Russell Athletic’s Big Game

Russell Athletic’s offline media sponsorship of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) on ESPN/ABC was huge. The buy, executed by agency-of-record westwayne, included approximately 120 million targeted TV impressions in the male 25- to 49-year-old demographic, plus two to three million print impressions in ESPN Magazine.

But the company wanted its ad dollars to go further. It wanted to engage consumers personally with the brand, and to generate early awareness of its sponsorship. In other words, Russell wanted interactive in the mix.

So the sports apparel manufacturer asked westwayne to expand its regular print and broadcast campaign to include interactive media, a task the creative firm passed along to breatheinteractive, its digital agency subsidiary.

“Russell had a pretty hefty investment in the BCS sponsorship,” said Julia Brown, account executive with breathe. “They were looking for a way to maximize awareness of it, and to get weekly interaction with the brand based on the sponsorship.”

The Promo

To get that interaction, Breathe worked with online promotions company ePrize. They developed an online promotion in the form of a weekly bracket competition to pick the winners of a series of Big Ten college football games. Visitors who registered to play were presented with 10 match-ups each week representing the coming weekend’s college games.

“You made your picks, and on Monday after the games had been played, you got an email telling you your cumulative score and that week’s score and reminding you to come back and make picks again,” said Brown.

Each week, from late August through mid-December 2003, the 14 highest-scoring online contestants were given Russell football jerseys worn by well-known college players who have since turned pro. The jersey giveaways fit with the offline campaign’s central creative approach: to draw attention to Russell gear by profiling the athletic achievers who wear it.

Additionally, two grand-prize winners received paid trips to the BCS Championship Game, The Sugar Bowl, in New Orleans. One was awarded to the top overall scorer, and one was randomly awarded.

“The random prize was given to incentivize play,” said Brown. “The concern was that people who saw they had no chance to win would quit playing.”

While ePrize built the game, breathe provided all creative and “look and feel” elements to ensure it was completely in line with the Russell’s branding standards, and that the brand had a strong presence in the game.

The Campaign

To promote the game and to support Russell’s BCS sponsorship, breathe launched an interactive banner and video ad campaign on ESPN.com. The agency secured a “run of content” placement throughout ESPN’s college football coverage, and a fixed placement on popular ESPN columnist Lee Corso’s regular “LeeMail” column.

Brown said the campaign started out on a more reserved, understated creative note but ended with a bigger bang. Breathe made the change after concluding the creative was blending in too much with ESPN’s design.

“The first creative was not flashy. We eventually tried to take it up a notch, make it a little flashier, and add a little more movement in the banner,” said Brown. “We changed the color scheme a bit to have it contrast with the ESPN college football template. That helped.”

On top of the banner units, breathe opted to run one of the westwayne-created TV spots in a pre-roll slot on the Web site’s popular ESPN Motion video channel. The agency served just over 500,000 impressions of that commercial, which features star running back Adrian Peterson.

“It was not clickable, so it was just a branding unit, but we felt it gave great support to the other units,” said Brown. “It was also a great way for Russell to showcase that spot outside their TV buy.”

Results

The agency, which had contracted 10.5 million impressions on ESPN.com, delivered to its client over 26 million impressions. Breathe attributed the abundant over-performance of the campaign to its fixed placement on Lee Corso’s column, which generated more impressions than expected.

The overall click-through rate on the campaign was .33 percent, a good bit higher than Russell’s historical CTRs, which have averaged between .06 and .15 percent. The campaign delivered just over 84,000 prospects to the landing page of the “Road to the BCS” game. Of those 84,000, over 20,000 completed the lengthy data-capture registration process required to play the game.

Remarkably, 34 percent opted in to receive ongoing communications from Russell, a victory for Breathe’s auxiliary goal of building a marketing database for future email campaigns.

“We needed the capture to award the prize, but we were also interested in the email addresses as we prepare for an email campaign for Russell in 2004 and 2005,” said Brown.

Finally, it’s worth noting that over five percent (about 1,200) of the registrations came from user referrals. Players who referred friends received extra entries in the sweepstakes for every person they brought to the promotion.

Room for Improvement

While the campaign was by all measures a success, Brown said there is at least one clear area for improvement for next season’s “Road to the BCS” campaign (which Russell, by the way, has already renewed): maintaining high play-rates throughout the season.

As it turns out, just over 2,000 registered players engaged the game continuously for eight weeks or more. That marked a considerable drop-off over the promotion’s initial registration numbers, and it’s something Brown said breathe will work on lifting this year.

Frequency, after all, is key to Russell’s stated goal of getting people to interact with the brand on a weekly basis. Coercing Web users to return repeatedly to a site is easier said than done, of course, but it’s central to the success of such promos.

Josh Linkner, CEO of Eprize, which partnered with breathe to build the infrastructure for the Russell brackets promo, said he’s seeing more and more promotions that emphasize frequency, as the Russell game does, either through an especially compelling game interface or a prize incentive to return.

“People keep coming back to vote and see how they’re doing,” said Linkner. “It creates an ongoing brand experience.”

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