American Express Serves Sponsorship Ace at U.S. Open

 

When we talk about long-term partnerships, you don’t need to look much further than American Express’ 17 year partnership with the United States Tennis Open.  In struggling economic times when we often see companies cutting back on sponsorship programs, American Express has continued to see the value of partnering with USA’s Tennis Grand Slam event, which in 2009 saw a tournament record 721,059 pass through the turnstiles over the course of 26 sessions.  Maybe even more impressive, net sponsorship revenue increased 6% according to the United States Tennis Association, which secured new partnerships with Esurance, Starwood Hotels, Mercedes Benz and Panasonic. 

But when you look specifically at American Express’ partnership with the US Open, it’s clear to me that the longevity and success of the relationship are not based purely on exposure and associating with their target markets, but also on the ability to creatively activate and leverage the partnership.   Here are some of the ways American Express is activating during the 2010 US Open:

·       American Express’ NextContenders.com.com: (Visit http://NextContenders.com) Tennis enthusiasts can follow rising tennis stars John Isner, Sam Querrey, Caroline Wozniacki and Melanie Oudin as they train for the US Open with exclusive behind-the-scenes footage giving a glimpse into their personal lives; learn about the signature shot that has defined their game; hear interviews from the players and their coaches and family; and get insider commentary and player insights over the course of the tournament.

·       American Express® Radio Live at the US Open: Complimentary for Cardmembers, the Radios allow fans to listen to play-by-play commentary and match updates on CBS, ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel while they watch the action live from the courts. Fans can also hear special live interviews and player spotlights on John Isner, Sam Querrey, Caroline Wozniacki and Melanie Oudin, who share their personal stories of triumph, disappointment and inspiration on and off the court.

·      Official iPhone Application of the US Open: American Express has partnered with the USTA and IBM for the second year to offer all tennis fans the official US Open iPhone application to access an insider’s guide with live scores, game highlights and USOpen.org’s live radio commentary. Special American Express features include an interactive grounds map highlighting American Express Cardmember benefits, video content with pro players John Isner, Sam Querrey, Caroline Wozniacki and Melanie Oudin, and “Ask the Booth,” that also allows users to submit questions that will be answered by tennis insiders throughout the tournament on USOpen.org Radio.

 

 

·      USOpen.org Radio, Presented by American Express:Through this internet radio broadcast, tennis fans can enjoy the energy of the tournament even while away from the courts. The highlights show features hourly updates on players and captures insights and commentary. 

·      US Open Guest Information hosted by American Express:Comprehensive tournament information, along with on-site restaurant and transportation assistance offered by American Express, will help attendees make the most of their experience at the tournament and stay in the know about all of the exciting activities surrounding them.

·      American Express Concierge Booth: Exclusive for Cardmembers, concierge representatives can help with all your tournament needs from making reservations to downloading the Official US Open iPhone application for you. Merchandise bag check will also be available so Cardmembers can enjoy the Open with ease.

·      Madison Square Park US Open Viewing hosted by ZYNC from American ExpressSM: Bringing back a favorite from years past, ZYNC from American Express will be transforming Madison Square Park into its largest ZYNC Zone yet, providing attendees the ultimate tennis experience with giant viewing screens, local NYC-area concessions, an interactive photo booth and ping pong tournaments sponsored by SPiN New York, the table-tennis social club.

I had the chance to talk with Jessica Igoe, Director of Sponsorship Marketing at American Express, about their involvement with the US Open and their decisions in activating the partnership:

(1) A lot of sponsors get a logo on a property's website or some ad units.  American Express has gone beyond this with the creation of NextContenders.com. My first introduction to the site actually came via US Open's Facebook status update.  Can you talk about the value of having NextContenders.com actually hosted on USOpen.org and being promoted via the official site, US Open's Twitter & Facebook pages?  

Jessica Igoe: American Express has been a proud partner of the US Open for 17 years and we are always looking for innovative ways to partner together. In today’s virtual world where online and social networking is critical, it was only natural for us to work closely with the USTA to have NextContenders.com.com promoted on the tournament’s site and social networking arms.

