By Barry Janoff
February 11, 2014: On the eve of the NBA All-Star Game, with a weekend of activities scheduled for New Orleans and Smoothie King Arena, the league's marketing and media partners such as State Farm are looking to new commissioner Adam Silver — who on Feb. 1 took the reins from 30-year commission David Stern — and his executive staff, including new deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, for ways to not only enhance their current alliances but to continue to build for the future.
Although sports is not State Farm's only marketing connection with consumers, it is a significant part of its strategy. In addition to its official status with the NBA (since 2010), State Farm has ties that include NFL, NHL and MLB teams (although it ended its official alliance with MLB in 2012). Among its media partners, the insurer has a strong presence on ESPN, led by College GameDay Covered by State Farm and with Turner Sports' TNT as part of its NBA package.
This weekend, State Farm will be on the ground in New Orleans during the All-Star Game, including presence in the NBA FanFest and title sponsor of All-Star Saturday Night (on TNT), which includes Sears Shooting Stars, Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest and the Sprite Slam Dunk.
Two current and separate State Farm ad campaigns feature NFL Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (running since 2011) and NBA Los Angeles Clippers All-Star point guard Chris Paul (since late 2012). The Paul campaign, which also stars Chris' faux twin brother, Cliff (and recently added Chris' son in a dual role), has spawned its own cottage industry. It includes Nike Jordan Brand argyle basketball shoes, Cliff Paul argyle socks, a Cliff Paul bobble head night in Staples Center (home of the Clippers) and a Cliff Paul Twitter account that has more than 28,000 followers (Chris Paul has 2.9 million followers).
DDB Chicago is lead agency for the Rodgers campaign; Translation, NY, is lead agency for the Paul effort.
Tim Van Hoof, who has been with State Farm since 2001, is assistant vice president of marketing for the Bloomington, Ill.-based insurance firm, where he leads marketing communications for the brand, overseeing all media, creative and sponsorship efforts.
NYSportsJournalism.com spoke with Van Hoof about sports marketing, alliances with pro athletes and leagues and the transition in the NBA from commissioner David Stern to commissioner Adam Silver.
NYSportsJournalism: This is a busy year, which began with the Super Bowl and includes the Winter Olympics, March Madness, the FIFA World Cup and many other sports events that use extensive marketing to reach consumers. What is the challenge in getting State Farm's message out and making sure it resonates with consumers?
Tim Van Hoof: The biggest challenge is how do you crack the code. And when you do, that's a great feeling. Our category is highly regulated and not very much fun for consumers compared to other categories. Consumers like to talk about their phones. They like to talk about food. They like to talk about their drink of choice. But they don't like to talk about their insurance. Their car insurance, Their life insurance. So it is more challenging in that regard.
NYSJ: How is that working with Chris Paul and his "twin brother" Cliff?
TVH: The Chris and Cliff Paul campaign is a great example. The brand promises that we exist to help people. We help them to recover from the unexpected. We help them to realize their dreams. There is a whole mission statement. At our core, we exist to help. Working with our agency, Translation, we wanted to know what that looks like in the NBA? It's an assist. Chris Paul is a leader on the court, but more than anything he is assisting and helping. At its core, the entire campaign is built in the essence of the brand.
"Consumers like to talk about their phones, food, their drink of choice. But they don't like to talk about their insurance. So it is more challenging in that regard."
NYSJ: How does that translate to Aaron Rodgers and the NFL?
TVH: With the NFL, it's maybe not quite as poetic as that. But it's close. In Aaron Rodgers, we have a guy who is well-known and has won a Super Bowl, but is understated and accurately represents the brand. If you look at his commercials, he is never the jokester. He is usually a bit of the self-deprecating guy in humorous situations. The whole premise of this work is to show that we double-check to make certain that our consumers have all that they need from their insurance. Nothing more, nothing less.
NYSJ: Insurance is a serious topic, but a lot of insurance companies, including State Farm, use humor to reach consumers. How challenging is that?
