To paraphrase a classic advertising tag line, Bridgestone Americas is everywhere consumers, sports fans and other marketers want to be. The company's alliances include the NHL and its Winter Classic jewel event, MLB and the upcoming All-Star Game via its Firestone brand, the Izod IndyCar Series, the PGA Tour and, if all goes according to plan, still in the NFL. But as Bridgestone marketing executive John Baratta explains, the journey has many more miles to go.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted June 11, 2010)
Bridgestone Americas loves to play the field when it comes to sports marketing. The Nashville-based North American subsidiary of Tokyo's Bridgestone Corp. just signed a five-year extension as the "official tire" of the NHL, NHL Players' Assn. and the Hockey Hall of Fame. Bridgestone also will remain as title sponsor for the annual outdoor Winter Classic, which has become must-see TV on NBC on New Year's Day.
In addition, the deal includes the prestigious Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award Presented by Bridgestone, which recognizes the NHL player who has demonstrated superior leadership in hockey and has made positive contributions to society; and the Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Leadership Award, which rewards youth hockey players or mentor/coaches for their contributions to youth sports or education.
The brand is also the official tire of the PGA Tour, and has a deal that runs through 2014 to be title sponsor of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational at the Firestone Country Club, Akron, Ohio. Aug. 3-8. Tiger Woods is defending champ and has won the event seven times. Bridgestone's Firestone brand is in its first season as the official tire of Major League Baseball and sponsored the in-stadium leg of balloting for the 2010 All-Star Game.
In Nashville, the Sommet Center in February was renamed Bridgestone Arena under a five-year deal, and signage went up on the venue in downtown Nashville this month. Bridgestone Americas and the NHL's Nashville Predators also extended their existing marketing contract for another five years.
And last but not least, Bridgestone is currently renegotiating a deal to remain the official tire of the NFL and title sponsor of the Super Bowl Half Time show. The company signed with the league in 2007 and, among other key activations, was title sponsor of the Half Time shows at Super Bowl XLII (featuring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Super Bowl XLIII (Bruce Springsteen) and Super Bowl XLIV (The Who). The company regularly broke TV spots during the Super Bowl, from lead agency The Richards Group, Dallas. In 2007 and 2008, Bridgestone also was title sponsor of the NFL International Series, a regular season game played in London (now with Pepsi Max as title sponsor).
John Baratta, President, US & Canada Consumer Replacement Tire Sales division, Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about navigating the road to major sports marketing destinations.
NYSportsJournalism.com: This is a very busy time for Bridgestone on the sports front, renewing with the NHL, PGA Tour activation, Firestone working with MLB and Bridgestone working to renew its deal with the NFL.
John Baratta: It has been busy, in a good way. We were up in Indianapolis at the Indy 500 [in May], where we did a lot of marketing with our Firestone brand. Dario Franchitti won his second Indy and Firestone is one of his main sponsors. And his wife, Ashley Judd, was there, so it's always nice to be working but to get perks like hanging out with her. This is our first season with MLB [and Firestone] so we are excited about that and looking ahead to the All-Star Game and then the playoffs and World Series. And we renewed our deal with the NHL, which has been a very good partnership for us.
NYSJ: How are talks progressing regarding renewing your NFL contract and maintaining title sponsorship of the Super Bowl Half Time show?
JB: That deal has worked very well for us. We signed with them in 2007. Getting brand exposure for Bridgestone, getting consumers to associate the brand with the Super Bowl and Half Time show jewel event was important. It's valuable property. If you look at what is coming up on the schedule, there are very important games that companies want to be part of: Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, Super Bowl XLVIII in the New York markets [at the New Meadowlands Stadium]. That's global exposure for the NFL and its partners even beyond what the Super Bowl usually generates. We are very open-minded about the NFL. We are looking at our contract with the NFL and we will have something specific to talk about in the near future.
NYSJ: How would you describe the first year of the Firestone-MLB alliance to this point?
JB: This has been a great opportunity to help our Firestone brand, especially with all of the great things that are happening with our Bridgestone brand. The demographics of MLB are terrifically aligned with Firestone. There is a great grassroots opportunity, probably more so than with any other sport. That not only includes the Major League teams but the 100 or Minor League teams.
NYSJ: What has been working well for you in baseball?
JB: A lot of our customers activate more easily and more cost-effectively in baseball than with some of the other major sports. We are working with a lot of our customers to do local promotions with baseball teams in both the Major and Minor Leagues. Being part of the All-Star Game [July in Anaheim] which is a jewel event for MLB, is a great tie-in. Firestone has been sponsoring the All-Star balloting in Major League stadiums. And then we will be tying in with MLB for the playoffs and World Series as we get closer to the end of the season. So there will be a lot of advertising when that time comes.
NYSJ: How is your MLB strategy translating across the board?
