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Mercedes, The NBA, And The Advent Of The Branding Of Branding

Bloomberg Business Week, November 18, 2013

By Ira Boudway

Thanks to the decade-long reshuffling of three NBA franchises in four cities, the Charlotte Bobcats are set to take the name Hornets next season. Charlotte was home to the original Hornets from 1988 to 2002, before that franchise moved to New Orleans. Two years after the Hornets left, the NBA replaced them with an expansion club dubbed, in a superb display of dullness, the Bobcats. This season the Hornets became the Pelicans, allowing Charlotte to reclaim their old name.

The move is an obvious one for the franchise: It reminds fans of the glory days of teal jerseys, packed houses, and Grandmama—and distracts from subsequent draft blunders, empty seats, and record-setting futility. And now Mercedes-Benz (DAI:GR) wants a piece of any good vibes that come with bringing back the Hornets. As Sports Business Journal reported today, the automaker and some of its Charlotte-area dealers are sponsoring the renaming. Bobcats executives are calling it “the first sponsorship of a rebranding campaign in the NBA.” The branding of branding is now officially a thing. On the list of great American firsts, this probably falls just behind flight, the moon landing, and the telephone.

“They’re getting creative,” says Jim Andrews, vice president for content strategy at sponsorship consultant IEG. “I haven’t seen anything directly like it.” Mercedes, he notes, is also getting a standard, longer-term deal with the team, which makes the partnership more than a gimmick. And while it brings new levels of abstraction to sponsorship, that doesn’t mean Mercedes can’t make it work.

STORY: The Hornets Could Return to Charlotte, but What About the Original Colors?

By taking simple steps such as showcasing cars at Bobcats/Hornets events, he says, Mercedes and its dealers should see real gains. The return of the Hornets name to Charlotte is a thing that matters to at least some people there. And it doesn’t hurt that the deal breaks new ground. “If a press release were issued today saying that Mercedes-Benz has become the official auto of the Charlotte Bobcats—soon to be the Charlotte Hornets—are you going to write a story about that?” Andrews asks.