How UKG Is Building Its Brand and Business Through Diverse Athlete Partnerships
UKG is a $4 billion human capital and workforce management firm with 15,000 employees worldwide, created by the 2020 merger of Kronos Inc. and Ultimate Software. Having served as vice president, corporate marketing of Kronos for the previous 13 years, Steve is now responsible for UKG’s roster of world class athletes and marketing ambassadors, its global customer conference and large internal meetings, as well as business development teams.
Counting UKG among its clients, JP Sports + Entertainment is an independent agency comprised of experts in the golf, sports and entertainment industries.
Steve and Pete joined podcast host Jim Andrews to share the strategy and objectives behind the enterprise software giant’s athlete ambassador program, as well as how agency and client work together to achieve goals. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Steve, I think it would be helpful to begin with some background on UKG, which is the product of a merger between two companies, Ultimate Software and Kronos, that both had active sports marketing programs when they came together two and a half years ago. Can you tell us about how those sponsorship portfolios were brought together and how you operate today?
Steve: Kronos Incorporated was the fairly undisputed leader in workforce management software and Ultimate Software was among the leaders in human capital management. We came together in a merger of equals about two and a half years ago. At that time we were a little over $3 billion in revenue with about 13,000 employees. We are now over $4 billion in revenue and have about 15,000 employees worldwide.
For those who may not be familiar with workforce or human capital management, we are an enterprise software company that works primarily in time and attendance, workforce analytics, scheduling, benefit administration, payroll processing, recruiting, and onboarding. Pretty much everything from hire to retire.
Jim: Let’s talk about the sponsorship elements of the two companies. You were in charge of a portfolio for Kronos and then here comes another company that’s active in sports marketing but with a different perspective. How did those ultimately get integrated?
Steve: We brought two dynamite marketing teams together, looking at the talent and skill sets we had across the company, and decided to divide responsibilities. Based on my experience at Kronos, I took lead responsibility for our individual ambassadors. Ultimate Software had relationships with some sports teams, for example being on the jersey of the Miami Heat, so I have counterparts in the company who manage our team responsibilities.
Jim: Pete, tell us about your firm’s role in working with Steve and UKG. Can you tell us how JP Sports + Entertainment started working with UKG and what you do for them?
Pete: Steve and I met in 2015 when he was with Kronos and attended one of our events. We had some casual conversations in which he said that the company may want to develop marketing relationships in pro golf and other sports and he liked that we did not represent anybody. That differentiated us in terms of suggesting what might or might not make sense within individual athlete relationships.
We started with Steve and Kronos’ CMO and did an audit of the marketplace to give them a better perspective of what was going on—not just with their competitors, but in general. That led to Kronos retaining JPSE to assist with the entire program relative to individual athletes in multiple sports and be a sounding board across the entire golf landscape as well.
Steve: I had been beating the drum within Kronos for a couple of years and trying to get smarter myself about the entire area of sports marketing, particularly ambassadors. When we finally decided to make a modest investment in that part of our marketing portfolio, I had what you might call a WTF moment! Now that I had gotten that ball over the goal line, how was I going to go about it?
Based on my prior relationship with Pete, he was one of the first who came to mind. I reached out to him knowing that he and his team know many people across the sports landscape, and particularly in the field of golf. He helped me put together a request for proposal. He knew which agencies and agents to send it to and get answers from them to our questions, which basically were: “Who do you represent that has something available? What’s available—whether it’s the hat, the chest, the sleeve—and at what price?”
That was our jumping-off point for beginning to assemble a short list of candidates with which to start the roster.
Pete: One of the things we did, which we try to recommend to all of our clients, was a roadshow where we took Steve out to a tournament to meet a lot of the agents and players in person, as I don’t believe it makes sense to invest without having some connection prior to signing on the dotted line.
Jim: You have really grown and diversified the roster of UKG ambassadors in recent years and I would love for you to discuss the reasons behind that and also, could you talk about your process for screening, vetting and approving potential ambassadors to ensure they will be a good fit with your brand values and goals?
Steve: Pre-merger we had 17 athletes respectively between the two companies. As we brought the two companies together, we decided to compress that roster. Following the merger, we did not renew all of those contracts, which brought us down to around 10 athletes.
From there we have added a number of new ambassadors who better fit some of our priorities. As far as the vetting process, it starts with what sport we are targeting. The reason we are primarily in golf and tennis is because those are the sports that index best with our target audience in terms of c-suite and decision-makers, particularly around enterprise software. So that’s number one; you can take a number of sports off the list that don’t have the same level of viewership among the target audience.
As far as the athletes themselves are concerned, one of the best sources of intelligence in terms of who we might consider adding to the roster is our team itself. I certainly have reached out to members of our ambassador roster and asked their thoughts and opinions on different prospective additions to the team. I’d like to think that anytime we get that group together, they look to the left and right and say, “I’m proud to be part of this team,” so I put a lot of stock in the feedback we get from the team.
