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MARCH TO ATLANTA: Name of the game is driving drink sales; National TV commercials, in-store promotions put Coke's stamp on NCAA's showcase event

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 30, 2007


Even before the Florida Gators cut down the nets at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis last April, Coca-Cola was planning for this year's Final Four in Atlanta.

A team of marketers and bottlers from the Southeast spent last year's Final Four weekend in Indy watching their colleagues paint the town Coke red. Two months later, the teams were back in Indy, breaking down what worked and what didn't work.

Call it Coca-Cola's march to Madness.

That year of effort will culminate this weekend with a highly orchestrated Final Four sponsorship program designed to do one thing --- boost sales.

"I would definitely not have a job if this didn't drive volumes," said Bea Perez, Coke's vice president of media, sports and entertainment.

To do that, Atlanta-based Coke has blanketed its hometown with everything from billboards to a giant tournament bracket on the side of the Georgia World Congress Center filled in with faces of fans from each team.

But that's only part of Coke's reach during a 37-day push through Monday's championship game. More than 100 television ads and scores of store-level promotions across the country will combine to put Coke's stamp on one of the biggest events in college sports.

"There's nothing like March Madness and the Final Four," Perez said.

$500 million over 11 years

The Final Four stage wasn't free. Coke agreed in 2002 to pay an estimated $500 million over 11 years for the right to sponsor the men's basketball tournament and 87 other NCAA college championships, including the Frozen Four hockey tournament and the College World Series.

March Madness is one of Coke's top three biggest U.S. sports sponsorships, in part because it captures the nation's attention for more than a month.

As traditional media have become more splintered and consumers increasingly use technology to screen out ads, corporate America has turned to sponsorships to make up ground.

In 2006, corporations spent an estimated $458 million to sponsor college sports in the United States, according to the IEG Sponsorship Report, which tracks the industry. Spending is expected to increase to $515 million in 2007.

William Chipps, senior editor for publication, said big-time corporate sponsors such as Coke are becoming more sophisticated about sponsorships, calculating the return on investment and tying the event into as many of the companies' markets as possible.

"If they can leverage it before, during and after the event, then more power to them," Chipps said.

Coca-Cola cut its teeth on athletic sponsorships, putting up money over the decades to advertise on everything from Little League scoreboards to the Olympic Games.

Perez said Coke's "laser focus" during the NCAA basketball tournament is on college-aged youths, ages 18 to 25. But getting them to drink more Coke isn't as simple as slapping up a few banners at basketball arenas.

In addition to its television ad campaign, the company has tied March Madness to its year-round "MyCokeRewards" frequent drinker program, which has roughly 3.5 million participants, according to Coke's annual report. Fans can turn in points for Final Four-related prizes.

Big-name music acts

Coke will host a "My Coke Fest" concert at Centennial Olympic Park on Sunday with big name acts such as Maroon 5, Sugarland and LL Cool J. Ryan Seacrest, host of "American Idol," will make an appearance. That's no accident. Coke is a primary sponsor of the hit talent search show.

In addition, the NCAA Hoops City, where fans can shoot baskets and meet past players, is "Refreshed by Coca-Cola."

The goal of Coke's marketers, Perez said, is to create an "experience" downtown for fans, whether or not they have tickets for the actual game. They also want to make Coke "relevant" to young basketball fans by linking the company's products to the things they are passionate about, such as their teams. Fans are then more likely to soak in Coke's message, she said.

While the company's marketing team is busy in Atlanta, Coke's massive system of bottlers, which manufactures and distributes the company's products, is busy in stores all across the country.

The bottlers and local Coke marketers set up store promotions in towns both large and small. You might see a basketball hoop next to a massive stack of soft drink cases in one store, and a coupon offer at another. Displays in college towns with teams in the tournament are decorated accordingly. Anything to generate excitement.

Down to the cups

Coke's fountain drink customers, such as fast-food restaurants, get in on the act with Final Four logo cups supplied by Coke.

Back in Atlanta, not all the attention the Final Four will generate will be good for Coke. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters said it will protest Coke this weekend for alleged worker abuses here and abroad. Coke denies the union's claims.

This weekend's Final Four will be Coke's fifth since signing the current sponsorship agreement with the NCAA and CBS, which is televising the games. It will be the first for Coke in its hometown.

Chipps of the IEG Sponsorship Report said home or away, the key for Coke is to make an impact in the host city: "Think of it as, 'If I drop that sponsorship next year and I'm not there, will fans miss me?' "