Flying New Routes: How United Airlines Is Expanding the Purpose of Sports and Entertainment Partnerships
Rahsaan is responsible for aligning United with leading sports, entertainment and lifestyle properties, including working with partners to invest in the communities the airline serves and where its employees live and work, demonstrate the airline’s investments in customer service and operational improvements and reward the loyalty of United’s most frequent flyers. He also serves as vice president of UNITE, the airline’s business resource group promoting and leveraging the value of racial and ethnic diversity.
Rahsaan joined the All Access podcast and host Jim Andrews to discuss the shifting role of sponsorship and what it requires of brands and their partners to be successful. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: I’d like to start with a broad question about your industry and then quickly get into specifics about United and your role. The airline category has always been very active in sponsorship, but I feel it’s sometimes a bit of a mystery to those outside of it. So can you walk us through a few of the important aspects, and maybe some of the less obvious ones, that organizations that partner with airlines—or that want to partner with them—should understand about the airline business?
Rahsaan: Airlines are extraordinarily complicated and extraordinarily simple at the same time. Starting with the simple part, we get people from Point A to Point B safely thousands of times a day. The complicated part is how airlines sell and market.
What airlines do to bring a customer or type of customer to choose Airline A over Airline B or Airline C is where things get complicated. We are often very different from one another in how we entice a consumer to choose one airline versus another. Not every traveler is the same; not every traveler is motivated to do the same thing. There are some people who just want to pay the lowest fare. There are some people who need to leave by nine and be back by five and for them the fare is not as important. There are some people who say, “If I’m going to be on the plane for 10 hours, I need to lie flat, eat on fine china and have a great experience,” while there are others who say, “I’m on the plane for 10 hours but my vacation is for two weeks, I just want to get there the cheapest way possible and enjoy my destination.
That’s all to say airlines are very alike in what drives us every day is moving people, goods, ideas, thoughts, capabilities and cultures from one place to the next to the next. But what goes into our thinking and how we do it, what goes into the value proposition from one airline to the next is very different.
Jim: So are we doing a disservice by trying to talk about the category if there is so much distinction between the “product” or at least the way the product is marketed?
Rahsaan: I wouldn’t say that. But in many markets there are incumbent airlines, which have been serving the market or a route for some period of time, flying the most passengers, etc. And then there is a new entrant. Both are in the business of moving people safely; both are trying to drive as much revenue as possible in doing so. One of those companies is trying its best to keep its customer base while the other is trying to take those customers and potentially growing that base. What each will do to market to new and existing consumers is going to be different; not every airline is out to do the same thing when it comes to marketing.
One of the interesting things when it comes to airline sponsorships is that we have so many alternatives to reach people who want to fly. So I would say to a sponsorship seller or someone who wants to partner with an airline from a marketing perspective, the first thing I suggest is to try to understand what the alternatives are. United Airlines is one of the oldest airline brands in the world. There are very few people who need to fly in the U.S. or in a number of destinations around the world who have not heard of United. Same is true for the other largest airlines in the U.S.
United does not look for sponsorships to help build brand awareness. Number one, awareness is already there. Number two, awareness can be achieved through far less costly means, including digital advertising. I would urge a seller who is approaching an airline talking about putting the brand in front of a great fan base, to remember that there are online travel sites and social media networks who can also do that for pennies on the dollar.
So even though it’s absolutely true for a seller to say, “Our fans are likely to become fans of United if you sponsor us,” we need to know what is the next thing that we can do together to actually encourage that fan base to want to do business with my airline versus another one.
Jim: That’s a great lead in to talking about what you have been doing specifically at United, because there has been a change in the company’s partnership objectives, and if I’m not mistaken, it’s the reason “Inclusive Partnerships” was added to your title a few months ago. Can you tell us about the shift that’s been underway, especially what the impetus was and the reasons for making the pivot?
Rahsaan: Adding inclusive partnerships into our sponsorship function was largely about codifying and formalizing an approach that looks at sponsorship beyond simply the traditional brand-property relationship. What can we be doing to impact communities through community development, business development and diversity and inclusion?
There are so many different ways that we as sponsorship professionals bring value to United and bring value to the properties we sponsor. We look at inclusive partnerships as how do we take some of those same elements, learnings and skill sets in the sponsorships team at United and expand how we look at sponsorships and partnerships to achieve many of the same goals. It shows up in how we execute and activate, and who we partner with.
For example, how do we broaden our relationships with particular universities? In the past, we may have been focused on athletic programs. Can we look more at how we partner more deeply with those schools across athletics and academics? How can we engage students more? How can we as a sponsorships team support properties in reaching younger audiences, more diverse audiences, people of color, women, etc.
Jim: You’ve put that new approach into action with a number of your partners. Which of those programs are you particularly proud of and/or are performing the best?
Rahsaan: There are a lot we are proud of! No surprise to anybody that with the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the early ending of the NBA and NHL seasons, plus the restart with no fans in arenas, brands had to pivot in conjunction with properties to find new ways to activate.
Our focus was working with properties to support those communities, to figure out a way to strengthen communities as we were moving through the pandemic. With several properties, we very deliberately chose to focus on business development–particularly development of small businesses, minority-owned businesses, black-owned businesses and women-owned businesses—and workforce development.
Specifically, with the Chicago White Sox, we worked with one of the nonprofit organizations that United and the White Sox mutually sponsor to do a workforce development program for young people to virtually get together, network and learn about business.
