Every Day Is Game Day for a Challenger Brand Using Sports to Disrupt Its Category
Never Forget Brands, LLC launched GameDay Vodka in July 2020 and hired Charles in April 2021 upon the signing of a multiyear, category-exclusive agreement with Learfield IMG College for partnerships with Florida State University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, the University of Florida and the University of Miami, as well as the Texas Exes, the alumni association of The University of Texas.
GameDay also has partnerships with NFL franchises, including the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints.
Charles is a veteran corporate partnerships professional with experience in collegiate and nonprofit marketing with Learfield IMG College and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Charles shared the story with host Jim Andrews of how an upstart uses collegiate and NFL partnerships to compete with spirits industry giants and gain affinity and trial among sports fans. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: If I have it right, your “origin story” with GameDay is really interesting. In your role with Learfield IMG College and the Miami Hurricanes, you approached the brand about becoming a partner and now you’re running marketing for them. Can you fill in some of the details for us?
Charles: It was an interesting process. It started as a traditional sales process. I got comfortable with the product by seeing it at retail. Saw that it had a similar colorway to the Miami Hurricanes’ team colorway. I reached out to a local seller to learn as much as possible about the product and talked about how we could potentially work together to add IP to their point of sale and other branding opportunities. We discussed how we could help them build a more resonant messaging.
That conversation led to a broader conversation with leadership and another conversation with Learfield’s national sales team that resulted in the first ever spirits deal with IP use across the country in the NCAA space.
Jim: And obviously somewhere along the way they were so impressed with you they asked you to come over to their side! Is that pretty much what happened?
Charles: I wouldn’t say it happened like that! But as the deal starts to close and you’re halfway through a celebratory glass of GameDay and cranberry, you think about how you put a lot of time, effort and passion into putting together a deal and had a lot of fun selling on the college and nonprofit side for 13 years, it seemed like a natural opportunity to head to the other side of the table and continue to build something that I truly believe in—which is the college space—and also learn as much as possible about our NFL partners and deals.
Jim: GameDay currently has about a dozen sponsorships between NFL teams and college athletic programs. It also continues to produce packaging in sports team colors to connect with fans. In a perfect world you would have official status with every team, but since that’s unrealistic, how are you making decisions on where to invest in partnerships?
Charles: A lot of trial and error over the past six months to a year. We’ve learned a lot and there is a lot more that goes into our decision-making process than six-to-eight months ago.
We look at whether the market is a vodka-heavy market, what the opportunity is with the local teams, what the competitor is doing in the space, whether there is a great relationship with the distributor, etc. There are so many different aspects that we look at to enter a market.
We have 16 team partnerships and we’re in just over 15 markets. In 2022 we will look to double markets. Will we double partnerships? No. We will be very strategic about what has worked for us and what hasn’t in the first 16 deals we acquired.
We look at our activation; what we could do on site with an individual partner; does this market support the team. It’s been fun to learn the process through what has been a great first year.
Jim: Aside from attracting fans through its team deals and colors, what are the brand’s marketing objectives? Awareness? Trial?
Charles: Trial leads the way. People will automatically be attracted to the bottle if it’s their team colorway. Then we have that conversation about who we are and where we are distilled and why we are better and why they should give us a shot. The next question is always: “How does it taste?” We know that folks aren’t going out every day looking to try a new vodka.
If we can get them to experience us, we truly believe we have a really good and smooth vodka, so once that happens the affinity is already there for the team we’re engaged with, or because of the restaurant experience you’re having where we are on a featured cocktail. So then we are two for two. We taste better and we’ve built a resonant relationship with you.
From there we have to continue to drive the awareness and the conversion by continuing to be there at every game, at every watch party, at all those lifestyle moments of a fan that happen throughout the week leading up to game day.
Jim: Translating that seeing of the bottle and the colors and being able to tell the story, I’m imagining that’s through a lot of different channels, whether on premise with the people behind the bar, or whether it’s social or traditional advertising media. Is that all in the mix?
Charles: Absolutely. Beyond our team sponsorships and what we are able to do on game day in the building with our rights, we do build a robust program of how we engage both on and off premise with point-of-sale; how we train staff and team members and brand ambassadors at the local level to talk about our product; and how we can help support our local partners and vendors through our social channels and through theirs.
Definitely a 360-degree approach. While it may skew heavily toward experiential and getting lips to sips, it definitely is supplemented by all channels throughout the marketing spectrum.
Jim: How are you activating your partnerships to achieve those goals?
Charles: We tend to stay within a few pillars that are highly dominated by IP designation and use of marks and logos, like experiential. What we can’t do is put our name in lights and hope that everyone will see us and subsequently go to their on- or off-premise retail locations and think about GameDay Vodka.
What we can do is be that disruptor that’s pulling on the coattail of the giants. We can engage fans in a way that they haven’t been before. We firmly believe that every day is game day, not just the actual day of the game. We want to be able to follow that passion into the home throughout the week and at the bar with your friends when the team is away. We see that as being our competitive advantage to engage at the local level.
Jim: Anything specific coming up we should be looking out for?
Charles: We will look at diversifying our product line. More details to come on that. I mentioned the doubling of markets. As we enter markets like California, Arizona, Minneapolis, we will look for additional retail partners, including engaging larger retailers across the country.
Jim: In such a competitive category as spirits, was it a concern when a giant like Diageo announced its partnership with the NFL last summer?
Charles: It deserved a conversation and we had one internally. The consensus was that it was reassuring that brands like that are investing in sports in such a large way. What it allowed us to do was look at where there was opportunity at the grassroots level. Hopefully, we have built partnerships that still allow us to win in our space. We’re not competing with any national or global brand. That’s not the weight class we are in right now. We’re going to punch at our weight, where there is still an opportunity to win.
Jim: Is your focus on the ultimate consumer right now, or are there also business-to-business elements to your partnerships, such as hospitality for retail partners?
Charles: We leverage our partnerships to drive sales on and off premise, but also to build better relationships, whether it’s with the building or our distributors.
Jim: On the collegiate side of things, has there been any pushback to having a spirits brand as a partner, or have we moved past that? Do you have to do things differently in the collegiate space?
Charles: It’s evolving. The advantage that I have is being part of programs that built out the opportunity during my time with Learfield. Miami is one of a few programs across the country that have allowed advertising within the spirits category, so I had a tutorial in that during my last three years with the ‘Canes.
What we were able to do is show success where it has worked and over time universities have become more open to allowing partnerships with very strict guidelines and only advertising to legal-drinking-age adults.
It’s been crawl, walk, run. We saw over the course of this past football season more opportunities were provided to us as we enhanced fan experience and helped drive more engagement online, and all the things that athletic departments want to do.
Jim: As someone who marketed partnerships and is now on the brand side, can you share what are the best and worst aspects of your current role and what do you miss the most and the least about your former position?
Charles: As someone who spent his childhood between Boston, Massachusetts and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I had very clear and decisive team affinities growing up. I knew every day who my team was, who was our rival and who we liked and who we didn’t. I could experience game day from the true vantage of a fan.
Now, I try to support the partners we are investing in by understanding the nuances of being one of their fans. So this is both the best and the worst: I find myself being less and less tied to one particular team, which is tough because I like being able to raise that flag!
But the good thing is that we have so many partnerships to cheer for and I am able to learn from each and every one about how fans are different, how communities are different and how we can go in and support each team.