Q&A: How Sun Life Is Taking Care Of Business By Playing Ball With The NFL, Boston Celtics And March Madness
In most word association exercises, the term "financial investments" would generally not solicit the response, "sports marketing." But Sun Life Financial, an investment firm founded almost 150 years ago, is using sports in a usually staid and stoic category to build brand awareness, strengthen its position in the business community and have some fun along the way. Bill Webster, vp-brand strategy and development leader, explains how getting naming rights to a Super Bowl and BCS championship game stadium and alliances with major college and professional sports is helping to fuel the company's corporate strategies.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted Jan. 21, 2011)
Sun Life Financial was founded in Toronto in 1865 and in 1973 opened its U.S. headquarters in the Boston suburb of Wellesley Hills, Mass. But for many people in the U.S., the company's history began in January 2010. That's when the firm paid $7.5 million per year for a five-year deal, according to industry analysts, for naming rights to the stadium that is home to the NFL's Miami Dolphins, University of Miami football team, MLB's Florida Marlins (until the team moves to its new stadium in 2012, the Discover Orange Bowl and the 2013 BSC National Championship Game. Last year, Sun Life Stadium, which recently underwent a $250 million renovation, hosted both the NFL Pro Bowl and Super Bowl XLIV. As part of the deal, Sun Life also was named the official insurance partner of the Dolphins.
Super Bowl XLIV reached a total viewing audience of 153.4 million, making it the most-watched show in U.S. TV history, according to the NFL. In return, Sun Life received more than $26 million in media value just from the Super Bowl broadcast on CBS through verbal mentions, on-screen text and stadium signage, according to marketing research and consulting firm Front Row Marketing Services, a Philadelphia-based subsidiary of Comcast-Spectacor. "Sun Life Financial has obtained the tools and competitive edge to increase brand awareness through the sponsorship of Sun Life Stadium," Eric Smallwood, vp-project management for Front Row, said at the time. "With the new naming rights deal they will continue to increase their competitive edge within their market."
It was also around the beginning of 2010 when the company aligned with the NHL's outdoor Bridgestone Winter Classic, which was played on Jan. 1 at Fenway Park. Sun Life Frozen Fenway featured games between the men's squads from Boston College and Boston University and the women's squads from New Hampshire and Northeastern.
Sun Life supported its strategy in the U.S. with a national marketing campaign anchored by the Sun Life Guys, who sought to convince KC and the Sunshine Band to change their name to KC and the Sun Life Band and to get Florida to revise its state motto from the Sunshine State to The Sun Life State, among others. The campaign, "Get To Know Sun Life," from lead agency The Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., will continue in 2011 with new creative, including media buys during college basketball and March Madness. The company's basketball alliances also were bolstered earlier this month when Sun Life signed a multi-layered deal with the NBA's Boston Celtics. The deal includes signage and in-game promotions at the team's TD Garden home venue and presenting sponsorship of Celtics.com, which averages 8.5 million page views and 1.5 million unique visitors per month.
Bill Webster, Sun Life Financial vp-brand strategy and development leader, knows the value of creative marketing and advertising, especially in the financial and investment category. Prior to joining Sun Life in July 2009, he worked for MetLife as vp-global brand and marketing services, McCann-Erickson, Saatchi & Saatchi and EuroRSCG. Webster spoke with NYSportsJournalism about how the company has stayed true to its values of "providing a diverse range of protection and wealth accumulation products and services to individuals and corporate customers" while using sports to successfully build brand awareness and to broaden its reach of potential clients.
NYSportsJournalism: How would you describe what has happened from time of acquiring naming rights to Sun Life Stadium through aligning with the Boston Celtics in terms of where sports sponsorships can take the company?
Bill Webster: We look at a lot of numbers to gauge the effectiveness of what we are doing. To be honest, we new that brand awareness was fairly low a year and a half ago. But through our efforts we have exponentially grown our brand awareness. We have seen unprecedented growth in terms of brand awareness.
NYSJ: Why did the company go from virtually no sports sponsorships to such significant ones in a relatively short time?
BW: Part of our strategy in terms of target has been to look at sponsorships that deliver, and sports has been a large percentage of our focus. We took over the naming rights for Sun Life Stadium in January 2010 prior to the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl XLIV, which provided us with a huge connection to sports. And a lot of our media buys center around sports. Right now we have a a media buy with NCAA basketball leading into and then during March Madness. So we have a focused strategy both in sponsorships and media buys in terms of sports.
NYSJ: With the addition of the Celtics, Sun Life Financial now has connections with the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA and college sports. How effective is sports marketing in reaching consumers?
BW: It's live media and events that people tune in to and stay tuned in to more and more. With TiVo, DVRs, with people skipping commercials, this gives us an opportunity to create a presence within the program and to make sure that we are in the awareness circle. During Super Bowl XLIV and the  Orange Bowl, for example, Sun Life Stadium was part of the game and was mentioned throughout the broadcasts. The same will happen now, locally, where we are part of the Celtics overall presence. That is an important part of our sponsorship, to make sure that the awareness and brand recognition is present.
NYSJ: The financial category generally doesn't have a 'cool' factor, but has that changed for Sun Life with these sports alliances? Does your family think you are cool?
