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Tires and Dealers Have Become Part of the Wide World of Sports

July 15, 2011
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Tires have long been associated with motorsports. And perhaps because you can't drive racecars without race tires, for decades – a century, even – tire manufacturers have flocked to the sport through various sponsorships and initiatives.
From left: Sullivan Tire's Vice President of Marketing Paul Sullivan, the dealership's "spokesdog" Misty' and Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox take five during a commercial shoot.

One trend that has gained some serious traction in recent years is non-racing sports marketing. Whether it’s scoring points with an NBA sponsorship or hitting a homerun with an MLB contract, tiremakers are thinking farther outside the box when it comes to getting their names in front of consumers.

It’s a trend that has shown positive results for manufacturers, and something that can also be done at the dealer level to build brand awareness and boost sales.

According to Rick Brennan, vice president of marketing for Kumho Tire USA, this marketing shift has much to do with the changing consumer mindset. “The consumer has become more intelligent and more frugal,” he explains. “They are beginning to see a different value proposition than in the past. Today there are many tire brands and few real tire issues cropping up, leading them to believe that while some tire brands are more prestigious to own, there are a lot of brands that are ‘good enough.’ This is especially true when economic conditions get tough.”

Brennan poses an interesting question: If consumers believe the vast majority of tires are “good enough,” how do you create a more meaningful, high-impact brand image?

For Brennan – and Kumho – the answer lies in taking the emotional route. “Becoming part of the team experience by helping fans enjoy their favorite sport can create a longer-lasting impression that ties into the emotions they are feeling when they experience you,” he says. “If you can take your brand to this emotional state, you have gone a long way toward changing the tire buying experience to a more positive one.”

Brennan says this is why sports marketing is a good fit for tire consumers. “We as tiremakers are trying to change the tire buying experience to one where the consumer has more fun doing it,” he says, adding that stadium and arena signage is only part of the strategy – Kumho interacts with fans by providing co-branded team apparel with the Kumho logo, as well as offering activities and prizes at each game or event.

Fred Koplin, director of marketing for Yokohama, says the trend has to do with creating a broader appeal. “The tire industry has always been drawn to motorsports, but not every dealer or shop employee is as rabid a motorsports fan as our race engineers might be. This is another move away from relying on traditional media and reaching both dealers and consumers. It appeals to a very wide range of people in ways that perhaps motorsports does not.”

Yokohama measures sales before, during and after the promotions; it also compares sales to previous years and promoted vs. non-promoted markets. “We can look at our unit sales and we are very confident that we are making a difference,” Koplin says. “We also sample brand awareness and can see that with very few exceptions, we are seeing a steady trend-up in brand awareness in the markets where we’ve been focusing our sports marketing initiatives.”

He notes that because Yokohama cannot outspend its competition, it must be “very precise in what it is that we want from a program and how we go about getting it.” The key is to focus on initiatives that will be efficient and effective – which is exactly what dealers who want to capitalize on this trend also must do.

Whether it’s at the professional, college or local sports level, there are a myriad of opportunities out there for dealers to embrace.

Going Pro
In much of the New England area, the name Sullivan Tire conjures up thoughts of the Boston Red Sox. That’s because the dealership – with 52 retail stores, 15 commercial centers and three Bandag retread facilities – has been teaming up with the Sox since the 1970s, according to Marketing Coordinator Luke MacLean.

“The Red Sox are such an institution up here. We do other sports marketing endeavors, but the Red Sox have always been the centerpiece,” he says, adding the company also has done Boston Celtics TV advertising and is exploring a deal with the Stan-ley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

Sullivan’s Red Sox campaigns are more than just basic ads. The dealership uses Red Sox players in its advertisements, and players also attend customer appreciation events. Sullivan’s latest campaign, “The Ultimate Baseball Showdown,” features Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia in a hitting and pitching battle. After the first commercial aired, consumers logged onto Sullivan’s website to submit their guess as to the result of the at-bat, and by doing so were entered to win the chance to meet the players and pitch against Lester or hit against Pedroia. A second commercial, which details the results of the players’ showdown, has yet to be released.

College Try
Moving to the college level, Trax Tires, with eight locations near Mob­ile, Ala., has formed a strong bond with the University of Southern Alabama. “Between the students and faculty, that makes close to 20,000 people in our market on whom we have a direct impact,” says Trax Pres­ident Shane Adams.

Trax sponsors many of the school’s sports, but the largest impact is made with the school’s football program, which has only been in existence for two seasons – an undefeated two seasons in fact, which only increases fans’ passion. During each game, Trax throws 100 co-branded t-shirts to fans and holds a halftime event that creates quite a stir. “During every home game, we do a target toss where a fan has to throw a football through a target for a chance to win $10,000,” Adams says.

Because it’s such a large sponsor, the dealership is a member of the “Coach­es Club,” which means coaches attend special events and pre-game radio broad­casts held at the closest Trax lo­cation. “There aren’t very many unique ways to get your name out there, but this does give us a niche,” Adams says. “We get tons of feedback from students, parents, coaches and teachers who say they appreciate what we do for the school.”

Community Bonds
Finally, it’s important not to overlook local sports to strengthen your foundation in the community – this also is a great place to start for dealers who are new to sports marketing. Matt Curry, owner of Curry’s Auto Service, with eight locations in the Northern Virginia area, knows first-hand the need for business involvement and sponsorship at a local level. Several years ago, Curry formed a local sports league because there wasn’t one in the community at the time.

After a couple years of hard work – work that largely took him away from running the shop – he founded the non-profit Dulles South Youth Sports. Though Curry has passed league management to others, his dealership is still a large supporter and started the Curry’s Scholarship and Field Fund, which helps children who can’t afford sports fees, in addition to providing funds to one day purchase sports fields.

What began as a small charity for football and cheerleading has grown into a league that offers seven sports and involves 1,600 children, Curry says. “There are 6,000 homes in my community, and everyone knows we founded the league. We have many customers who say the reason they come to Curry’s is because we support the community.”

Curry’s also sponsors several local high school teams and offers coupons and other prizes for smaller teams that hold raffles or fundraisers.

Getting Started
Kumho’s Brennan advises dealers to explore tire manufacturer activities to see if there’s an opportunity available. For example, Kumho has included its dealers’ brands in stadium signage and programs at football and soccer venues. The company also is exploring the idea of joint partnerships between sports teams and dealers; a deal with Dunn Tire and the Buffalo Bills was recently finalized. Brennan says, “In many cases, the majority of the cost is covered by the tiremaker.”

Yokohama’s Koplin echoes that sentiment, saying, “If Yokohama is already establishing a relationship for a particular team in your area, think first about how you can maximize your connection with that relationship, how you can take that basic idea and bring it home to your customers and your store.”

Another piece of advice he adds is for dealers to understand up-front what their goals are and what they expect to accomplish.

MacLean advised dealers to start with a local grassroots event. “This establishes a relationship and if it’s successful, you can grow from that point. Most of our relationships with talent and athletes have started that way – we partner together for smaller events and then hopefully the relationship grows over time.”

Curry cautions that while sports marketing can be effective, it’s hard to measure. “Tire dealers don’t like to do things they can’t measure, but sometimes it’s worth it. A soccer league could have 1,000 kids in it – that’s 2,000 parents and 2,000 cars that will need tires and service.”