JB: What we really have tried to do in baseball is work with our company store-based and independent dealers, some of whom have one store all the way up the the large regional chains that might have 100 or so stores. So what we are trying to do is tie ourselves with visible properties where consumers can recognize use. And then if we get our dealers and stores to activate at the local level they can tie the retailer to us and to the Firestone brand so that people know where to go to get our product . And it helps to pull customers in to their place of business so they can sell more tires.
NYSJ: What are your predictions about whether Tiger Woods will play at the Bridgestone Invitational in August, where he is defending champion?
JB: I'm encouraged for two reasons: He played at the Memorial Tournament [June 3-6] although his neck was still hurting. And we still have until August [3-8] for the Bridgestone. A lot depends on his health and how he gets through the next few tournaments. But he loves the golf course and if he physically is able I would be very surprised if he is not there. It's his golf course. He is the defending champion and has won the tournament seven times.
NYSJ: The renewal of Bridgestone's NHL deal and then the announcement of the Winter Classic in 2011 In Pittsburgh came within a few days of one another during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Did you give yourself a deadline to get the deals done before Stanley Cup finals were over?
JB: Our contract with the NHL, which we signed in the March 2008 season, was up at the end of the 2009-10 season. We knew we wanted to renew and had been talking with league officials for quite some time. So when we got the contracts finalized announced the renewal and then worked with the league and Commissioner Gary Bettman to get the news about the 2011 Winter Classic out.
NYSJ: Was there any doubt that Bridgestone would renew its deal with the NHL?
JB: We've seen some really good things during the course of the first contract and have gotten some very positive momentum from working with the NHL, so we felt that this not only was an alliance that we wanted to continue but one that we also wanted to expand upon. There will be more activation during the season, and with the Winter Classic we are planning to have even more exposure than we've had during the last two Winter Classics.
"I still remember how surprised I was with the income level for the average household among NHL fans: A pretty high income and very tech savvy."
NYSJ: What is so important about the NHL deal?
JB: One of the main goals of the deal was to get greater brand exposure for Bridgestone. The strategy at the time was to get away from the shotgun advertising and sponsorship approach we had been doing with the Bridgestone brand. It was spread out across a lot of different areas. We really wanted to hone it in on a more defined target audience. The sports demographics, especially with the NHL, lined up really sweet with our demographics for the brand. I still remember how surprised I was with the income level for the average household among NHL fans: A pretty high income and very tech savvy. So we are finding that we are drawing very well from among hockey fans versus the average consumer.
NYSJ: How has the ROI been on the NHL alliance?
JB: We have done what we wanted to do: We have grown brand awareness. The Canadian market was also a very big consideration for us when we did the NHL deal, and brand awareness and intent-to-purchase among consumers in Canada has gone up quite substantially year-to-year. We track this on a monthly basis and we are seeing very good awareness and intent-to-purchase increases. But more important, purchases are up. Consumers are buying more tires. Although it's hard to gauge how much of that is directly because of the NHL or any of the other things we do, we feel comfortable that it's playing a pretty decent role.
NYSJ: Despite the strong push in Canada, why won't Bridgestone also be title sponsor for the Heritage Classic outdoor game that is scheduled for February?
JB: That's a good question. We really like the Winter Classic and Bridgestone has been title sponsor for the past two games. One of the things we like to do with all of our entities is to have consistency. We want consumers to see us in consistent venues, whether it's the Super Bowl Half Time show with the NFL or the Bridgestone Invitational with the PGA Tour. So with the Winter Classic, that is a good event and brand for us to tie into. We now have a five-year contract, which will give us seven consecutive years as title sponsor. So as the years go by we want people to associate us and mention our name with the event. Companies have been doing that with the college football bowl games. So by becoming so closely tied into the Winter Classic, we want people not only to recognize that we are part of the NHL but also are part of one of their big jewel events.
NYSJ: When Bridgestone originally signed with the NHL the first Winter Classic already had been played, with title sponsor PepsiCo's Amp Energy drink. How much did the success of that outdoor game in Buffalo play in Bridgestone's NHL strategy?
JB: The Winter Classic has always been attractive to us. I would loved to have attended that first game before we were a league sponsor. I remember watching it [on NBC] with Sidney Crosby scoring the winning goal [during the shootout] in the snow [to give the Pittsburgh Penguins a 2-1 win over the host Buffalo Sabres]. It was a great game. So when the opportunity presented itself the following season to become a title sponsor, I was still thinking about the first game and Crosby's goal. So we took advantage of the opportunity to sponsor the game at Wrigley Field. It was definitely a major event. And the 2010 game at Fenway Park was even more spectacular. The NHL did a fantastic job on the event in Chicago and I didn't think they could improve upon it. But they did in Boston.
NYSJ: What did you like best about the event in Boston that you might bring to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh for the 2011 Winter Classic?