TVH: In talking about discount double-check, this is what our State Farm agents do all the time when it comes to insurance. But you can't just say that. It's not exciting. It's kind of boring. So how do you bring it to life? How do you make it memorable and sustainable? In our case, we have all of these crazy characters that we have brought to life. It's a double-check. It's a move. And people stop and think, 'What?' They are getting the message in an interesting way that State Farm has a double-check that helps people. The response has been that now people are associating what is a standard insurance term for us, the double-check, with something fun and beneficial.
NYSJ: What have the responses been to the on-going Chris-Cliff Paul and Aaron Rodgers campaigns?
TVH: At State Farm, we feel really good about the results. We've done a lot of good work over the years, but this has been a bit of a different approach for State Farm. The idea of unfolding chapters where story lines continue to grow in front of consumers is very interesting and has helped to drive results. I don't mean to imply that people are sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the next chapter, but working with Translation [on the Chris Paul campaign], we really talk about what should the story ark look like season by season. So each piece of each chapter has a little end to it where we tease what the next chapter might look like. If you think of movies where at the end you say to yourself, that might lead into a sequel, that's how we've been approaching it. The results continue to improve and exceed our expectations.
With the Aaron Rodgers campaign, we do a lot of testing. The spot we ran with Aaron on an airplane having to sit in-between two fans of the Chicago Bears was the most memorable TV spot of the year (in 2013) across any category, according to Nielsen. That is credit to good creative, good placement and an interesting, unfolding story that is now in its third year and fifth or sixth chapter. We've surrounded it with a lot of digital and social media. The momentum and the fan engagement has been great. The Chris-Cliff Paul story is a bit earlier in its unfolding, but the results and the trajectory have been even better in [consumer] engagement, breakthrough, likability and other areas that we measure in our creative.
NYSJ: Do you have a short- and long-term plan for both of the campaigns so that you don't overstay your welcome with consumers and viewers?
TVH: With Chris and Cliff Paul, we're feeling pretty good that it still has a ways to go. Our challenge here is that we have several story arcs that we can take. But that is also the beauty of the campaign. Imagine any writer having this advantage. Where does the story go? We can take it down so many different paths. We have so many good opportunities in front of us for the story. You'll see more of the story unfold during the All-Star Game and then again going into the playoffs. We also had the opportunity to work with Chris' son, Little Chris, and look back, which gives us the opportunity to explore the history of the assist. So the next chapter gives us the opportunity to look ahead to see where the assist might be going. And you might see some new characters who can help to take the story in other directions.
NYSJ: It doesn't sound as if you've had any second thoughts about working with Chris Paul or Aaron Rodgers.
TVH: Who you work with has a lot to do regarding the success or failure of any campaign. Both Aaron Rodgers and Chris Paul have been a pleasure to work with. They are enthusiastic about the campaigns. In Chris' case, he has totally embraced the story of Cliff Paul and has added to the character. That is a big part of the strategy in keeping this story going. It has become part of who they are. People and other athletes go up to Aaron and do the Discount Double-Check belt move. Or they go to Chris and ask about his brother Cliff. In Chris' case, some people believe he really has a twin brother. Some of them are celebrities, and it's comical to hear them tell stories about being in a celebrity golf tournament, for example, and talking about being with Cliff.
"People believe he really has a twin brother. Some of them are celebrities, and it's comical to hear them tell stories about being in a golf tournament with Cliff."
NYSJ: What are you looking at as far as All-Star Game activations?
TVH: We will have a big presence in New Orleans throughout All-Star Weekend. We again have title sponsorship of State Farm All-Star Saturday Night. We will have a presence in the NBA FanFest, where Chris and some other athletes will participate, letting fans get up-close and personal with Chris. It will be an exciting time and a celebration of the work and our partnership with the NBA.
NYSJ: How integral was former commissioner David Stern to creating and building partnerships such as the one between State Farm and the NBA and how do you see your alliance moving forward with new Commissioner Adam Silver?
