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Banks Are Stepping Up Their Sports Marketing Game

Crain’s Cleveland Business, July 12, 2015

By Kevin Kleps

If you've been to a Cleveland Indians game at Progressive Field, you've probably seen the KeyBank sign on the left side of the scoreboard. The Key logo that stretches across four light tower poles along the first-base line is even more difficult to miss.

But KeyCorp is banking on other ways to drive awareness, and traffic to its branches, via expanded digital and social media offerings that are crucial parts of its partnerships with two of the big three professional sports teams in Cleveland.

Akron-based FirstMerit Bank, the second-largest commercial bank with headquarters in Northeast Ohio, has partnered with the Cavaliers for the last 24 years. FirstMerit also had a lengthy relationship with the Indians until 2015, when KeyBank became the official bank of the Tribe.

“Sports marketing sponsorships are a large part of our brand,” said Julie Tutkovics, an executive vice president and chief marketing officer at FirstMerit. “We love to be able to support markets that align our brand with the sports team.”

That's a common strategy among commercial and retail banks.

When IEG, a sponsorship consulting and research firm that is part of ESP Properties' global umbrella, studied retail bank sponsorships last July, it found that 38% of the deals were in the sports industry. But that rate paled in comparison with the amount of money retail banks spent on sports sponsorships.

Sports accounts for 70% of all U.S. sponsorship spending by retail banks, IEG's 2014 report stated.

William Chipps, a senior editor for IEG's sponsorship report, said he didn't have specific spending amounts for banks such as Key and FirstMerit, but he believes “it's fair to say banks continue to increase spending on sponsorships.”

Tom Wennerberg, KeyBank's executive vice president of marketing, said Key's “official bank” designation with the Indians resulted in an increase in spending on the Tribe, but there hasn't been a “dramatic” change in Key's overall sponsorship expenses.

Instead, the bank is trying to up its game through digital and social promotions with the Cavs and Indians.
Social success

Last December, KeyBank had a weeklong offseason greetings promotion with the Indians in which the bank gave away prizes every day on Twitter.

By the end of the sweepstakes, Key's followers had jumped 55%.

“They're engaging with a younger audience. They see value in that,” said Indians communications coordinator Joel Hammond.

In June, Intersport, a Chicago-based creator of sports and entertainment marketing platforms, announced a partnership with KeyBank. Intersport senior vice president Jason Langwell said Key's sports sponsorship portfolio — which includes the Seattle Mariners, Indiana Pacers, the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer and the Pepsi Center (which houses the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche) — is strong.

“It's not about acquiring more properties and deals at this point,” Langwell said.

Instead, Key is focusing on digital and social media campaigns aimed at improving in three important measures: awareness, branch traffic, and “favorability and consideration.”

During the NBA Finals, the Cavs asked fans to showcase their team spirit by uploading a picture to Twitter or Instagram. Some of the photos — which had to include #ALLinCLE and #KeyInsider hashtags to be considered — were displayed on Quicken Loans Arena's monstrous scoreboard prior to Game 4.

The #KeyInsider hashtag — which Langwell said suggests behind-the-scenes access — will be used frequently in promotions to “give it life and provide additional touch points,” the Intersport VP said.

Key has also had offers for fans who check in at Indians games with Major League Baseball's Ballpark app, and the bank's name and insignia are all over the renovated Progressive Field, including the expanded Kids Clubhouse area. The concourse outside the clubhouse is home to Little League Park presented by KeyBank — a wiffle ball field that is a popular attraction on game day.

“Key has seen an untapped audience in families,” Hammond said. “They're very strategic in that the audience we have are possible customers.”

Wennerberg said KeyBank's research has shown that banks spend as much as 25%, and as little as 3%, of their overall budgets on sponsorships. The marketing executive wouldn't say how much of its budget Key devotes to sponsorships, but added that the company “isn't on either of the outlying extremes.”

Sound investment

FirstMerit's Tutkovics said the bank spends about 15% to 20% of its total budget on sponsorships, and the amount is almost entirely dedicated to sports and entertainment.

“We're looking for that emotional connection,” she said.

FirstMerit has had a scholarship program throughout its long partnership with the Cavs, but the bank's relationship with the team “goes a lot deeper,” Tutkovics said.

The T-shirt toss that takes place during the first timeout of every game at The Q is presented by FirstMerit (in case you missed the company's name and logo being featured on the scoreboard each time it's taken place), and the bank is involved in many social media promotions with the Cavs, as well as sponsoring the tipoff show and other team programming on Fox Sports Ohio.

“For us, it's looking for ways to connect with the community and the places they love the most, which is obviously their sports teams,” Tutkovics said.

In addition to the Cavs, FirstMerit's extensive sports partnership portfolio includes four NFL teams (the Browns, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers), three MLB clubs (the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers), the NHL champion Chicago Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings, and Big Ten rivals Ohio State and Michigan.

FirstMerit had a 10-year partnership with the Indians prior to KeyBank's expanded relationship this year. Tutkovics said the bank would like to do more with the Browns and Tribe, but the teams' “official” partnerships with PNC Bank and Key, respectively, put strict limits on what the clubs can do with competitors.

Tutkovics said FirstMerit will take about 100 clients to FirstEnergy Stadium this summer for a punt, pass and kick competition. The bank also entertains clients at Browns games.

But Pittsburgh-based PNC has a partnership with the Browns that is “pretty much exclusive,” said Rob McBurnett, the team's communications coordinator. PNC is the only bank that can use the Browns logo and trademarks in any of its branding.

The Cavs are the only member of the big three in Cleveland without an official bank. The reigning Eastern Conference champs have partnerships with KeyBank, FirstMerit and Huntington — all of which have been in place for at least 12 years, said senior director of corporate communications Phyllis Salem.

The Cavs told FirstMerit that their 2014-15 postgame surveys showed that 41% of the team's fans are more likely to purchase a product or service if the company is a sponsor of the Cavs, and 44% are more likely to try a product or service if it's affiliated with the team.

That might just seem like a line in a brochure given to a prospective customer, but both Wennerberg and Tutkovics said their respective banks have reaped plenty of benefits from their sizable investments in sports.

“The sponsorship more than pays for itself,” FirstMerit's Tutkovics said.