Bacardi U.S.A., Inc. has stocked its sponsorship portfolio with a wide variety of new partnerships on behalf of its flagship rums.

The spirits company has spent an estimated low seven figures this year on several national and regional deals, including a groundbreaking tie with the NBA—the first of the country’s four major pro sports leagues with a sponsor in the spirits category—as well as official spirit of the Black Eyed Peas’ The E.N.D. World Tour.

On the regional level, Bacardi has recently signed several new partnerships, including Louisville’s Churchill Downs racetrack and Traverse City, Mich.’s National Cherry Festival presented by Verizon Wireless.

Those sponsorships for Bacardi’s extensive line of rums join other Bacardi U.S.A. partnerships, including Grey Goose vodka’s sponsorship of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and the USTA’s U.S Open, and Bombay Sapphire gin’s sponsorship of Miami’s ATP/WTA Tour Sony Ericsson Open and American Airlines Arena.

IEG SR spoke with Maggie McDonnell, brand director for Bacardi Rums, about the brand’s use of sponsorship, the reasoning behind new ties, the use of local deals, and more. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

IEG SR: Within the span of two months—February to April—Bacardi announced two large partnerships: the NBA and Black Eyed Peas. This would seem to signal that sponsorship is playing a more important role in the brand’s marketing mix. True?

McDonnell: The timing is a coincidence. We were working the NBA partnership for almost a year, while we made the Black Eyed Peas sponsorship happen in a week.

As a brand, we are doing more sponsorship by starting from the consumer perspective: What are they doing? And how can we best engage them and influence their thinking? We look for areas where we will have the most impact.

We’re always looking for other opportunities, not just to be a sponsor, but to have a deep partnership where we can look for ways to extend the relationship well beyond the consumer interaction with a property.

IEG SR: So how does that work with the NBA relationship?

McDonnell: We started looking at the NBA more than a year ago on behalf of Bacardi Gold, a brand that has been in a little bit of a decline. We conducted research and discovered the brand was not connecting with consumers.

Bacardi Gold has a different audience from Bacardi Superior, our flagship product. The Bacardi Gold customer is older, over the age of 25, as opposed to the 21-year-old, entry-level drinker. The Bacardi Gold customer also skews more male than Bacardi Superior.

What can you do to resonate with men over the age of 25? Sports and girls top the list.

We used market research data to look at sports leagues, and the NBA seemed like the sweet spot. It draws the general market, Hispanics and African-Americans. Other sports leagues primarily index against just one.

We spent a long time talking to the NBA. It goes back to not being interested in just doing sponsorship. We want properties that treat the relationship as a true partnership and are willing to work with us to bring something of value to consumers.

There are a lot of components to the sponsorship and a lot of doors opened for us.

IEG SR: Can you provide an example?

McDonnell: Bacardi Gold doesn’t have a large TV budget, and national TV would normally be off the table. But the NBA works closely with TNT, and they brought us an offer to be on-air during NBA broadcasts on TNT. We’re also showing our TV ads on NBA.com.

Partnering with the NBA also has opened a number of doors in terms of public relations, including our consumer responsibility agenda. We partnered with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund to make sure a good portion of the sponsorship goes back into the community. (Editor’s note: You can read about the specifics of the Gold Standard Scholarship program here.)

All cylinders are working much more efficiently through our partnership with the NBA than if we were to do these things on our own.

IEG SR: How else are you activating the NBA sponsorship?

McDonnell: The NBA season runs eight months, and we will leverage the partnership with on-premise accounts. That will include NBA-themed point-of-sale material, and we will also bring in the Bacardi Girls.

With off-premise accounts, we plan to use NBA-themed displays with Bacardi nets and balls. In larger stores, we will run looped DVDs with our TNT ad.

In markets where it is legal, we will run a consumer sweepstakes offering tickets to the NBA All-Star Game. The more we work with the NBA on custom programs, the more we will get out of the partnership.

Speaking of which, the NBA will host its partner summit in New York City at the end of July. We have already seen some synergy from other NBA partners, such as Hewlett-Packard.

They told us they like what we are doing with the consumer sweepstakes, and that they would like to give winners some HP printers, which we were absolutely interested in. We cannot wait to get to that meeting and make our relationship even stronger.

IEG SR: What was appealing about the Black Eyed Peas?

McDonnell: The Black Eyed Peas are a hot property: They set a record for the longest successive No. 1 chart run by a duo or group in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 and they’ve won 16 Grammys. It is a global tour with 95 dates, and we are a global brand. The tour is an opportunity to leverage the strength of the partnership well beyond the U.S.

Like the NBA partnership, we also liked the opportunity to activate beyond arenas.

Leading up to the shows, we conduct on- and off-premise promotions that remind people about the tour and the Bacardi-sponsored post-show party.

On site, we have merchandising, an experiential area where attendees can have their photos taken, and we sell a special Black Eyed Peas drink, the Bacardi V.I.Pea. We have received an amazing amount of press through the association.

IEG SR: Bacardi became title sponsor of the Infield Club at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks race, which takes place the day before the Derby. What was behind that deal?

McDonnell: The previous sponsor didn’t renew, which opened up the opportunity for us.

This was our first year with Churchill Downs, but we have had a five-year history on behalf of Bacardi Mojito with the Kentucky Derby—an event known for the Mint Julep—through an association with Fourth Street Live! (the downtown Louisville entertainment and retail complex that is home to pre- and post-race celebrations).

The partnership helps make Bacardi Mojito better known and gain trial and affinity. The opportunity arose and we immediately jumped on it.

IEG SR: Bacardi is active on the regional and local levels. What can you tell us about that activity?

McDonnell: Our local market teams take care of those types of relationships. They have objectives—this is the consumer we are trying to reach, this is the experience we are trying to bring them—and they evaluate partnerships based on those parameters.

The Cherry Festival made a lot of sense. We just launched Bacardi Torched Cherry, a fruit-flavored rum. We would not have sponsored the event in the past, but this made sense due to the new product launch.

We sponsor a number of other local events, such as the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

IEG SR: How do the local market teams operate?

McDonnell: Our local sales teams are empowered with budgets and certain priorities in terms of consumer targeting and execution. Those teams are located in nearly every market.

We also have a field marketing group sprinkled throughout major metro areas. They take our national plans and figure out the optimal way to implement them in their local markets.

We have close to 20 field marketing people spread throughout the country, and more than 100 sales staff. They are always looking for local opportunities where we can bring our brand to life and achieve the marketing objectives for a particular brand.

IEG SR: How does Bacardi determine success?

McDonnell: That’s the million-dollar question and something that we struggle with. We’re at the stage where we have softer goals and metrics, such as, “This event clearly impacted this consumer and this message was conveyed.”

We would love to get to the stage where we can answer questions such as, “Did we have an impact on in-market sales?” and “Are we starting to see the work we’ve done with the Black Eyed Peas and the V.I.Pea cocktail show up on menus?” We would love to get to the point where we can tie hard cases to it.