Brand ambassadors: Many businesses, big or small, hope that partnering with an endorsement partner will help publicize and market their brand.

Unfortunately, those partnerships don't always work. As then-Bodybuilding.com CEO Richard Jalichandra told me, "For every celebrity association that seems to be a magic bullet, 15 others have failed."

One program that does work is the long-term partnership between Anheuser-Busch and Nascar driver Kevin Harvick.

That success is partly due to the marketing savvy of a company that has captured more than 45 percent of the U.S. beer market. But it's also due to the fact that Kevin is uniquely positioned to understand the relationship and the work involved from both sides. He's an experienced celebrity endorser and is the co-founder (with his wife, Delana) of KHI Management, a full-service sports and celebrity marketing agency.

One example: Kevin and Busch Beer are throwing a party for 500 fans the night before this year's Daytona 500.

The Daytona 500 weekend is the culmination of a months-long promotion in which fans searched for specially marked checkered-flag Busch Beer cans in packs of Busch or Busch Light, took a photo or video celebrating as if they were in victory lane with the can, and shared those images on Instagram and Twitter. Two hundred and fifty entries (plus a person of their choosing) won an all-inclusive trip to the Daytona 500 race weekend -- and some quality time on Saturday night with their new best friend, Kevin Harvick.

Jeff Haden: Busch is running its biggest program of the year at the season's very first race. That seems an unusual marketing strategy.

Kevin Harvick: The Daytona 500 is a unique event. It's the biggest race of the year. But Busch is not the primary sponsor on our car; they're thinking even more broadly.

The local wholesaler is a big part. There are Walmart and Sam's Club appearances, with Kroger, there are signs and billboards ... basically Busch will take over the town. They're checking off a lot of branding and marketing boxes.

The 500 to the 500 program is certainly a part of that, but running the promotion over the winter during the quiet months of the sport, having the contest get so much attention and engagement on social media ... that level of activity and commitment is good for Busch, good for our team, and good for Nascar. 

The best marketing strategies work on a number of levels, and this one definitely does. Especially for the 500 fans who get a free trip to the race. (Laughs.)

You've been associated with Anheuser-Busch since 2011, but in 2016 your association switched from Budweiser to Busch. From your side, was that a difficult transition?

I was definitely identified with Bud, but I feel like we have a great relationship with all of our sponsors: We understand where they're going, what they want to do ... and they allow us to have a voice in brainstorming and coming up with ideas and creating marketing strategies.

It also helped that Anheuser-Busch often rotates their personnel from brand to brand, and those relationships made the transition from Budweiser to Busch easier. It also helped that Busch has been a part of Nascar since the late 1970s, so for fans it didn't feel "new."

Brands involving their partners in strategy discussions is relatively rare, at least in my experience.

Of course, Nascar makes sense for Busch. Their target market is 35 and older. But one unique thing about them is how interested they are in finding out how to make it work even better. Busch has been extremely proactive in trying to create and do things that are not just different, but that also make a real impact.

You can be different but not necessarily effective. That's why the 500 to the 500 is a great example of a campaign that really leverages social media.  

Also keep in mind that Daytona is a big event for Busch, but it's also a barometer in terms of measuring the impact of different initiatives. I believe sales were up 3 percent in that particular market last year, which for a company that size, in such a competitive industry, is a major uptick. 

Speaking of strategy, I'll play devil's advocate and say engaging with 500 fans is a drop in the bucket. Social media awareness aside, does that make sense?

With a contest like this, a contest the sponsor put on, the majority of people who enter are fans of the beer and to some extent a fan of the race team's and of mine. So the people who come will be our fans ... and if they aren't already, they will be after they get treated so well by Busch. (Laughs.) 

Those are naturally people you really enjoy spending time with. They're there for us. They want to meet us. And I want to meet them. I like being a part of cool stuff, and this is a very cool promotion. So I've pre-signed hundreds of hats that Busch made especially for the fans, and we'll spend a couple of hours with them Saturday night. 

Also, keep in mind something that Fred Wagenhals, who owned Action Performance, explained to me early on. He said, "You need to go out and build your fan base one person at a time."

So I started going out with (driver) Ron Hornaday, and I'd sit next to him with my hero cards. Most people were there for Ron, not for me, but that was OK. I just kept saying to myself, "One person at a time."

I've continued to do those merchandise signings because you really do build a fan base one person at a time -- and you maintain a fan base one person at a time.

Fans have tremendous access in Nascar, unlike any other sport. They can be in the garage area with us while we're competing. But probably the worst place for a driver to interact with fans is in the garage area, because we're in competition mindset. We're focused on doing our jobs, not necessarily on making connections with people.

That's why, when you can be in a private setting and relax and spend personal time, it's much more fun -- and much better for all of us.

So while it is 500 people, it will still be one person at a time.

Published on: Feb 16, 2018
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