With the Denver Broncos, United was a lead sponsor of a program called Broncos Business Boost, where the Broncos were asking their fans to tweet and post about their favorite small businesses in the Denver metropolitan area. The businesses that got the most posts would then get Broncos marketing support.
With the Chicago Blackhawks, we were the first corporate sponsor of a nonprofit support program called One West Side and a minority business grant program called Support West.
With the Chicago Bulls, United was the first corporate sponsor of Chicago Shows Up, a program to highlight individuals and groups in Chicago that were doing things to make the community better, particularly moving people through the pandemic.
We’ve done others as well, including grant programs with the Washington Football Team and the Golden State Warriors. That’s where our pivot has taken us through the course of the pandemic and it’s been very successful and is where we will continue to go.
Jim: That’s important to note. This is not something that even though it may have been prompted by the pandemic is short-term. When we get to 2022 or 2023, things are not going back to “business as usual.”
Rahsaan: That’s exactly right. I think back to 2018 when we announced our support of the New Jersey Devils. This is an NHL team based in Newark, New Jersey and I’m not saying anything that will surprise anybody when I say that hockey is not the most popular sport of African-Americans and Hispanics. Newark is a largely African-American and Hispanic city.
When we started talking to the Devils in mid-2018, we were looking at what sort of announcement we could have to kick off this relationship that would actually make an impact on the lives of people in Newark and also show the interest that the Devils organization has in broadening and diversifying its fan base and being increasingly relevant to people in its hometown–where United is one of the largest employers.
We announced the initiative by rehabbing a playground at a charter school that had mostly African-American and Hispanic students, unveiling it on the first day of school. That was the sort of thing we were beginning to dip our toes into in 2018. The pandemic pushed us into more of that sort of thing and the results have been great.
Jim: You mentioned a program—the Franchise Fund with the Golden State Warriors—that I’d like to go a little deeper into because not only is a great community activation, but the origin story, if you’d be so kind to tell it, really highlights what a “good partner” can bring to the table.
Rahsaan: When the 2020-21 NBA season was shortened, the Warriors came to us to discuss that they were not going to be able to meet all of their contractual obligations to us for assets and benefits because they were playing fewer games. They brought some great ideas for things we could do based on conversations we had had about how we could pivot some of those assets toward helping small and/or minority-owned and/or black-owned businesses.
What is particularly interesting is that the Warriors had had internal discussions about their own investment in black- and minority-owned businesses and shared with us research done with their supplier diversity group and other business partners showing that one of the barriers to doing business with minority suppliers was that many of these business owners are so focused on running their businesses that they don’t have the time, the bandwidth and often the money to get certified as Minority Business Enterprises.
So the Warriors came to us with the idea to work together with the Western Regional Minority Supplier Development Council and their certification program to incentivize Bay Area businesses to go through that certification by removing some of the barriers to going through that process. With certification they are able to compete for more contracts and more business. We launched and opened applications for that program in May and have selected the first 25 businesses as of mid-August.
Jim: I love the program because it really shows the power of the two organizations coming together and doing something that theoretically either could have done on its own, but working together has exponentially increased the impact, whether it’s using Warriors players to record videos that brought attention to it or leveraging the corporate resources of a global airline.
Rahsaan: Our roles sit at the intersection of building communities, helping businesses and strengthening young people on the one hand and marketing on the other. People ask me why an airline would get into programs like this. We want these communities and neighborhoods to be strong because we live, work, shop and send our kids to school there. We want the businesses to be strong so they are hiring people who will fly United on their next business trip or next vacation. So there is a bit of a self-serving reason in there also.
But the other side of it is that for a partnerships to be done right, we should be able to reach people who are not fans of the property or customers of United Airlines. Going back to the Devils announcement in 2018, if we had done a traditional event at Prudential Center, hockey fans would have cared. But you don’t have to be a hockey fan to care about United Airlines and the New Jersey Devils rehabbing a playground at a charter school in downtown Newark. It was good for the community, it was good for the school, it was good for the students and their families. It was also good for marketing purposes. If we can build United’s customer base and build the Devils fan base, we can build some more playgrounds also.
Jim: A previous guest on this podcast, Natalie Bowman of Alaska Airlines, mentioned that her company is tasking partners such as the San Francisco Giants and Seattle Seahawks with hitting sales targets through their promotions. Anything similar happening at United with your partner promotions?
Rahsaan: I mentioned earlier that often the biggest competitor to United sponsoring Property X is not United sponsoring Property Y, but United marketing to consumers in some other way. Digital advertising, a fare sale, a print ad, whatever it might be.
What we have started doing, which is different maybe than sponsorships five years ago, is looking much more closely at data and analytics to measure and establish that there is a benefit to having this sponsorship and doing what we are doing with Property X. In other words, with many of our properties, we have certain digital assets on the property website. We look at the click-through rates and I would like the click-through rate with a sponsored property to be higher than for an ad we bought on YouTube or on your favorite website. If it’s not, then we have to question whether we could have taken some of that cost and applied it to digital advertising at a much lower cost.
As for specific revenue goals, we have talked with certain properties about that, about doing special fares or sales, but I’m looking at it more from the perspective of if the sponsorship fee is a marketing premium, then the results should be higher than the lower-cost marketing alternatives. That is something we talk about with properties fairly extensively.
I have never had a property come back and say, “I don’t know, we’re out of ideas.” The properties we work with really want to understand our business objectives. Not just who are the customers we have and how do we talk to them, not just who is the population in a particular city, but what are the demographics of the people who are not choosing to fly United Airlines and how can we work together to reach those people. We’ve had some really interesting conversations with properties about that. And that’s where I would like to see more of this go.