With a 25-year-old partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing, a 12-year-old tie with Shaun White and a number of other long-term relationships, Target Corp. has long embraced sponsorship as a marketing medium.

Target’s sponsorship program is helmed by Dan Griffis, vice president of experiential marketing and alliances, who joined the retailer in 2011 after serving as vice president of business development with Chip Ganassi Racing Teams.

In a wide ranging interview, IEG SR spoke with Griffis about the retailer’s evolving sponsorship strategy, new NASCAR activations for 2014, how the company uses athlete endorsements to build credibility in the action sports industry, and other topics.

Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

On using sponsorship to be part of the conversation
The thing I like about sports is that they’re inherently social. Sports bring out passion in people and passion is what we want to tap into.

Sports and major awards shows are the two things that people watch live nowadays. We want to be part of the conversation, which is why Target is involved in The Oscars, Grammys and Emmys as well as sport.

One of the things that I like about sport is the ability for fans to invite you into their life. You can be part of the action, which is why we like our relationship with motor racing. People actively cheer for Target—they’re not fast-forwarding through an ad. That’s powerful and very attractive to us.

On Target’s evolving sponsorship strategy
We have tried to refine existing strategies and take advantage of assets that we have. We’re trying to utilize sponsorship to tell a broader story around Target and our business objectives such as driving traffic back to our stores.

This year we’re sponsoring Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson in both the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series. We’re sponsoring his Nationwide Series team on behalf of Cartwheel, a mobile app that shoppers can use to consolidate coupons and scan at the register.

In the past we would have put our bulls-eye on the hood of the car and been done with it. Now it’s an opportunity to drive awareness for one of our new and most innovative products.

On using Chip Ganassi Racing to support fashion-forward positioning
We’re taking a different tack as it relates to uniforms and paint schemes that hasn’t been done before. We’re taking a page from what the University of Oregon has done with Nike and their football uniforms.

We just announced a rotation of uniforms that we’ll be using in NASCAR this year. We’ll have fun, unique editions that highlight the design and innovation principles that we use at Target.

On creating authentic partnerships with action sports athletes
Our athlete program is extensive. We sponsor eight athletes across various action sports disciplines. That includes a partnership with Shaun White, who we have been with for the past 12 years. That relationship has progressed from an endorsement to a significant product line at Target.

The partnerships are not a traditional sponsorship play. We’re not an endemic sponsor to those industries like a Volcom or Neff, so Target really needs to set itself apart.

The normal tack for sponsors is to put their logos on everything. We have specifically chosen athletes that match our corporate DNA and represent what we stand for. Our tack is to help them be the champions they are meant to be.

We want to make sure they are set up to achieve the greatness they were meant to achieve so when they tell the story of how they became the champions they are Target is authentically integrated into the story as opposed to them just thanking a sponsor.

We have developed respect in the action sports industry because of our approach. We don’t just pick someone after they become successful. Most of our athletes were unknowns before we started sponsoring them.

How Target activates action sports athletes
Last year Ryan Dungey (motocross) and Kolohe Andino (surfer) each had a signature edition line of Skullcandy headphones. The both have a relationship with Skullcandy. We try to find those types of opportunities that draw people back to our stores.

On rumors of a Major League Baseball partnership  
We’re hosting the 2014 MLB All-Star Game at Target Field. We’re in discussions on what opportunities exist in blowing that out into a bigger deal. Nothing has been formalized yet.

On property pet peeves  
I’m bombarded with people that have assets they’re trying to sell. ‘I have this sign or a day we can do in this ballpark or field.’ Maybe that’s not the right angle you should be taking. Do some research and try to figure out where we’re headed.  

Be creative and figure out other things in the marketplace that aren’t just sports, but lifestyle and cultural events, and figure out how you can put a package together that makes sense versus a piece of inventory that needs to be sold.