By Barry Janoff
July 8, 2012: In baseball, there are home run hitters and there are home run sluggers, and it is that latter group that gets the spotlight in the State Farm Home Run Derby, where smashing a ball off a stadium scoreboard 475 feet away from home plate is much more desired than barely clearing a wall 300 feet away.
State Farm has been title sponsor of the event since 2007 (taking over from Century 21). Tonight's event at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City on the eve of the 2012 MLB All-Star Game seeks to build on last year, when ESPN’s telecast of the 2011 Home Run Derby averaged 6,686,000 viewers, an increase of 4%, while the 4.7 rating was up 2%.
During the Home Run Derby, State Farm will break a TV spot that extends into baseball for the first time the insurance firm's "Discount Double Check" theme, popularized in a national campaign by Green Bay Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers (pictured below). The spot, which also will be a launching pad for State Farm marketing to build through the World Series, was filmed at Wrigley Field in June and uses former Chicago Cubs stars Kerry Woods and Andre Dawson and the famed Wrigley Field Ivy wall. Lead agency is DDB Chicago. (See the full spot here.)
State Farm has garnered significant brand rewards in return for its Home Run Derby support. In 2011, the company received more than $45 million in media exposure (including on-air signage, mentions and other visuals) during the event, according Front Row Analytics, the sponsorship evaluation and measurement unit of Front Row Marketing Services, a division of Comcast-Spectator, Philadelphia.
But the Derby's charitable element is also significant. Last year, based on the 95 home runs and 11 gold balls hit over the fences during the Home Run Derby at Chase Field, Phoenix, saw more than $600,000 in donations went to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and other charities. This year, each gold ball home run (supplied by Rawlings), will earn $18,000 for designated charities (a reference to the nearly 18,000 State Farm agents).
Via its "Go to Bat" program, now in its third year, State Farm encourages people to participate in an interactive version of the Home Run Derby to earn money for their favorite charities as well as a chance to win a trip to the 2012 World Series. (Full details here). The charity list consists of charities that have agreed to participate in the 2012 State Farm "Go to Bat" promotion.
The 2012 National League participants are captain Matt Kemp (Los Angeles Dodgers), Andrew McCutchen (Pittsburgh Pirates), Carlos Beltran (St. Louis Cardinals) and Carlos Gonzalez (Colorado Rockies).
The American League roster includes defending Home Run Derby champ and captain Robinson Cano (New York Yankees), Mark Trumbo (Los Angeles Angels), Prince Fielder (Detroit Tigers) and Jose Bautista (Toronto Blue Jays).
In addition to the Home Run Derby, the Bloomington, Ill.-based company has built a year-round sports roster via alliances that include the NFL, NBA, WNBA, college football and basketball, presenting sponsor of America's Car Museum (Tacoma, Wash.) and naming rights to State Farm Arena in Hildago, Texas. Commercials have starred the likes of Rodgers, Packers' teammate Clay Matthews and NBA star LeBron James (who also teamed with State Farm for an effort to raise awareness about kids who drop out of school).
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Tim Van Hoof, assistant vp-marketing-communications for State Farm, regarding the power of the Home Run Derby and the strategies behind the company's sports and entertainment programs.
NYSportsJournalism.com: State Farm is now in its sixth season as title sponsor of the Home Run Derby. Are you finding that you are getting more marketing return for your investment?
Tim Van Hoof: We are. People talk about the State Farm Home Run Derby almost as soon as MLB talks about the All-Star Game, so we are finding that word-of-mouth and fan and consumer interest begins almost at the start of the season. And in some ways even longer because almost immediately after one State Farm Home Run Derby is over baseball fans begin to debate about who should be in the event for the next year.
NYSJ: How important is the Home Run Derby to State Farm's overall sports and entertainment marketing strategy?
TVH: The economic and financial pressures today on our business, on MLB, on companies who make investments in sports and entertainment, is tough. You have to justify year after year what you are doing. Does it push the bottom line. This is one of those relationships where being associated with MLB and the Home Run Derby has really taken off and taken hold with fans and customers. The response has been so strong that we have been able to use the State Farm Home Run Derby as a successful case study when we consider expanding into other relationships. And I would like to believe that other companies look at it when they are considering sports or entertainment investments. When you look at the events with which State Farm is associated — NBA All-Star Saturday Night, NBA Draft, the Home Run Derby — we treat each with respect and care.
"Connecting to sports, connecting with properties such as MLB, the NBA and football adds to the excitement and energy we bring to the audience."
NYSJ: How has the company's overall sports and entertainment marketing strategies translated into a stronger brand position?
TVH: We look at State Farm as being a national brand with strong neighborhood representation and agents who know their local communities. Buying insurance is something that falls under the heading of being something you have to do versus something you want to do. It is one of those categories where people may or may not want to talk about it or deal with it. So connecting to sports, connecting with properties such as MLB, the NBA and football adds to the excitement and energy we bring to the audience.
NYSJ: Is part of the challenge trying to be patient while building long-term alliances with sports properties rather than going for a one-time splash?