TVH: When you think about the NBA, and take the product out of the conversation and just focus on the game itself, their ability to stretch into a culturally diverse audience, a younger audience, and the commitment they've made in technology and innovation, they've done a really nice job in packaging the sport. They've put some perimeters around they NBA that differentiated them from other leagues. You have to look at the man at the top and his team and say that they were committed and thoughtful and had a plan and made it work.
NYSJ: Why has this partnership worked so well?
TVH: They don't pretend to know everything. But they have a good handle on what they want to be about and who they are as a brand. They are very open in saying, We want to work with forward-thinking partners, to collaborate in ways that advance both the NBA brand and the brands with which they are working. From a technology in reaching a different audience than a lot of other sports properties and properties in general, they have been fantastic partner. And you have to give David Stern credit for leading that charge. And when you talk about moving forward, Adam Silver is cued up and run with it to wherever the next level is. So, quite frankly, we're very excited about the health of this new leadership team.
NYSJ: Have you had an opportunity to sit down with Adam Silver and other NBA executives to look at the future of the State Farm alliance?
TVH: There will be some opportunity during All-Star Weekend and afterward. But we did have a meeting between the NBA and some of our executives a couple of months ago that included other key partners where we discussed what you are asking about. It was a partnership summit, for lack of a better term. We had the opportunity to talk to the NBA about where marketing is and where it is going. We also had the change to rub shoulders with representatives from other brands. It was about working together in the NBA, but it was also about competing with some other brands for the same shelf space.
NYSJ: How important has it been to expand the Chris-Cliff Paul landscape with Nike's Jordan Brand and other companies?
TVH: We had the opportunity this season to work with Nike, and they co-created a shoe with us that features Cliff Paul's argyle designs (as seen on his sweaters in the TV spots), which consumers can actually buy. That was fun and helped to expand the story beyond insurance . . . I'd say more than some of the other sports properties, the NBA has been able to bring its partners together to talk about strategies, interests and how best to use our brand assets to grow the league and the partners involved. Our partnership with Nike didn't extend from that meeting, but that is the type of alliance that shows how we can work with the NBA and its partners. And they're supportive of brands trying to collaborate within the NBA space.
NYSJ: What can you share about your on-air plans this year with ESPN and TNT?
TVH: ESPN has been a great partner. They get their brand. They want to be the place where all people go for sports. If we can be a part of that, that helps both our brands. We have a strong platform with College GameDay Covered by State Farm, which we will continue to build on. We are going to do something with ESPN (which has exclusive English-language broadcast rights in the U.S.) around the World Cup. We are still refining what that looks like. We have been talking with our key broadcast partners, ESPN, TNT. It is a brave new world when it comes to collaboration, partnership, co-creation, content and distribution. Some of these folks really get it. They are in the content, creation and distribution business, doing the same things I am trying to do. I am trying to create compelling content to advance our brand's goals, and then distribute it.
NYSJ: What is your overview of using sports to deliver marketing messages?
TVH: We have a great platform with sports in general. The bar is set high. Everybody who messages in the sports genre — if you are in the NBA or NFL or baseball environment — you have to have something that is core to what you are as a brand and you have to have compelling creative that delivers against it. Otherwise, consumers may not notice. Or they may notice but not know who you are. They may remember that a commercial was funny and that Chris Paul or Aaron Rodgers was in a commercial and not remember the company or brand. So if consumers and viewers don't connect your brand with the creative, you missed the point. What I preach to my team and our agencies every day: Great creative for a brand is something that delivers on the brand and for the brand. And if they can't remember who the brand is, it doesn't matter how clever your creative is.
NYSJ: Do you see sports marketing continuing to be a strong platform for State Farm to get its message to consumers?
TVH: Certainly. We have people talking about the story of Chris and Cliff Paul. Associating the story with State Farm and that we are about assisting and about helping. We have people talking about discount double-check and Aaron Rodgers, and associating that with State Farm. People tune in to ESPN or TNT and see our brand well represented. But more to your question: We are seeing the results that it is working. Not just at the high level that we like, but down to consideration, metrics, traffic, clicks and calls. So we are still very excited about it. And excited that there will be more to come.
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