Peanut butter marketers are growing their appetite for sponsorship.

Both established and upstart players are aligning with cycling teams, marathons and other types of endurance sports to position peanut butter as a product for fit, active consumers.

“Everyone in our industry is waking up to the fact that peanut butter isn’t just for kids anymore. Athletes are always looking for protein and energy, and peanut butter delivers that in spades,” said Lee Zalben, founder and president of Peanut Butter & Co., which sells its eponymous brand in Target Corp., Safeway Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and other national and regional chains.

And the company is using sponsorship to promote that message. Peanut Butter & Co. this year inked co-title of the Human Zoom cycling team and is scouting ties with other amateur teams.

Other players also are using sponsorship to reach active consumers. For example, The J.M Smucker Co. has sponsored a handful of running events over the past year on behalf of its Adams natural peanut butter brand. Deals include the Portland Half Marathon and Divas Half Marathon in Vail, Colo.

The peanut butter and jelly giant also uses sponsorship to promote Jif, the dominant player in the peanut butter category. Ties include the Kick It 3 v 3 youth soccer tournament (Jif to Go) and the Wal-Mart FLW Fishing Tour, a partnership the company uses to promote Jif, Folgers and other brands.

Those deals come amid a backdrop of rising sales in the peanut butter category. Sales of peanut butter rose 18.3 percent at supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandise outlets in the year-ended May 13, according to SymphonyIRIGroup.

The increase in sales is largely driven by a shortage of peanuts, which has forced a number of brands to raise prices. Unit sales in the category declined 2.3 percent in the same period, according to the market research firm.

In addition to touting a health message, peanut butter marketers use sponsorship to sample product, gain platforms for retail promotions and promote new line extensions. For example, Smucker last month rolled out several hazelnut-flavored spreads for the Jiff brand.

Seeking Deals: Peanut Butter & Co.
Demonstrating the growing role of sponsorship in the category, Peanut Butter & Co. plans to expand its presence in the cycling space by aligning with six or seven regional amateur teams over the next year.

The objective: Build visibility in front of active, health conscious adults and promote the healthy, versatile attributes of peanut butter.

The new sponsorship push isn’t the company’s first foray into the cycling space. Peanut Butter & Co. over the past two years titled the TWENTY12 women’s professional cycling team. The team features Kristin Armstrong, an Olympic gold medalist and spokesperson for the National Peanut Board.

The company sponsored the team through the 2011 season, after which it was replaced by Exergy Development Group as title sponsor.

Peanut Butter & Co. opted for a different course in 2012 by sponsoring a network of amateur cycling teams. The company kicked off the strategy earlier this year with co-title of Human Zoom, a team based out of Philadelphia. 

Peanut Butter & Co. was drawn to amateur athletes due to their passion for the sport, said Zalben.

“They work, raise families and still find time to nurture their passion by competing on weekends. That’s something our customers can identify with.”

Local athletes also play a role in the company’s activation strategy. Peanut Butter & Co. plans to promote Human Zoom and other cycling teams on shelf talkers and other in-store promotional material.

Promotions that highlight local athletes often have more relevancy than those with athletes based in other markets, said Zalben.

“If you see an image of a pro cycling team out of California, you might say “This is neat. This company is involved in cycling.’ If you see the same piece with a local cyclist, you get a sense that this brand is not only invested in sports, but sports in your community. We think that’s a powerful connection.”

Peanut Butter & Co. activates Human Zoom by distributing coupons and samples at races. It also promotes the team through a dedicated Web site—www.pbcoracing.com—as well as a Facebook page and Twitter feed.

The marketer also sells product at Human Zoom, a bike and snowboard retailer that operates two stores in Philadelphia.

“One of the most important things that I’ve learned as a sponsor is that you really have to be prepared to invest the same amount of money in activation as in the actual sponsorship.  If you aren’t, then I don’t think you’ll ever really see a positive return on the investment,” said Zalben.

The company hopes to partner with two or three more teams this year and a similar number next year, said Zalben, who plans to have eight teams spread throughout the country by the end of 2013.