Diversity is a primary goal for UKG. Our tagline is “Our Purpose Is People.” We try to work with companies to help them create cultures and workplace environments where employees are highly engaged and we hold very dear a diverse workforce of people from all different backgrounds and we want that reflected in our ambassador roster. Many of the additions we have made since bringing the teams together have been to meet some of those diversity goals, whether that’s geographic diversity, ethnic diversity, etc. We added an adaptive athlete to our roster within the past couple of years.
Quite honestly, I’m not immediately aware of any other companies that have as diverse a rundown as we do.
Jim: You mentioned objectives. What is the “why” behind what you are doing? What are you getting out of these athlete relationships? And Pete maybe you can speak to this: How are you activating the partnerships with your ambassadors, because we all know it’s about more than just a logo on a shirt. How have you leveraged these relationships to bring value to UKG?
Steve: The = primary benefits of the ambassador program are 1) building and expanding brand awareness through exposure of the logo, primarily through television but also through social media and many of the platforms the athletes have and 2) customer connection, whether that’s through hospitality, golf outings, ways that we can leverage our relationships and extend that to our customers and prospects.
Pete: On the awareness side, as I recall, pre-merger both companies had awareness in the 70th or 80th percentile. Post-merger it dipped a fair amount in the short term, and this program was one way that really helped spike the levels back up to the levels that UKG required. Collectively, you can measure the media value—and it’s significant because fortunately Steve and the team selected a bunch of really good players who have had some great success—so the tangible value has been clear year over year.
Steve: As Pete said, prior to the merger, Kronos was in the 80s for unaided recall among the target audience and I believe Ultimate was right there in the high 70s. We created an all-new entity—new name, new tagline, new color palette, new logo—and in retrospect, our ambassador program has been a secret weapon in the sense that because we had programs established and in place that we could build upon, that immediately became a tool for the company to build brand awareness around this new name. I also think we have one of the best logos in the business—it really pops off the screen and pops off the apparel of our athletes.
I might just mention who the athletes on our roster are for those who may not be familiar. On the PGA Tour Champions, we have Freddy Couples. We added Notah Begay this year as he embarked on the senior tour. On the PGA Tour, we have Daniel Berger, J.T. Poston and Will Zalatoris, and we recently added Sahith Theegala. On the LPGA, we have a very robust roster: Jaye Marie Green, Marina Alex, Megan Khang, Brittany Altamore, Brooke Henderson, Lexi Thompson and Nelly Korda.
We also have a relationship with the National Women’s Soccer League and a pay-equity effort around that sport. Sydney Leroux and Christen Press are both ambassadors of the company. We also have on the roster Ash Barty, who at one time was ranked number one in women’s tennis, and former Navy Seal injured in Afghanistan Dan Cnossen is our adaptive athlete representative.
Jim: You mentioned social media earlier. Is there anything in particular you ask of your ambassadors? Yours is a B2B product, not something they are using day to day, so how does social media work for UKG?
Pete: Since the days of Kronos, we have a regular interaction scheduled every couple of weeks with the social team and there have been some success stories. The employee engagement piece to this is meaningful. There have been some one-offs that don’t meet the public eye, where the players support various things. On a higher profile, we’ve had the pros get involved with International Women’s Day. We have integrated them into philanthropic efforts. We have also had client engagement through social.
Steve: We’ve leveraged the relationships in many different ways. From a social media standpoint, it can be as simple as an athlete giving a shout out on the company’s anniversary to their followers and saying how much they value the relationship. We have had athletes record brief videos that we have used with customers and prospects in sales situations. About a year ago we did a putt for charity, where each week one of our LPGA players was challenged with making a series of putts from various distances and then they would hand off to one of their UKG teammates.
Pete: And we try not to jam them all into the same box. Not every ambassador has to participate in every program. We try to be thoughtful and figure out why it makes sense to integrate certain members of the overall team.
Jim: I’d also be interested to know how you respond when something unexpected happens, such as when one of your ambassadors, Ash Barty, makes the decision to retire at 25, ranked number one and coming off a Grand Slam victory. That obviously changes some plans you must have had, so how did you pivot?
Steve: Ash is a fantastic ambassador for UKG. We very much value our relationship with her. It did come as a surprise when she made that decision. We decided to redirect the activities we do with her since she’s not competing on a global stage anymore. We don’t get the brand exposure we would be getting in the final or semi-final of a major, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t be of great value to us, particularly in country in Australia, where she’s a national treasure.
So we rewrote the contract and redirected her activities but kept the relationship in place and count her among our ambassadors.
Jim: Steve, where would you like to see your sponsorship program go from here and what would that require from either your current or future partners? Pete, chime in here too!
Steve: We are very strategic in our roster additions. We have a very strong set of diversity goals, and as we think about expanding, or even contracting, the roster, that’s at the top of the list in terms of what we want to accomplish.
We always have to be cost conscious. We don’t have an unlimited budget, so we want to be very judicious in the way that we are making investments. We want to make sure that our ambassadors continue to represent the values that we want our brand to stand for.