Is Ford F-150 riding with Toby Keith, or is Keith riding in the flatbed of a Ford F-150? It’s kind of hard to tell. The latest chapter in their long relationship has Ford sponsoring Keith's "Hammer Down" Tour. Part of the program involves Keith giving a Ford F-150 to the winner of the Hammer Down Tour Sweepstakes, with the winner getting to choose any 2014 model year truck with a value up to $50,000. The winner and three friends also get pre-concert backstage access and private backstage barbecue with Keith. No veggie burgers allowed.
The title of the tour, with its reference to gunning an engine, says a lot about the relationship. Ford, more than any other pickup truck maker, maybe more than any other auto brand ever, has used one entertainment deal with one artist for ‘one long time’ to tout one vehicle.
Yes, Ram has regular country music sponsorship deals backing new artists with programs like Ram Jam; Silverado is tight with country bard Will Hoge right now with the campaign for its 2014 Silverado; Toyota, which has sponsored the Stagecoach Country Music Festival for about seven years, used it this year as a stage for the unveiling of its 2014 4Runner SUV. Okay, it's not a pickup truck, but the Tundra is actually made in Texas, which should give the Tokyo company some credibility.
But Ford has been with Toby Keith for just over a decade, with the truck brand not just tagging along for the ride, but getting woven into the actual tour content, back story, signage, songs, and web sites, and referenced in tour titles like "American Ride" and last year's "Live in Overdrive." And since beginning its relationship with Keith, Ford has, at various concert tours, had elements of its F-150 trucks as onstage set pieces or had its truck driven onto the riser by Keith himself, and had essentially long-form ads screened before concerts.
The relationship started in 2002, when Keith starred in "Ford Truck Man" ads singing "look again," which aligned with the company's plaintive tagline of the day, "If you haven't looked at a Ford lately…look again." The following year, Ford went along for Keith's polemical -- or “Amerigasmic,” as one writer dubbed it -- "Shock n' Y'all" tour (he has said many times that he was never a supporter of the second Iraq campaign, per se), a 60-city jaunt that actually began at Ford headquarters during the automaker's centennial.
Robert Passikoff, president of New York-based Brand Keys, explains that -- as a country singer might put it -- if it ain’t workin, it ain’t gonna work. "This is an issue about emotional engagement and believability. And [an artist] doesn’t have to have broken the morals clause in the contract for brands eventually to turn around and go, 'It's not really working,'" he says. He adds that the emotional connection that truck buyers have with their vehicles (about 80% of the consideration process, he says) makes a country artist relationship a more natural alignment if there's that same emotional and credibility connection with the artist. "You have to go to far side of the spectrum on any other auto type to find that level of emotionality,” he says. “The issue should always be how are the two leveraging each other for the benefit of the brand. And if there is a high degree of trust with an artist, you can sell anything."