It doesn’t take an expert in market research to know that most sports fans, if given the choice, would prefer the events they watch and participate in to be free of advertising and branding. The plain truth is none of us, even those who make our living as marketers, want to be marketed to.
In the face of that fact, sponsorship’s not-so-secret weapon has been its ability to go beyond mere commercial messaging—directly supporting the organizations and institutions people care about and providing fans with experiences and tangible benefits that strengthen their connection to their favorite teams and events.
But as some recent sponsorships and activations attest, there is another approach to partnership that some brands might want to consider in very select circumstances. Rather than shy away from commercialization, a few sponsors are leaning into it and taking it to an outlandish level in hopes of not only capturing attention but sharing a laugh with the target audience and ultimately winning them over.
The latest partnership to go this route is the Pop-Tarts Bowl. For its first shot at college football bowl game sponsorship, food giant Kellanova unveiled plans this week to activate next month’s game in Orlando with the “first-ever edible mascot,” which according to a company press release, “will run around the stadium interacting with fans and, when the final whistle blows, transform into a game-winning snack for the victors.”
In an email to The Athletic, Sarah Reinecke, Kellanova’s vice president of marketing for Pop-Tarts, clarified that “during the grand entrance and for the entirety of the game, there will be a traditional mascot costume made from fabric and other non-edible materials that a person will wear. The edible mascot will only be revealed after the game ends.”
In doing so, Kellanova—formed last month when the Kellogg Company split into two independently traded businesses—is taking a page from other bowl game title partners, most notably Duke’s Mayo, which “honors” the victorious coach with a post-win mayonnaise bath that has quickly trended on social media in each of the first two years of its existence. The popularity of the activation is such that the primary image on the Charlotte Sports Foundation’s bowl home page is not of game action or the stadium, but of Maryland coach Mike Locksley getting his victory bath after last year’s win over North Carolina State.
While putting product promotions so clearly front-and-center would not be a winning strategy for most sponsorships, bowl games—particularly those outside the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six—provide brands with a nearly unique environment for eschewing traditional modes of sponsoring.
The games themselves do not have passionate, loyal fans for the most part. Those belong to the participating teams, which change from year to year. That significantly lowers the risk that a large number of people would be irked by branding and promotions “over-commercializing” something they cherish.
So the odds are in Pop-Tarts’ favor that more people will see this year’s winning team devour a mascot in post-game viral videos than will see that squad score its winning points.