditional sponsorship. It’s not about official sponsor status or signs and logo treatments. What’s important for us is providing a vehicle that helps consumers tap into their passion points. That includes accessing the latest news or team updates through the NFL RedZone channel or using devices to view games.

IEG SR: You oversee Verizon’s media and partnerships. Do you evaluate sponsorship through a media lens?

Deering: Yes. We approach media by examining the lifestyle and behavior of our key target audience. When you talk about their interests, it is not just what TV programming they are watching, but what they do in their free time.

That is where sponsorship plays into it. Sponsorship allows us to have a conversation that extends beyond a 30-second TV spot.

There are properties in our portfolio right now that do not line up with our strategy, and over time they will roll off as contracts expire. Anything that does not align with our strategy will not be renewed.

IEG SR: Apart from content, how else are you activating the NFL partnership?

Deering: It is important for us to enable consumers’ passion for content, but at the same time, we do not want that to be the only activation element. We surround our partnerships with on-the-ground activation.

For example, we have pulled in our 12 NFL teams to complement our overall NFL league agreement. We are a cornerstone partner of the New Meadowlands Stadium, where we have a studio where consumers can check out our latest handsets, experience our FiOS and telecommunications products, and get the skinny on the latest apps on the market. Consumers who visit the studio also can experience our 4G service, which is the next evolution of our network.

Those types of environments allow us to have a more dynamic interaction with consumers, instead of us trying to explain FiOS in a 30-second TV ad.

We also do in-store activation, such as sweepstakes offering tickets to the Super Bowl or Pro Bowl. We also do player appearances, as well as a big in-store push for the mobile NFL app.

We are also gearing up a promotion called 45 Days to the Super Bowl, which is a program that will offer random surprises for customers. People who visit our stores at certain times may receive a special greeting by a player, win tickets or receive signed merchandise.

We look at sponsorship as an extension of our media mix, so there are also a lot of elements on the media side. That includes TV ads and a very aggressive online plan that includes a dedicated landing page on VerizonWireless.com.

IEG SR: The company decided not to continue its involvement in NASCAR after two years in favor of an expanded presence with the Izod IndyCar Series. How did you reach that decision?

Deering: I don’t feel like we were ever really in NASCAR. In 2009 we inherited a sponsorship of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team as a result of our acquisition of Alltel Corp.

We didn’t get much value out of it due to marketing limitations associated with Sprint’s title of the series. As a result, we developed a NASCAR Nationwide Series program with the team so we could build a program that spanned multiple motorsports properties, including the Izod IndyCar Series.

We did a nice job activating the program, but we took a step back and realized we were not going to get full momentum out of it. We pulled back and decided to go with a more manageable program by leveraging our involvement in open-wheel racing.

We partnered with the Izod IndyCar Series when we decided on the transition. We consider it a sandwich sponsorship. The league agreement compliments the team deal.

IEG SR: How will you activate the partnership in 2011?

Deering: Much of it will be the same recipe as the NFL, but it will be tweaked because of the audience. We will activate at tracks and do store appearances with cars and drivers.

We also have an Izod IndyCar Series app. We launched it late last season to get it out there, but there will be a major push next season. The app will be front and center in our communication effort.

IEG SR: Verizon Wireless partnered with the NHL in 2007. How is that relationship fitting with the new strategy?

Deering: As I mentioned earlier, we approach sponsorship through a media lens. We have always had NHL games on our media schedule, which have been very effective in reaching that passionate, niche audience.

We were presented the sponsorship opportunity, and we decided it would be a good fit. We had existing deals with several NHL teams, and we could pull them under the NHL umbrella.

We have developed an application called NHL GameCenter, which offers live games and statistics. It’s a fantastic application that offers diehard fans information that they can’t get anywhere else. We use the app as the hook for 360-degree marketing platforms.

IEG SR: How does Verizon Wireless determine success?

Deering: We have a lot of internal discussions on the topic. Everyone has a different definition of success. For us, there is not one good answer.

We assign very specific objectives to all of our sponsorships. The strategy may be similar, but we tweak each one based on the audience, how we want to engage those consumers, and what our primary message will be.

Return on investment is a myth. It is a very tough thing to get to. It is a great buzz term and something that senior executives want to hear, but in reality we use it more as a justification than true measurement.

In our case, we can tell how much people are consuming something. I can get a good gauge on whether or not a certain property is resonating by measuring downloads for content or applications. That helps me determine if it is a success or not.

At A Glance: Verizon Wireless
Key Decision-makers
  • Suzy Deering, executive director, media and partnerships
  • John Harrobin, senior vice president—digital media and marketing
Sponsorship Platforms
  • Football (NFL and collegiate)
  • Hockey
  • Motorsports (Izod IndyCar Series, Penske Racing IndyCar team)
  • Entertainment (Disney, Staples Center, others)
Sponsorship Responsibilities
  • Deering oversees the company’s national partnerships
  • Verizon Wireless funds local and regional deals out of 21 regional offices
Agencies
  • Dallas-based Genesco Sports Enterprises assists with NFL activation
  • Zionsville, Ind.-based Just Marketing Int’l assists with motorsports activation
  • New York City-based Zenith Media helps evaluate local and regional partnership opportunities
  • Greenville, S.C.-based experiential branding agency Erwin-Penland assists with local and regional partnership activation