(2)  Online media is so important now, not only when it comes to activating a partnership, but in the contractual phase and discussions with the property.  Can you give us a little insight on how American Express went about this with the USTA (as it relates to NextContenders.com)?  

JI: While I can’t share specifics around our contracts or discussions with the USTA, I can say that we are very excited to be able to partner with them to promote NextContenders.com.com and have worked hand-in-hand to create a strong, mutually beneficial partnership that allows us to engage with tennis fans online and give them information that they can’t find anywhere else.

(3)  Can you talk about the additional media partnerships & buys you have to further leverage the partnership and specifically drive traffic to NextContenders.com.com?  
JI: Along with the USTA, we are also promoting American Express’ NextContenders.com.com on Tennis.com, TennisChannel.com, ESPN.com, SI.com, Yelp and Metromix.  We also have broadcast content airing on CBS and ESPN 2, print ads in Tennis Magazineand the US Open Program Guide, radio units and outdoors advertisements around the US Open and at Madison Square Garden.

(4) NextContenders.com is certainly a different philosophy than the Mojo campaign a few years ago with Andy Roddick.  Can you talk a little bit about this strategic philosophy and how American Express is maybe not directly tying themselves as much to the on-court success of the athlete, but rather the on and off-the-court process it takes to be a tennis superstar.  Beyond Caroline Wozniacki, the odds were that Sam Querrey, John Isner and Melanie Oudin wouldn't be in the finals or semifinals (nothing against them of course).

JI: We wanted to reinvest our commitment to the sport through up-and-coming talent who will shape the future of the tennis industry. Working with rising tennis stars Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Querrey, John Isner and Melanie Oudin is a way for us to do just that.  With NextContenders.com.com, we are bringing our Cardmembers and tennis enthusiasts a deeper insight and fresh perspective into the game they love, and encouraging their passion for the game.

(5)  I think American Express has done a great job in recognizing the off-the-court (personalities) content is just as valuable as the on-the-court/technical analysis & content.  In the few weeks that the site has been live, do the metrics back up this rationale?

JI: NextContenders.com.com launched a few weeks ago and we are very encouraged by the response thus far. We look forward to having people enjoy the site as the US Open continues and will have a better sense of metrics once the tournament has ended. 

(6)  What are the plans for the NextContenders.com site after the US Open ends?  Do you have a longer term relationship with these athletes?  I know tennis fans seek out this material on a year long basis, especially when it's difficult to access major or national tennis coverage.

JI: NextContenders.com.com will be live throughout the US Open. We are currently evaluating what our plans will be once it ends.

(7)  With us learning on a daily basis about social and online media, what is one thing you would change or add in the future to the NextContenders.com' site (I recognize that you haven't had much time to fully analyze & evaluate, but maybe there is one thing that stands out).
A: We’re really pleased with the success of NextContenders.com.com thus far. Given that the site just launched in mid-August, we have not had enough time to fully evaluate the site to comment on any thing we’d change just yet, but we do always look to improve upon our programs. 

(8)  You've been a partner of the US Open for 17 years now.  In my articles and on a recent Sports Business Radio show, I talked about the importance of having the property's involvement and support throughout the entire partnership (i.e. not just selling the sponsorship, putting logos up and providing assets).  What are some of these valued components and key takeaways from this long term relationship that maybe other properties and brands can implement and learn from?  (For example, I speak a lot about the importance of sponsor summits and quarterly meetings, etc).

A: We are very proud of our long-standing partnership with the US Open and relationship with the USTA. Each year, we work closely with the USTA to create exciting onsite programs and premium benefits for Cardmembers designed to enhance the spectator experience at the US Open, as well as initiatives that support people’s passion for tennis long-term. This year, we are particularly excited about our new program called “Fresh Courts.” As part of the program, we are helping to renovate underserved tennis facilities in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York this year.

Here are some of my key takeaways and insights from this partnership:

  • American Express took a partnership with an event property and further leveraged it by signing 4 tennis players (2 males and 2 females).  This helps brings the partnership to “life” with dynamic personalities and provides more points of contact for American Express. 

Do you have brand ambassadors with your event partnerships?