TVH: It has to evolve over time. But if you do it right, and our alliance with baseball is a good example, you get more people who are looking to buy insurance to think of our brand first. Over time there is an element of association and an element of depth that we want. The challenge is how do we take MLB and our partnership there and get into the local markets, put our name in the face of people there and show that we are part of the community. But when we do things such as the Home Run Derby,we build the philanthropic arm of that and extend it into social media and gaming. The idea is to make it very local, intimate and special as opposed to just trying to have our name in front of an audience. It's good to be associated with big properties. But the goal is to personalize it and take it local, and have a philanthropic element associated with our brand.
NYSJ: Has State Farm been able to tell whether its sports efforts have translated into customers?
TVH: We can, but it's not an easy thing to measure. We know we are reaching a vast audience through these alliances. We do studies, track metrics and get feedback from our [nearly 18,000] agents nationwide. One of our goals is to reach people who don't think that State Farm is for them, and to get them to think about State Farm when they want to purchase insurance. A lot of our effort is cause-marketing, because that is something we genuinely believe in. And that builds a deeper association because people want to deal with companies who care about the things that they care about. And with the younger generation, which is deeply embedded in social media, we are expanding our sports and entertainment programs to embrace social media to leverage our programs and to try to individualize them as much as we can. So while the bottom line is ROI, the means and ways to reach people is about successful personalization.
NYSJ: How important are entertainment alliances, such as State Farm's support of Cars 2 last year?
TVH: We look for ways to get involved with entertainment and music that we see can be good places to build on our messages. Right now, using our 'Get to a Better State' theme, we look at people going to concerts and try to help them get to a better state. Parking might be a hassle, so for someone who is with State Farm we might figure out a way to get them a good parking spot or provide a shuttle for them right to the front door. If you are sitting in the back of the arena we want to bring you to a better state near the front. Ticket prices can be a little high in some markets, so we will try to get tickets at a better price to get more people to enjoy an experience they might not have had.
NYSJ: Have there been any discussions with MLB about tweaking the format?
TVH: At its core, the Home Run Derby is a great idea and is an exciting event. People like to see great home run hitters hitting the ball out of the park. But last year we added captains who would then reach out to their friends and other home run hitters in the National and American Leagues, which brought a fresh layer of interest and fan involvement to it. So even though the premise and basic elements remain, we and MLB are always open to ideas that would add to the excitement.
NYSJ: Why do you think the numbers on ESPN have been so strong?
TVH: The All-Star Game and Home Run Derby are big events. They capture the interest of sports fans and an audience that includes even casual fans of the game. People love to see players hit home runs, and this is all about hitting home runs as far as you can. People still talk about the show that Josh Hamilton put on in 2008 in [the old] Yankee Stadium when he hit 28 home runs one round, and he was putting them off the scoreboard and into the deepest parts of the ballpark. It was crazy. I can't predict what will happen this year but I expect to see a lot of home runs [at Kauffman Stadium, pictured]. Also, when you look at what's going on in the television world right now, there is less original programming on network and cable, and we are a in a bit of what you could call a lull in sports, with the NBA and NHL seasons over and still weeks until the Olympics. So baseball becomes an especially strong sport during the summer.
NYSJ: How important has it been to have home runs translate into charitable donations, anchored by the gold ball?
TVH: It has added a lot of dimension to the event and has enabled us to strengthen our alliances into the community above and beyond the Home Run Derby itself. It is inherently taking the great game of baseball and [channeling forwarding] the power of the game into charitable efforts. For us and for MLB it has become a big part of the longevity of our relationship.
"We are excited about the programs and alliances we now have, and will try to build on them while looking for new ways to reach people and strengthen our brand."
NYSJ: Have you seen guys become more intense, and perhaps a bit more nervous, in their final at-bat when they have to hit the gold ball?
TVH: I have. It's pretty cool. The crowd gets into it. And watching at home, when it is time to hit the gold ball, it becomes a big moment. When you look at the numbers that start to add up, the number of home runs, the number of gold balls that translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for Boys and Girls Clubs and local charities, it is a big moment. And for the brand, speaking unselfishly, the gold ball comes back to State Farm making a donation of $18,000 [for each gold ball home run] and has become a great brand tie-in for more serious endeavors amidst all of this fun and excitement.
NYSJ: How important has the the 'Go to Bat' activation become for State Farm?
TVH: The 'Go to Bat' element has made it not just a Home Run Derby element but something that resonates throughout the season and, really, all year long. And this year we have added an app that people can download. As part of the 'Go to Bat' program, consumers can say I care about finding a cure for autism and I want State Farm to go to bat for me. You can go to bat for the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Teach For America, the Boys and Girls Clubs and others. People who participate have the opportunity to win $18,000 for their favorite charity as well as a trip to the World Series.
NYSJ: Will sports marketing remain a key part of State Farm's strategy moving forward?
TVH: Everything costs money. So if we can continue to leverage and build our sports and entertainment associations properly, using baseball, football, the NBA and other elements to raise brand awareness and move that to consumer purchases, it will continue to be part of what we do. The Home Run Derby is a great launching pad for our marketing, our charitable efforts, the 'Got to Bat" program and to connect with people and get them talking about State Farm and the things we are doing. We will continue to review all of our programs, but we are excited about the programs and alliances we now have, and will try to build on them while looking for new ways to reach people and strengthen our brand.