Big brands finding big market in country audience

by Alison Bonaguro

Special to the Tribune
Published November 11, 2007


Mainstream shifts spending from traditional mediarl'

In Kenny Chesney's song "Old Blue Chair," he sings "that chair was my bed one New Year's Night / When I passed out from too much Cruzan and Diet [Coke]." While hawking the tour sponsor in the lyrics feels contrived, Chesney fans don't seem to mind. Or even notice. With triple-digit growth of Cruzan Rum sales in markets where Chesney performs, fans are as loyal to the rum as they are to Chesney.

That may be why more mainstream brands are hooking up with country stars and shifting spending from traditional media into sponsorships, promotions and endorsement deals.

What has changed? Mary Semling, senior director with entertainment marketing agency Platinum Rye, says the massive fan bases of country stars make them great options for brands who aren't necessarily looking to "go country." "There's great value in tapping into those fan bases, because they're sizable and loyal," she said.

For years, savvy marketers have used stars from all genres to show consumers how hip the products are. Gwen Stefani joined forces with Hewlett Packard, 50 Cent is pitching Vitamin Water, the Police tour is sponsored by Best Buy and U2 has made a deal with iPod. And plenty of marketers use musicians and other mainstream celebs in the same campaign. Chevy does so with Mary J. Blige, Dale Earnhardt and Big & Rich, and American Express does so with everyone from Robert De Niro to Ellen DeGeneres and now Beyonce.

Believability factor

Buick is paying Tiger Woods millions for his contract. Does anyone believe he drives a Buick? Paris Hilton did a commercial for Carl's Jr. She hardly looks like the cheeseburger type. And Sarah Jessica Parker claims she colors her hair with Garnier Nutrisse. Not very likely.

Companies such as Bud Light, Jeep, Ford, Hershey's and Cruzan Rum seem to have caught on to that credibility issue and have chosen to align themselves with performers whose personalities are compatible with the traits of the brand.

"Bud Light is the beer of regular dudes like myself," Dierks Bentley said. "I drank it long before they endorsed our tour. Long before I was 21, for that matter." That makes the Bentley-Bud Light deal believable.

Bentley, 31, is the "regular dude" behind eight Top 10 country tunes including "Free & Easy (Down the Road I Go)."

So are the others. Tim McGraw's an adventurous guy, so Jeep partnered with him for his 2007 tour. Toby Keith and Ford Trucks have been an item for years, but before that Keith already drove one. Brad Paisley has always loved making s'mores with Hershey's Special Dark. And Kenny Chesney appears to live that rum, sun and fun lifestyle Cruzan promotes.

"Consumers aren't stupid," said Brett Palmer, founder of Abijack Management and the liaison between Cruzan and Chesney. "There has to be authenticity. The performer and brand have to make sense. Otherwise, it's forced marketing."

For the marketers at Crest, Martina McBride had that believability factor. This summer, the company hired McBride for an online promotion to launch the toothpaste's Nature's Expressions brand. Entering the UPC code from a tube of toothpaste earned you a free download of McBride's single "How I Feel." (Currently, you can download it for free, no purchase necessary.)

Diane Dietz, general manager of North America oral care at Procter & Gamble, thinks McBride is right for this sub-brand of natural toothpastes because, she said, "Martina has always enjoyed her natural surroundings, making her a perfect partner."

And McBride herself said she chose "How I Feel" because "it's all about the little things that make me smile."

The overall concept of a country star hawking toiletries may be a bit of a stretch, but the executional details manage to give the effort some substance. When you go to crest.com and click through to the Nature's Expressions page, McBride is everywhere. Giving consumers and/or fans tips for a "natural" life, allowing you to e-mail the download to friends, and linking you to her MySpace page and bio. That much exposure to McBride is enough to make anyone on the Crest site curious about her, and make any fan of hers curious about the brand.

