Pleased with its three-year-old sports marketing program, Yokohama Tire Corp. plans to expand its sponsorship portfolio this year with new ties to pro sports teams and college athletic programs in up to 12 U.S. markets.

Yokohama is expanding its sponsorship portfolio as other players in the tire category also ramp up their use of the medium. Case in point: Bridgestone Americas, Inc. last month announced a five-year, estimated low-to-mid-seven-figure-per-year MLB sponsorship on behalf of its Firestone brand.

For its part, Yokohama is eyeing major sports teams that have a large and loyal fan base, said Fred Koplin, the company’s director of marketing communications.

Koplin points to the NFL Chicago Bears as an example. “Having lived in Chicago and sat in Solider Field, I know what it’s like to be a Bears fan. I look for teams with an avid fan base, as opposed to a team that has lots of fans, but an ‘If I miss a game, it’s no big deal’ attitude.”

While Yokohama has primarily focused on NBA, NFL and college sports teams, it has not ruled out franchises in other leagues, said Koplin, whose goal is to align with the most popular team in a market. For example, the St. Louis Cardinals are the biggest team in the Gateway City, he said.

Yokohama is expanding its sponsorship portfolio after seeing positive results from its ties to the NBA Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs; the NFL Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns; and the University of California, Los Angeles and University of Southern California athletics.

The subsidiary of Tokyo-based Yokohama Rubber Co., which initially launched its sponsorship program to build brand awareness beyond motorsports enthusiasts, uses the program to gain promotional platforms to drive dealer traffic and entertain independent tire retailers.

“We saw favorable results immediately,” said Koplin, who tracks metrics ranging from unit sales to changes in brand awareness, response to promotional programs and dealer advertising support to determine success.

Yokohama activates each deal with the Home Pride Jersey promotion, offering replica team jerseys and other team-themed merchandise to customers who purchase four tires.

“In every case so far, we have increased sales relative to both the market in total and to sales in markets where we did not run a promotion,” Koplin said.

Yokohama launched its sponsorship program in ’07 with ties to the NFL Atlanta Falcons, as well as the Browns and Ravens, UCLA and USC, and two minor league baseball teams: the Triple-A Columbus Clippers and Double-A Redding Phillies.

The company added the Celtics and Spurs the following year and dropped the Clippers and Phillies for two other minor league teams: The Triple-A Memphis Redbirds and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

Yokohama ended its relationship with the Falcons at the end of the ’07 NFL season to distance itself from Michael Vick’s dog-fighting scandal, Koplin said. It ended its minor league baseball program at the end of ’08 due to limited dealer support and lackluster consumer enthusiasm for the promotion.

Yokohama also maintains endemic sponsorships, including deals with three auto racing venues—Road Atlanta; Sonoma, Calif.’s Infineon Raceway; and Florida’s Sebring Int’l Raceway—as well as the Los Angeles Auto Show and the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

The company also has deals with motorsports teams, including a new partnership with RocketSports Racing for a team in the American LeMans Series.

What Makes A Successful Property For Yokohama
When asked what makes a good property to work with, Koplin cited the following attributes:

Properties that understand sponsor objectives and are creative in fulfilling benefits. Realizing the importance of hospitality to Yokohama, the Falcons overcame a shortage of luxury suites by accessing a suite from the team’s radio partner.

“They said, ‘We can’t make you perfectly happy on this, but we can do something else,’ ” Koplin said. “Teams need to understand that some assets are absolutely required, and if they can’t offer exactly what’s required, they need to find ways to be creative.”

Properties that communicate on a regular basis. Communication on an ongoing basis is key to any partnership.

“Some teams call twice a year and others call once a week; the right partner is somewhere in between,” Koplin said.

“To maintain a good relationship, properties need to talk to sponsors more than just when they need something.”

Properties that provide post-event fulfillment reports. The Browns and Ravens provide recap reports that include attendance ratings, TV ratings and other stats important to Yokohama.

“One team couldn’t tell me how many people were at a game where we ran a promotion. That’s pathetic.”

Properties that go beyond terms of the contract. The Falcons took the initiative to brainstorm and implement on-site programs to build awareness of a Yokohama promotion inside the Georgia Dome.

“It was something that showed extra initiative on their part to get things done,” Koplin said.