Holding Partnerships (and Partners) Accountable for Success
With a background as a marketing leader across multiple industries, Natalie Bowman now leads traditional and non-traditional marketing efforts for Alaska Airlines.
She joined the All Access Interview Series and host Jim Andrews to explore how sports sponsorships can drive business, and reveals that the airline is giving rightsholders revenue targets and asking them to demonstrate their impact. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: To say that the past year has been a challenging time for the airline industry is a gross understatement. What is the state of your business now and specifically what are you anticipating the environment to be like for your sponsorships and partnerships as we progress through the year?
Natalie: We see the light at the end of the tunnel and we are starting to feel a recovery, so we are optimistic about the future. We have been forced to adapt, and in ways that are positive for our guests, so net net we have new policies such as no change fees and higher cleaning standards that will benefit everyone.
It was a new frontier this past year in determining the role of sponsorships in helping us stay connected to fans when there weren’t in-person games. Ultimately, no matter how creative we could be, and our partners could be, sponsorships need to happen in person to full create energy.
But we had some success in 2020. Our most successful initiative of anything we did was our Russell Wilson Smart Sale. We had started the concept two years ago with Swell Deals, which tied discounts to surfing conditions in Hawaii; the bigger the waves, the bigger the discount.
We applied that to Russell and his touchdowns at home games. The more touchdowns, the higher the discounts, which ranged from 10 percent to 40 percent. Had we not been in a pandemic, we would not have been able to offer such generous discounts. We were much more promotional in 2020 than we had ever been or will ever be. Russell had a great season and in more than half the weeks he triggered the 40 percent off deal.
That kept us connected to fans in a really special way and it is something we will look to do with other partners in similar ways and repeat it with Russell as well.
Jim: You have responsibility for multiple marketing channels and you’ve spoken about the need to make sure that channels don’t become siloed and the importance of working across functions. Given its unique attributes, sponsorship has often fallen victim to siloing, and I’m wondering if it represents an even bigger challenge than other verticals in terms of breaking things down and working horizontally?
Natalie: I don’t know that it’s a bigger challenge, but I believe people who manage sponsorship have always bucketed sponsorships as long-term brand investments, and that there is no way to see real-time feedback or get real-time results. The idea being that you need to be in it for three to five years before you’re going to see an impact.
That creates some air cover for sponsorships and gives them some space, so people who have led them have benefitted from that belief. I don’t have that belief. I believe brand marketing can drive performance and that performance marketing can build brands. Holding sponsorships accountable for both is important.
Sponsorships now, especially with social, are active and trackable. There is a lot more accountability we can put on them. The Russell Wilson promotion shows that a sponsorship can drive meaningful business impact.
We are going to start holding each of our partners accountable for revenue. We are going to give them a target of revenue we want to see driven directly from initiatives with that partner. We will start having conversations with them regularly so that they can see whether or not they are having true impact on our business. A third party telling us how many impressions we’re getting from a sign is not helping our business.
Most of our partners have embraced this new accountability and they are excited to help us. We already have some examples. With the San Francisco Giants, we have an Alaska Airlines Day BOGO (buy one get one free) promotion once a year, where the first 40,000 fans receive a two-for-one voucher. It’s a huge day for us; we sell millions of dollars of plane tickets from it. We’re going to do more of that with our partners.
Jim: Are you also measuring the longer-term impact of sponsorships on the Alaska Airlines brand?
Natalie: Yes. With brand preference, we run a study to see the difference in preference between fans and non-fans with the hypothesis being that a fan of the Portland Timbers should have a higher perception of us because of our relationship with the club.
Jim: And do you like what you see when you look at those studies?
Natalie: For most of our partners, yes. It’s harder in markets where we already have a strong brand and loyalty, Seattle in particular. If everyone in Seattle loves us, if someone is a Mariners fan it doesn’t necessarily mean that they love us more. That’s where the combination with the revenue-driving initiatives helps us feel like we can get a good ROI from our sponsorships.
Jim: Alaska Airlines has had great success with sponsorships contributing to market share gains in Portland and Seattle and not too long ago you embarked on some new deals in California hoping to replicate those results. How has that been going?
Natalie: When we acquired Virgin America about four or five years ago, we made a concerted effort to increase our presence in the Bay Area and take some of the best practices from the Pacific Northwest into that area, including sports sponsorships.
We took over Virgin America’s sponsorship of the Giants and added sponsorship of the San Jose Sharks. And we had a relationship with Kevin Durant, so we had a heavy sports investment there. It’s been hit or miss for us. The Bay Area is still a challenging, competitive market and the sponsorships were not creating the deep brand love that we have in the Pacific Northwest. But we have had decades longer here and these things take time, so I’m not discounting the role of sponsorships.
We are looking to shake things up. We think we can build upon the success of the BOGO with the Giants.