Few music/brand relationships have lasted as long as Ford's with Toby Keith. For the past six years, Keith has appeared in ads for Ford's F-Series pickup trucks and festooned his concert stages with elements, risers and set pieces evoking the truck. During his 2003 "Shock 'n Y'all Tour," he arrived onstage on an F-150, which unfolded Transformers-style to become part of the stage.
And Ford's truck brand has also had its name on the title of Keith tours, including the current one, "Toby Keith's America's Toughest Tour Presented by Ford F-Series."
While automakers, including Ford, are dialing back on sponsorships, the Dearborn, Mich. automaker is sticking with Keith. He will appear in ads this fall, and Ford has launched a new online promotion, "America's Toughest Sweepstakes," at www.americastoughesttour.com. The winner of the sweepstakes gets to attend a personal Toby Keith concert with up to 100 friends next year, plus a 2010 F-150 pickup and prime seats at a big-venue Keith concert.
Kevin Schebil, manager of Ford truck communications, says the automaker has a presence at each of Keith's 40 to 60 shows a year. "But times have changed and we need to do things smarter; everyone's running off of a tight budget," he says. "At the end of last year, given everything going on in the auto industry, we looked at all sponsorships, including Keith. But that sponsorship is at the core of who our consumer is, so we decided to figure out how to do it better."
Part of that, he says, was reducing the amount of onstage cargo that reached its peak with last year's tour, for which the entire stage depicted a Ford F-150 grill. "Our staging alone used to add four semi trucks to his tour, and going to 60 venues per year, that added a lot of cost to the show." He says that Keith's onstage set this year plays down the architecture. Ford's onstage presence includes a drum riser representing an F-150 tailgate, and on either side of the stage, a "Built Ford Tough" shield. "It is less aggressive than our staging presence in years past," says Schebil.
Keith concerts had been preceded with a four-minute giant-screen video vignette featuring Keith and the F-150 pickup. Schebil says that this year the video is longer -- at seven minutes. "We have accustomed fans to be prepared for that opening act, the video. And this year we had such a great story line we made it longer, but it allows us to brand and to get the 'Built Ford Tough' message across."
The video shows a strong-man competition in which different bands vie against each other in such games as a keg toss or a truck relay race. Keith wins the competition by loading stage equipment into the bed of the truck. Then Ford fires "Toby Passes" into the audience from confetti cannons. The passes drive consumers to Ford's consumer site Web site.
Although Ford is sticking with Keith, Schebil says the automaker has cut sponsorships by almost three-quarters. "We have been taking a hard look at sponsorships since 2004. Everything's on the table. Up until 2004 we had -- just on Ford trucks alone -- over 22 sponsorships, but now we are down to about six core sponsorships." They include Professional Bull Riding, Toby Keith, the American Quarter Horse Association, Monster Jam and Future Farmers of America, at whose annual convention Keith will play. "We are doing fewer and fewer sponsorships but going deeper within them," Shebil says.
Keith has appeared in national advertising for F-Series in the past. Mike Rowe (host of Discovery's "Dirtiest Jobs") has taken that mantle, but Schebil says Keith will appear in regional and local-market ads this fall touting Ford's Truck Month in September. "We will use a lot of tier-two ads and local-market ads."