Extreme brand loyalty

The country music fan base only adds to the equation. The core listener isn't someone who has an eclectic taste in music. These folks are loyal to the genre, and more so to their favorite artists. So when faced with a brand decision, they keep music in mind.

On an emotional level, there's often an I'll-have-what-he's-having element. Rick Leininger, senior director of Bud Light marketing, acknowledges their partnership with Dierks Bentley works because of that. He says fans think that if Bud Light is good enough for Bentley, it's good enough for them.

But on a fiscal level, there's also a desire to support the brands that support the artists. That's not to say that a Toby Keith fan will put a down payment down on an F-150 the day after a show. But will a Chesney fan run out for a bottle of Cruzan Rum the day after? It's very possible.

Choosing wisely

More than 60 percent of Ford truck owners follow country music, according to Wes Sherwood, Ford truck communications manager. So Ford would be blind not to stick with country. "We struck gold with Toby Keith," Sherwood says of the singer who is a third-generation Ford truck owner.

The numbers behind the Ford truck demographic, and other qualitative tools for evaluating an artist's popularity among the target group, play a big role in finding the right man for the job.

Decisions are occasionally more intuitive, though. "Sponsorships of music tours are generally not that good from an automotive perspective, because there's no DNA match," said Jay Kuhnie, director of Jeep Communications. "When you walk into a concert, you're thinking 'Why is a car here?'" Yet Jeep felt strong enough to go against the grain with McGraw.

It's a good fit when the artist is a fan of your brand too. Leininger said Bentley is a longtime consumer of Budweiser beer, so he was already loyal to Anheuser-Busch. And choosing to sponsor tours is a given for them. "Music is a powerful vehicle in marketing, and country's been very good to us," said Leininger. "As for Dierks, he's one of us."

Ernie Savo, a Hershey's marketing director, agrees that the pairing of artist and brand have to make sense. But for Hershey's, there are timing considerations. Their partnership with Paisley works because it supports the summer season, which is s'more season. "You look at what he has on the docket for releases and touring, and does he mirror the values of the brand. Or is he just looking for a tour sponsor," says Savo. (That may have been the case in 2006 when Hershey's sponsored McGraw's tour, which was relatively short lived by industry standards. Industry sources speculate that the disconnect between the artists and the chocolate probably led to unmet sales goals, thus making the partnership fold early.)

And there are demographics to consider. Country band Rascal Flatts has a fan base that's very young. About three years behind the legal drinking age, in fact. And the spirits industry has a rule that 70 percent of your concertgoers have to be legal drinking age.

Measuring success

Granted, it's hard to measure emotional ties to your brand with any certainty. Kuhnie admits you can't say, "I sold a Jeep today because of Tim McGraw."

"But we measure activity. How many people came to the shows, how many hits to the site, who downloaded Tim's song," said Kuhnie.

While it may be difficult to tie big-ticket sales directly to the performer, it's not for lower-priced items. Cruzan Rum can see the success at the retail level. "If you looked at Cruzan Rum across the nation, we've averaged a 30 percent sales increase every year since Chesney signed," said Palmer. "And we sell over 200,000 Cruzan drinks at venues every tour." For Bud Light, there's no good way to correlate one artist with sales success. So marketing execs tend to look at sponsorships more as a way to gain trial. And the demo certainly fits. "At 21, you establish your drinking habits. And if you try Bud Light," said Leninger, "we have a good success rate for keeping you in the camp."

Same with Savo. He says it's easy to measure Hershey's sales. "Milk chocolate six-pack sales [of candy bars] have been extremely effective this year," said Savo. "Qualitatively, we'll also gauge association: Did people get that we were tied to him, and did it move the needle?"

Marketing executives are realistic, though. They know that keeping brands viable takes time and constant spending. And Jeep's Kuhnie knows patience counts. "If we've gotten under their skin, then they're emotionally receptive," says Kuhnie. "They'll vote with their pocket eventually."

---------- ctc-arts@tribune.com Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune

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