Marketing: Promotional Material
The US Open is a cost-effective venue for manufacturers to find a captive industry audience — and they target that audience in different ways.
By Kent Oswald
Every day for a two-week period on a US Open show court, the player with more natural talent and better preparation wins. Offstage at the same time, during the industry’s informal annual convention, success is not as easily assured.
Manufacturers can spend well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual events to maintain and expand their tennis presence in the industry. Most spend less, but all promote their products to members of the media, to retail accounts, to teaching pros, to others in the industry and even to their own staff in some cases, in an indirect attempt to influence consumer purchases.
The question for all is how to alchemize promotional spending into sales receipts. From the heads of companies down through the marketing and sales departments, the questions bounce around. What strategy should they be targeting? What can they afford to spend? How should they measure the success of their efforts? Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a definitive answer to even one of these questions.
If you want to reach a captive industry audience, “the US Open is a cost-effective place,” says Kai Nitsche, Dunlop’s vice president of racquet sports. Last year, when the company introduced its Biomimetic series of frames, there was a launch party at the Union Square Ballroom in Manhattan, emceed by John McEnroe and featuring the top pros under contract and a full complement of company staff ready to answer questions, arrange interviews and make sure product information was at hand. Industry and entertainment media, buyers, teaching pros, retailers and others from throughout the industry were invited to the pre-tournament event.
Talking return on investment, Nitsche would only say, “The sales generated there were on par or slightly exceeded the cost of the overall event.”
While it would be comforting to be able to budget for any event with a formula such as $1 spent on the party will yield $1+ in sales, dollars booked are not the only way to determine success.
“My feeling is that for most companies, event sales are not the primary way they measure their return on investment,” says Doug Drotman of sports public relations firm Drotman Communications. “Being at a major event like the US Open, Super Bowl or NBA All Star Weekend is more about branding, establishing your position in the industry, connecting with consumers and clients, and building upon the marketing campaigns you are either culminating or launching.”
In keeping with Dunlop’s release only of racquets extending the line this year, 2011 was much more low-key. Reps still talked with their accounts. Staff still helped media members arrange interviews. And people in town for the Open were accommodated by Dunlop folks on an individual basis. The big event, washed out by Hurricane Irene, was to bring together a smaller number of media and industry members for a breakfast and play-testing session at McEnroe’s Tennis Academy the Sunday before the tournament began. “It’s always great to get people to hit with the product,” said Nitsche.
Most of the non-sales specific efforts offstage focused on building word-of-mouth, trying to create sales from exposure. Clearly, the continued blooming of social networks — the Twittering, Tumblring, Facebooking and YouTubeing of the world — has been a boon to these attention-grabbing efforts. This year’s winner at the Open for maximizing attention while keeping costs down was probably a Head “press conference,” featuring scripted and improvised Novak Djokovic-Maria Sharapova interplay.
An “interview” began with a blond be-wigged Djokovic impersonating the Russian, only to have her interrupt in mock outrage. Still photographers, video cameras and print and digital reporters captured it all, and for the cost of an hour media event at a midtown Manhattan hotel (making it exceedingly convenient for NYC’s print, video and digital media to attend), tennis and celebrity fans were led onto the web, where they could see more of the stars and their YouTek racquets in video “faux” action.
Without getting into any cost-benefit specifics, Allison Barnett, communications manager at Head/Penn Racquet Sports, explained, “The goal [was] to get Novak and Maria in the media with the Head products and showcase them with our brand. In the end, the exposure helps generate hype with our products and translates into sales.”
Donnay, which has been re-introducing itself as a racquet company to the North American market for the past year, also took a nontraditional approach on the indirect selling route. For most, the brand is remembered for its Laver-Borg-Agassi past, rather than thought of for its Blake-Courier-Wilander present.
Bill Gray, Donnay USA marketing director, said that in addition to a limited budget, the company’s challenge was, “We’re an old brand/new brand. We have little market share and … knew we’d have to be different and kind of off-the-wall to attract [tennis and mainstream media], which is why we went for the ping-pong joint instead of the usual stand-with-a-drink-and-try-to-outshout-the-deejay variety [of party].”
For a few hours on the Friday evening before the Open began, the company took over the trendy table tennis/bar SPiN New York. Describing the event as a very cost-effective “soft sell,” costing less than five-figures, Gray said that combining an attendee tournament with Donnay pros available to talk up the racquets’ benefits resulted in attention from tennis media, as well as Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Men’s Health — all of whom he plans to follow up with in the spring when they do their annual tennis/lifestyle stories.
Gray also received requests from local television media, although potential coverage was pre-empted by their need to cover preparations for Hurricane Irene. The planning and measure of success did not include a direct parallel between the party budget and sales, but area racquet dealers, some carrying the line and some not, were invited; and among those who accepted was one “big time NYC retailer” who sales staff had been told would not handle the line but who came and gave the reps a chance to “convince him why we belong on the wall.”
Not So Much Partying
Needing no such convincing about why their racquets belonged on “the wall” were the retailers, media, players, fans, and others throughout the industry touched (in marketing parlance) by the multi-front efforts of Prince. Rather than a traditional US Open party, the company chose this year to “focus our energy and resources on activities surrounding the event,” said Zach Perles, vice president of marketing/communication at Prince.
Coupons for the EXO3 racquet and T-shirts were handed out throughout New York City to drive traffic to retailers as well as to encourage fans to interact with the company’s Facebook page. Prince had its usual presence on the National Tennis Center grounds. And since it also uses the Open as a way to connect with their junior players — bringing them in to hit with the Tour team and having them participate in some racquet testing — the investment seemed to show the potential for a future payoff in sales as Prince junior Oliver Golding (who was also using company string and footwear) won the US Open Junior Boys’ championship and two of the four players in the Junior Girls’ doubles championships were playing with EXO3s as well.
“Parties aren’t necessarily done for sales,” said a sales rep for a different company, who didn’t want to be named. “To be able to quantify whether they’re worth it, I think that’s difficult. If dollars are tight, instead of blowing thousands of dollars on alcohol, you get creative.”
One of the industry’s biggest players, Wilson, decided to let its ubiquitous US Open balls and players led by Roger Federer and Serena Williams talk for it on court. Off the court, the company put its emphasis on promoting to the industry at an event at the ExitArt gallery on Manhattan’s West Side, featuring juniors, tour players and IMG models strutting down a catwalk in 2012 fashions.
“The fashion show intention is to scale down from the huge parties that Wilson used to have and concentrate on growing our business,” said Laura Lualhati, communications manager for Wilson Racquet Sports. “This year, we had outside [non-tennis] media [attending, including] GQ, Men’s Health, WWD, Fitness and Self. … Our intention was to spend time with our top accounts, our top media, and to introduce Wilson to those who may not know us as fashion-forward and high-performance apparel.”
Even if you can’t figure out an agreed-to formula on spending versus sales, there is still the bottom line that looms over company finances. According to Bruce Levine, veteran of many a US Open party and general manager of Courtside Racquet Club in Lebanon, N.J.: “You need to have the exposure. You need credibility for the line and brand. Later on you might use the money for promo money and sales incentives. …I think they need to do those kinds of things to promote the product. But do I order more? I think I’m going to order based on performance.”
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.