Guilt By Association

I was asked a great question the other day by the head of a local creative agency: What is sports marketing?

I realize there are dozens of ways to answer that and certainly plenty of opinions on what's really considered a true sports marketing campaign, but I dove in, nonetheless.

In reality, any time you associate your brand with a sports-related product, service, event, athlete, etc., you could make a legitimate claim for that to be considered "sports marketing." But is the simple act of association with sports enough to really have an impact on your brand? For some, it is. Whether it's a dasherboard ad in an NHL rink or a print ad with an endorsed athlete, sometimes that's all a company wants -- or can afford -- to do.

But for companies within the sports industry, much of what we do is sports marketing-driven, marketing our product/services through some aspect of sports participation or presentation, to reach our core consumer.

Most of the time, we get it right; sometimes we don't. But when we don't take the steps to really understand and engage the audience, we're missing the mark and are no different than the company who's happy just to have its logo on the side of a racecar.

As an example, I was fortunate enough to check out some of X Games XV opening day at the Home Depot Center in L.A. after Group Y's exceptional Action Sports Conference. I roamed the grounds with a few colleagues from the action sports business, and we noticed quite a lot of logo presence for New Balance around the venues -- the big NB on the half pipe, at the skate street course, the BMX course, the viewing areas for rally cars and MX. But what left us a little confused was its association to the X Games. We all knew New Balance as a great running shoe company, but with little to no ties to action sports.

  • So we figured, okay, maybe it's launching a skate shoe line?
  • Maybe it's sponsoring athletes at the games?
  • Or, maybe it's promoting its lifestyle line?

Being marketing people, we checked out the venues but couldn't find anything to answer our questions. Other than having great logo presence, there was no real connection to the event -- it appeared to be like any other brand hitching its marketing wagon to the action sports market.

A bit of digging online during and in the weeks after the games yielded not much more to clarify, other than a mention of New Balance's involvement with a nice fundraising event for the V Foundation prior to the games.

The TV ads that ran on ESPN during the X Games were all part of its Love/Hate campaign that speaks to runners about their "relationship" with running -- cool campaign, but no association to action sports there either.

Even a visit to in the weeks after games showed nothing more than a photo gallery of shots taken by one of its senior designers. There are some nice photos, but nothing that associates the NB brand with X Games or action sports.

So what was the point? I did see that New Balance was a sponsor of both winter and summer X Games. But without really activating the brand on-site, or at the very least, giving some clarity as to why it's involved with action sports, it becomes a bit of a head scratcher.

Especially so, because New Balance is a smart company that's always had a grasp on who it is in the footwear business and how it communicates that to customers.

  • Technical running shoes? New Balance.
  • Available in widths? New Balance.
  • Made in the USA? New Balance.

It has stood by its "endorsed by no one" philosophy for years and has done great things within the running community and especially with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization.

Granted, I recognize the importance of all the strategic, financial and logistical decisions that go into any sponsorship, but not really leveraging an opportunity like this seems a bit off base. Just associating your brand with a sport can actually do more harm than good, especially with an audience that's smart enough to sniff out the hangers-on.

So I ask, is this "guilt by association?" Is it okay to simply bring your brand to the people and let them decide if it fits? Is this sports marketing? Let me hear your thoughts.

3 comments about "Guilt By Association".
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  1. Bill West from Comcast Spotlight, October 6, 2009 at 12:43 p.m.

    Certainly a head scratcher if you think in terms of the likely investment that was made relative to the degree that NB took advantage, but I guess it is their prerogative. As the seller of the opportunity though, I'd be wary of the outcome ("results") of the investment with the potential that NB might utter those unfortunate words, "it didn't work". Kind of like the job of the shoe salesman, its the sellers job to make sure that the product fits the buyer as best it can so that the buyer wants to come back and buy again.

  2. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, October 6, 2009 at 12:53 p.m.

    I think it is just branding/sponsorship. This goes on at sports stadiums and on Nascar Cars/Jumpsuits. Just a placard with a name and nothing else. As for the term sports marketing I personally think it fits because most sports marketing is the same as stated above. The only interactive or informative marketing tends to be commercials shown on TV for the most part. But whether this is the best way to utilize sports is a different story. I personally would have put a new balance tent or interactive area for people to see shoes and talk with NB people. As for whether NB fits the X Games that is a whole other enchilada because obviously they are marketing to parents at the event and not the kids/extreme sports people.

  3. paul myers, October 6, 2009 at 4:58 p.m.

    The only thing I can figure is that NB was able to secure the deal with ESPN/ABC providing them with a less expensive media buy to generate the same number of impressions they would have otherwise spent more on if they went through the networks themselves? But, that is probably grasping at straws.

    Bottom line is that many X-Games sponsors are clearly missing the mark. Even brands like Mt Dew and Taco Bell whom have supported the X-Games from the beginning. Just look at how many athletes competing in the X-Games have a Mt Dew or Taco Bell logo on their helmet as compared to all of the energy drink logos or even Wendy's logos?

    Other brands who could realize better ROO and ROI comprise a long list, including but not limited to: Maxell, Flo TV, Totino's, Saturn, etc.

    Maxell should have included an eCD in every package of CD, CD-R, DVD, DVD-R, etc sold at Staples, Office Max, Office Depot, Target, Wal-Mart etc featuring music and videos of youth centric artists and action sports icons and brands respectively in their 25, 50, 75 and 100 packs of optical media. The eCDs with content similar to: <> or <>. If one of the CDs included in the 50-pack was full of music and offered free music downloads while also featuring videos of your favorite X-Games athletes and interactive links to the X-Games web-site with printable coupons or a sweeps/contest for a VIP seating area at special X-Games events, wouldn't every Gen-Y consumer buy Maxell's instead of the TDK or Sony discs on the shelf right next to them?

    Saturn never worked out any athlete deals to generate any significant visibility or affinity with athletes who would have pimped out their Saturn and generated affinity as well as media impressions online and off and especially in print.

    Taco Bell, Totino's and Flo TV could all be doing more to engage the target demographic - without spending one penny more than they already spend. They just need to educate themselves about the core audience and action sports in general - from an authentic and credible level.

    New Balance is NOT the best fit for X-Games and vice-versa. At least not the way they are activating their sponsorship of the games.

    Obviously, all of the athletes in the X-Games train for their sport. But, New Balance does not currently offer a shoe that works for skateboarding, BMX, Moto nor Rally. So, they should be doing something different to show why their shoes should be worn when you are not on your board or your bike. Because most skate shoes do not have the cushioning that your knees and other joints need after years of abuse due to action sports! Obviously, running shoes offer much better support and cushioning.

    New Balance, like other non-endemic corporate sponsors of the X-Games, just needs to find an agency that knows action sports to consult with them and assist in managing the activation of their involvement with the X-Games and action sports in general.

    Obviously they realize that action sports is one of the best ways to reach young, predominantly male, consumers. They just need to figure out the activation part before they alienate the same consumers further.

    After all, more kids own skateboards than baseball bats in the U.S.

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