BW: [Laughs.] I like to think that already was the case. We certainly don't get any negative marks with these deals. It is broadening our potential consumer base. Part of the position we want to take with the Celtics is that they are just like us. They didn't just appear overnight. They are a franchise that has been strong and stable for many years. The team has been around since 1946. They have won 17 NBA titles. They have a rich history and tradition. Sun LIfe was founded [in Canada] in 1865. In this economy, where things are still shaky, we have an A+ credit rating, we have never needed bailout money. So when you talk about being a cool company, the Celtics and others actually get excited about partnering with us because of who we are.
"I like to think that [Sun Life was cool even before the sports sponsorships]. We certainly don't get any negative marks with these deals."
NYSJ: Sun Life's U.S., headquarters are just up the road from the Boston Celtics, so how long was this deal with the team in the works?
BW: Our corporate headquarters are in Wellesley Hills, but our sales offices are right in Copley Square, so we literally are right in their back yard. So in looking at the Boston Celtics, we saw that it fit right in with our strategy on a couple of fronts. One is that the Celtics are in our own backyard, our home market. We have a national footprint? but we always look to do something near Boston. Last year we were part of the NHL outdoor Winter Classic, which took place at Fenway Park. We sponsored the Sun Life Frozen Fenway games, which was a fantastic opportunity for us in terms of community and brand exposure. So we see the alliance with the Celtics to be a great opportunity for us, as well. It gives us not only local exposure and great presence within TD Garden in terms of signage and in-game promotions, but we have the opportunity to work with the team and partner with them on events. They tend to have a similar commitment to us in reaching and working with the community.
NYSJ: As part of the deal Sun Life became the first presenting sponsor of Celtics.com. How important is that to the company's strategy?
BW: Celtics.com averages 8.5 million page views and 1.5 million unique visitors per month and 70 million page views during the NBA season. So that will help to give us more of a broader presence because people are coming to the site not just from Boston and regionally, but they also get a lot of hits nationally as well as traffic from the NBA's own site. And because the Celtics are doing so well, the have one of the dream teams in the NBA this year, also having added Shaquille O'Neal. The team is doing phenomenally this year and looks to go the distance again [having most recently won the NBA title in 2007-08]. So with that you are going to get a lot more hits on the Web site, you are going to get a great deal of visibility. And we have the opportunity to work with some of the Celtics' current and former players in terms of doing events. So all around this is a great opportunity.
NYSJ: In activating with Celtics.com, how important was it to gain instant access to fans and consumers who are tech and new media savvy?
BW: It was very important because, with the numbers the site generates, people are, in effect, coming to us rather than us having to go looking for them. We learned early on that you have to be sensitive to how consumers are using media. When you look at Celtics.com, that is a perfect example. You can buy traditional media on basketball programming. But with Celtics.com, it's a place where people are coming for information, coming because they are fans of the team. So we are sponsoring something that is a help to them.
NYSJ: When you are talking about the team, Celtics Nation goes not just across the U.S. but also internationally. Do you expect to see visibility for the company to rise with potential consumers across the board?
BW: The Celtics really are a global franchise in terms of their appeal. They are just one of those teams that are a class act, that people like. They have a roster of players who are positive models, and its great for us to be aligned with them. They have players who are approachable. You look at Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Glenn "Big Baby" Davis, Rajon Rondo, Shaq, who is just great to be around because not only is he a future Hall of Fame player but he has so much fun with playing the game and interacting with fans. These are players who don't come with baggage. And we love that part about the team.
"Our goal is to always be better prepared to gain the attention of our target audience . . . to look for new and different ways to get our message out and make it resonate."
NYSJ: During the recent college bowl season, it seemed that with so many companies title-sponsoring stadiums and games that fans and consumers might have gotten brand over-load. What are the challenges for Sun Life in trying to cut through the clutter?
BW: That will always be a challenge. Our goal is to always be better prepared to gain the attention of our target audience. In our category, if we look at traditional and standard media buys, all of our competitors are there. We always want to look for new ways and different ways to get our message out and make it resonate. So with the naming rights deal for Sun Life Stadium, Sun Life Frozen Fenway, now with the Celtics, the strategy is to quickly and effectively establish the Sun Life name. And we support that with strategic media buys, including during sports programming.
NYSJ: The way the Celtics have been playing this season it looks as if they will make the playoffs and make a strong run at the Finals. Does Sun Life have a plan for marketing activation should that happen?
BW: We have had discussions with the team about that. We certainly would want the team to reach the Finals and win another title. Right now we would be getting ahead of ourselves, but if that happen Sun Life certainly would want to have the opportunity to be there and activate around it.
NYSJ: What are you planning for your ad campaign with the Sun Life guys in 2011?
BW: We will have new creative later in the year. Right now we are running four commercials with the Sun Life guys.
NYSJ: How extensive will your media buy be during March Madness, and what else are you planning for this year?
BW: We do have a media buy now during college basketball with the Big East, the Big 12, SEC, ACC, which will lead to March Madness. The deal with the Celtics could carry us this season into June. We are actively looking into other things within sports and elsewhere.
NYSJ: Plus you can hang out with Shaq.
BW: It's all good.