  • NextContenders.com is a great online platform that combines social media and behind-the-scenes access at the US Open, but this platform does not stand alone in the massive world wide web.  It is hosted and lives on the official website of the US Open (USOpen.org), which is an inherent source to drive traffic to the platform, as well as integrated into the US Open Radio and official iPhone app.  The USOpen also has a Facebook Fan Page (over 140,000 members) and a Twitter account (over 32,000 followers) and posts updates/links on new NextContenders.com content. The 4 NextContender tennis players have also been posting links to their content on their respective twitter accounts.  Having it hosted on USOpen.org and promoted in the various social media channels are so valuable to the success of the platform.  I have seen great online content platforms with poor web traffic due to the fact that the platform is not tied to the event or property.  It is often a separate site that is either difficult to find or requires an overly expensive media spend to drive traffic.  American Express has used their media partnerships and buys to nicely tie everything together – their partnership with the Open, their relationships with the four tennis players and their new platform.
  • A few years back American Express had a campaign with Andy Roddick, which focused around Roddick winning the US Open or at the very least coming close.  Surprisingly to many Roddick lost in the first round that year.  American Express has done a great job in realizing that they don’t need to tie their brand to the direct success of athletes on the tennis court.  NextContenders.com is more about bringing you closer to the players of the future and their experiences pre and post match, as well as their off-the-court personalities.  We live in an era where people love to know details of what athletes are listening to on their iPod, their pre-match routines, how they spend their time off-the-court, etc.  Certainly an advantage of having four different athletes is that each has a unique personality and can provide various insights. 

We all want to be associated with winning athletes, but how does it affect your campaigns when they don’t win?  How can you create campaigns that you can control and are successful regardless of athletes’ results?

  • American Express is rewarding existing card members who attend the US Open by enriching their tennis experience.  So many sponsorships are based on driving new business and customer acquisition (of course American Express wants their Cardmembers to also pull out the American Express card when making purchases), but they really invest in making their Cardmembers feel special.  In many cases, we see just the opposite.  Ever go to a baseball game and see the promotional booths with people trying to get you to sign-up for their product and you’ll get a free towel or bag?  I’ve gone up to these people and have said “I already have your product, but I really like that bag, can I have one?”  I’ve even showed them that I have the product.  The typical response is “I’m sorry, this is only for new customers.”  Doesn’t that interaction leave you feeling special and extra good about the product?!? I didn’t think so! American Express makes sure that their Cardmembers feel special, while at the same time communicating to non-Cardmembers: “Don’t you want to join American Express and have an even better experience at the US Open?” I love the dual-purpose approach.
  • Something we don’t see enough of … Partners collaborating with other partners!  American Express and IBM have worked together on the official iPhone application, which has some unique and helpful features, including augmented reality, allowing you to see “through the walls” at the US Open. 

Are your partners combining their resources and talents to produce unique and attractive offerings? 

  • As I mentioned before, American Express enhances the US Open experience for those attending the Grand Slam, but they also bring the US Open to many more who are not able to attend the live event by transforming Madison Square Park into a tennis filled festival atmosphere.  If people can’t go to the “party”, bring the “party” to them and find creative ways to interact and engage.
  • And lastly, companies today, more than ever, are recognizing the importance of having corporate social responsibility programs tied to their partnership.  American Express continues to show their support of the tennis community by helping to renovate tennis courts in three major US cities. 

Without knowing return on investment figures or valuation metrics, I believe American Express’ US Open partnership is a great example of how companies can activate and leverage their relationships to successfully interact and engage with current and future customers.  When I look at everything they are doing around the US Open, I think there are two mentalities based on tennis fans’ interactions with American Express: “I’m glad to be an American Express Cardmember” or “I want to be part of the American Express family of Cardmembers.”  And as long as American Express continues to evoke these sentiments, I expect that we’ll continue to see them have a prominent role in future US Open tournaments.

I would like to thank Jessica Igoe for her willingness to answer my questions during an extremely busy time.  Based on the history of American Express’ involvement with the US Open, I know Jessica and her team will continue to build upon their success.  I look forward to seeing “what’s next” for them.

I’d also like to thank Katie Lowie, Manager Corporate Affairs & Communications at American Express, for her assistance.

    

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