JB: The NHL does a great job trying to over-deliver what it promises. I liked that the community was able to take advantage of the facilities beyond the Winter Classic itself. They were able to use the ice rink, and there even was a rink behind the official rink for kids from local hockey leagues.
NYSJ: Did you ever get the feeling that the second Winter Classic might not have been as popular as the first, perhaps that the novelty had worn off with fans, or were you pretty confident that it could grown in stature?
JB: There might have been a little bit of risk there. But from my viewpoint, when the NHL came out of its strike year [2004-05] the sport was on put on a healthier platform. Teams became more competitive. The league changing some of its rules to make the game have more of an impact on offense. This has led, step by step, over the past four or five years, to a sport that more people — fans and marketing people on the business side — want to be involved with.
NYSJ: Bridgestone is based in Nashville and the company has strong ties with the Predators. How do you react to critics who claim that teams in what traditionally have not been core hockey markets might be hurting the league's growth?
JB: There is a lot more energy and competitiveness in the league, especially with the smaller-market teams. When you hear criticism about some of the cities in the south having NHL teams, that is largely unfounded. The Carolina Hurricanes [which moved from Hartford in 1997] won the Stanley Cup in 2005-06 and are hosting the All-Star Game in 2011. Here in Nashville, there is extremely strong support for the Predators. We just extended our deal with the team and we now have naming rights to the Bridgestone Arena where the team plays its home games. The support in Nashville is tremendous. There are teams for sale but I think you will find that happening in any sport.
NYSJ: Do you see the NHL growing among casual and non-hockey fans?
JB: The NHL does a good job in attracting kids. The next generation coming up will remember when their dads and moms took them to an NHL game, and that will become part of their mentality. The league is building a stronger and longer lasting relationship with more people. Commissioner Bettman and the folks at the NHL have seen that for a number of years now. They are trying to expand in their markets. They don't want teams moving.They want stability. They want to build that awareness. Obviously the sport is tremendous up in Canada as well as in the original six markets in the U.S. So I like their strategy. I like what they are doing. I can see nice growth for the sport, and certainly for the duration of our contract.
NYSJ: Do you feel that the 2010 Winter Olympics, with the classic gold medal hockey game between the U.S. and Canada, as well as the Winter Classic, have gotten more casual and non-hockey fans more interested in the NHL?
JB: Absolutely. The Olympics attracted a lot of people who generally don't watch hockey on a regular basis. And the Winter Classic is a brilliant way to attract attention, having it played outdoor in an unusual setting. It was a bold move that continues to pay dividends. I am excited about the 2011 Winter Classic, which will have Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals against Crosby and the Penguins at Heinz Field with more than 65,000 people. The league not only gets to market a jewel event but also its two biggest stars. And a lot of people will tune in for that. The league does a great job with the promotion prior to the game itself, getting a lot of publicity weeks beforehand.
NYSJ: Was the NHL taking a chance by playing the Winter Classic on New Year's Day?
JB: Let's face it, there always was a lot of competition on New Year's Day with the Rose Bowl and other games played that day. But now with the BCS national championship game played after New Year's Day (this coming season it will be on Jan. 10, 2011) and fewer bowl games on New Year's Day, that opened the door for someone to come in and do something significant on a day when so many people are near their TVs. I like college football, but I can watch plenty of other bowl games before and after New Year's Day. Timing was important, and the NHL came in and the game has been in a growth mode ever since.
NYSJ: If you take this situation from the flip side, do you see the NHL staging the Winter Classic in a warm weather environment, like Los Angeles or Miami?
JB: I suppose they could do it if they physically could keep the ice frozen. But the people who set up and maintain the outdoor rinks for the NHL told me that even in the cold weather, if the temperature is 32, it is difficult to keep the ice in skating condition. It would be interesting. But my gut feeling, at least in the near term, is that the NHL would want to keep it in northern markets.
NYSJ: Bridgestone already deals with many different sports and is aware of the politics that exists among the pro leagues in the U.S. With the Winter Classic having been played at two MLB stadiums and with Heinz Field as the second NFL venue, do you see the relationship between the NHL and other pro leagues becoming stronger?
JB: Yes. But looking at it from MLB's side, for example, the Winter Classic is played during their off-season, and it is a good way for them and for their local teams to get publicity. People are talking about a hockey game, but they also are talking about the baseball stadium.
NYSJ: The NFL recently awarded Super Bowl XLVIII to the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey, which will be the first Super Bowl played in a cold weather outdoor venue. Do you think the success of the NHL's outdoor game had any role in that?
JB: It probably did. I wasn't consulted on it. [Laughs]. In my opinion, it's worth the risk they are taking on the weather. Football is an outdoor sport. People like going to New York. There will be great parties around that Super Bowl, so there will be a lot of opportunities to entertain league sponsors. I know I'll be out there in the cold watching it.