Q&A: Mark Gibson

NCAA brackets, LeBron and Major League Baseball keep State Farm in the game

By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor, NYSportsJournalism.com
(Posted March 10, 2009)

State Farm is literally living up to its motto of being like a good neighbor, especially when it comes to sports sponsorships and activations. In February, the insurance company was there at Super Bowl XLIII and the Pro Bowl as an official partner of the NFL, at the Daytona 500 as part of its Nascar program and at NBA All-Star Saturday NIght presented on TNT by State Farm. This month, State Farm is there as a corporate partner of the NCAA with marketing for both the men's and women's Division I basketball tournaments, including on-site activation at the men's (Detroit) and women's (St. Louis) Final Four and new spots breaking March 15 during "Selection Sunday" on CBS. And when the 2009 baseball season begins, State Farm will be there as the official insurance company of MLB, which includes title sponsorship of the State Farm Home Run Derby, this year at the All-Star Game in St. Louis. Also in the mix are two TV spots with NBA star LeBron James, personal appearances and other marketing efforts by baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr; and sponsorship deals with 25 of the 30 MLB clubs. Mark Gibson, assistant vice president-advertising at State Farm, spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about the pros, cons and challenges of reaching consumers via sports marketing.

NYSportsJournalism.com: Considering how many companies are cutting back on marketing, it seems as if State Farm is maintaining, if not increasing, its sports-related marketing plans.
Mark Gibson: January and February used to be relatively sleepy for us. But now, with our involvement with the NFL all the way through the playoffs, launching a commercial with LeBron James, the pre-game at the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl, the Daytona 500 and the NBA All-Star Game, there is very little down time until March Madness and then the beginning of the baseball season. I believe this is our fifth season as a corporate partner of the NCAA. We will have new commercials that will air during Selection Sunday and then run during the men's and women's tournaments. We will have on-site presence at both the men's and women's Final Four. We are also involved with the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches, which will be holding conferences in conjunction with the Final Four events in each city. In addition, it's become a tradition for us to give out our famous State Farm seat cushions with the NCAA logo on one side, which we will do at Ford Field [at the men's Final Four] and Scottrade Center [at the women's Final Four]. So we do have a lot going on beyond advertising.

NYSJ: The NCAA basketball tournament seems to epitomize an event that really shows the power of the Internet, digital media and experiential marketing. How is State Farm taking advantage of this?
Gibson: The way people consume information now is completely different than even a few years ago. It goes well beyond watching the games on [CBS]. We will have a heavy presence online, where a lot of folks experience March Madness, filling out brackets and all the things associated with that. We are involved with "March Madness on Demand." And with the advent of cell phones, BlackBerry, iPhones and all the technology that people can access, the whole communication distribution channel has changed. People will watch the NCAA tournament games and keep up with their brackets on their hand-held devices. So it presents ways for us to touch people that previously did not exist.

NYSJ: Even though Major League Baseball is talking about and enacting cutbacks at the league and team levels, there seems to be as much anticipation as ever among fans for the upcoming season. How does that play into State Farm's plans?
Gibson: We are the official insurance company of MLB and we also have [marketing] presence with 25 of MLB's 30 teams with stadium signage, advertising and other efforts. We've actually upped our involvement in some places. We are anticipating the State Farm Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game in St. Louis, where we already have a strong presence but are planning an even larger one. Last year's State Farm Home Run Derby in New York at Yankee Stadium received tremendous response. New York presented huge challenge because of the marketplace, but it also gave us the opportunity to make an impact. I think we rose to the occasion. St. Louis will be different. It is a town that is strongly identified with its baseball team, and it draws fans from a large geographic area. We will have some news in the next few weeks about some opportunities surrounding the Home Run Derby. Last year we signed Cal Ripken Jr. and this year we plan to again utilize Cal around the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game. So we are very anxious for the season to start.

NYSJ: Going back to Internet and digital marketing, it seems as if baseball fans are very tech savvy. How important is that to State Farm's marketing plans?
Gibson: I would say that Major League Baseball does an outstanding job in this area, especially given the fact that there are 162 games. There are fantasy leagues and rotisserie leagues, and people are thinking about their drafts. This year, the World Baseball Classic is driving interest. Baseball is the one sport where the stats junkies love to go. They know Rusty Staub's on-base percentage in 1982 when he was with the New York Mets. (Editor's Note: It was .309.) They know that type of information and they actively seek it out, and the Internet is an incredible repository for that data. So we have a big presence at MLB.com, which is one of the hallmarks of our sponsorship with MLB. We plan to use that platform again this year with the "Call Your Shot" promotion [in conjunction with the State Farm Home Run Derby].

"LeBron has become an ambassador for our brand in ways we never thought possible. He has been an incredible way for us to connect with consumers with whom we never could have connected before."

NYSJ: Not a bad pair of spokesmen in Cal Ripken Jr. and LeBron James.
Gibson: They both are great ambassadors for our brand, they talk to different target audiences and do things a bit differently. They both are held in esteem by fans.

NYSJ: How has working with LeBron James been for business?
Gibson: With the marketplace now, car sales are down dramatically and new home purchases are down dramatically. But there still is an aggressive level of marketing and advertising in our category. So you look for new ways to break through. LeBron has been an incredible way for us to connect with consumers with whom we never could have connected before. LeBron has become an ambassador for our brand in ways we never thought possible. Both of the ads we shot, "Garage" (in which his friend's SUV is broken into and LeBron offers his State Farm agent as support, from Translation, New York); and "Feeling Kind of LeBron" (in which he has a dream about playing for the NFL's Cleveland Browns) from DDB, Chicago, our agency of record, have had great response. They've opened up people's eyes to our association with him, and connected State Farm with someone who is an icon who transcends his sport. He is almost a pop culture icon, and not very many players in any sports have that transcendency. So we're very happy with that. And we are looking for ways to further the association with him as the year goes on. Back to Home Page