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Beyond the Olympics: Why Niche Sponsorships Are Gold

Forbes, August 07, 2012

By Christa Carone

While the world’s top athletes are competing for gold and glory at the 2012 Olympics in London, a small group of running and biking enthusiasts plan to get sweaty and slimy in another competition on August 12 in Boulder, Co. The Muddy Buddy “mud run,” is scheduled to take place as the Olympic games come to a close.

Muddy Buddy won’t attract a huge audience. There will be little, if any, media coverage. But this fun event is an important gathering for a passionate group of everyday athletes and the marketers that want to reach them. As consumers, increasingly, seem to crave and enjoy real-world events that allow them to connect with fellow enthusiasts, a growing number of marketers see the importance of supporting fringe events, niche causes and professional associations.

Muddy Buddy’s title sponsor is sportswear heavyweight Columbia. Down & Dirty, another mud run, is supported by Merrell, the footwear company. Subaru is one of its big-name partners in grime. The car maker cleverly provides a “human car wash” to clean up mud-soaked athletes after they cross the finish line. While these events, which take place in several cities, may each attract only 3,000-plus dirt-loving competitors, marketers can make an on-site impression with a passionate audience. They can then extend that connection online and through social media channels.

An Olympic sponsorship is a great way for global consumer brands, such as Procter & Gamble, Visa and McDonald’s, to showcase their brands to a worldwide audience. (Xerox was a proud Olympic sponsor for over 40 years.) But—let’s face it—most companies don’t have the tens of millions it costs to hitch a corporate logo to the Olympic rings. And yet they still need to demonstrate they are reaching a key audience and are showing measureable results from their sponsorship activity. That’s driving some marketers to sponsor below-the-radar groups and initiatives.

“Twenty years ago, nearly eight out of 10 sponsorships were with sports properties,” says Jim Andrews, senior vice president for content strategy at sponsorship consulting firm IEG. “Now that number is just over half, as partnership with entertainment, festivals, causes, arts and associations have risen dramatically.”

You may not have heard of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association but Subaru—the company that also hoses down those muddy runners—signed on as the exclusive automotive sponsor of that group after apparently finding a high affinity for Subaru among the association’s membership. Meanwhile, IEG’s Andrews tells me that Office Depot and MetLife recently partnered with the Association of School Business Officials International, a group of more than 5,500 people who are in the position to buy a lot of office supplies and insurance. And, media outlets like Redbook along with sports detergent, Win, hooked up with the moms at Run Like a Mother, a multi-city Mother’s Day race and lifestyle brand. Smart investments through focused brand alignments.

Even some Olympic sponsors are choosing to connect with their audiences through smaller initiatives that speak to their consumers’ personal interests and professional affiliations. P&G’s female-skewing Secret brand recently partnered with PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center to back the “Mean Stinks” program and connect with moms and girls. P&G began with a Facebook post asking girls to “say something nice,” created a “Secret Mean Stinks” app, and then enlisted celebrities and media outlets to spread the word about the dangers of bullying and inspire confidence in young women. In the past year, that Facebook page has garnered more than 400,000 fans. One recent post received more than 900 responses. The app has more than 700 monthly users.

Like P&G, Xerox sees value in supporting events large and small. Our partnership with the U.S. Tennis Open connects us with a global audience at the highest attended annual sporting event in the world. We are the behind the scenes at the Open, powering the media center and producing the daily draw sheets – enabling the USTA to focus on the real business of tennis. We also take a great deal of pride in sponsoring an event in our own backyard, the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. It’s a good way to connect with music lovers and our employees, while supporting a community crucial to Xerox’s success.

When all is said and done, affiliation with the Olympics is an aspirational goal for most brands. A Run Like a Mother or Muddy Buddy sponsorship? Probably more realistic. And it’s a safe bet that when it comes to “cleaning up” on a sponsorship deal, those supporters deserve sponsorship gold.