Bowl Games and Brand Salience

Saturday, I attended Houston’s Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, where I found myself not only in the presence of the titular sponsor but some 77 other official brands, from standbys like McDonald’s, Nordstrom, and Exxon Mobil to national and local organizations like the U. S. Army and the Houston Ballet. With 68,000-plus in attendance (the largest among 2011 bowls played to that date) and an ESPN viewership, the venue exuded the kind of success that’s a draw for sponsors. But favorable bowl sponsorships might have even more value in today’s cognitively cluttered environment. America’s bowl tradition, presently consisting of 35 games, confers educational, civic, and philanthropic mental associations on the institutions involved. Indeed, some bowls are so embedded in the fabric of their host cities that their proponents have reasonably defended the NCAA’s current “FBS structure” against a centralized “championship tournament model” that prevails among the smaller college teams.

In a cognitively cluttered environment, corporate bowl sponsorships offer a relatively straightforward way to associate a brand with a positive event, furthering brand salience, i.e. the propensity to come to mind or be noticed in a buying situation. The employer brand equivalent would be for a prospective candidate to remember you at the time of forming their consideration set of potential employers.

But what does Meineke gain in salience from sponsoring a college bowl game? They are a solid brand in the automobile franchise aftermarket as evidenced by the fact that a few weeks ago New York equity firm Harvest Partners became a primary owner. As people hold onto cars longer and find it more difficult to maintain computer-based vehicles, Meineke seems to have a strong market case. In fact, some 92 percent of people in the U.S. recognize the Meineke brand name. One might wonder if Meineke might spend more time trying to pull customers away from competitors with their differentiating positioning that emphasizes consumer choice and financial benefits or their loyalty program, the Car Care Club.

The answer is that when thousands of messages press upon us each day, mental accessibility and availability assume greater importance. While persuasive content can be of help in making decisions, when we need to get an oil change, the chances are that we aren’t going to overly scrutinize our options. However, when we think we need to “take the car in,” known availability is essential. A bowl title sponsorship allows an organization multiple opportunities to keep the name front and center. Positive associations and brand attributes, rather than passionate loyalty, can lead us to Meineke. And people tend to be more “fanatic” about sports than brands. (At a Ted X conference, Byron Sharp has shown this matter to be true even for the so-called leaders in brand loyalty like Harley and Apple.)

Prior to becoming a sponsor of the Texas Bowl last April, Meineke had sponsored a bowl game in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ken Walker, Meineke Chairman and CEO, was well familiar with what  bowls do for business: “For the past six years the Meineke brand has benefited tremendously from its sponsorship of a College Football Bowl, and we are delighted to continue this tradition by returning to our roots in Houston, Texas [where Meineke began thirty-nine years ago]. It excites our Franchisees and it heightens Meineke’s awareness among the passionate and loyal fans of College Football across the country.” Notice where the passion and fandom are naturally going.

For more information on how bowl game sponsorships can cast a national spotlight on brands, check out thisarticle on BigLeadSports.

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Thomas Delorme
Written by Thomas Delorme

VP, Digital Products & Strategy

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