By Barry Janoff
July 13, 2015: When Esurance, the online division of Allstate, signed on in April to become the official auto insurance sponsor of Major League Baseball and title sponsor for the Esurance MLB All-Star Game Ballot, it marked not only the start of a partnership but a new era for MLB.
The alliance to date has been anchored by the transformation of MLB's All-Star Game balloting to all-digital, leaving behind paper ballots that had been in use for decades.
The change has been a success. More than 620 million votes were cast, and there were an additional 111.8 million cast as part of the Final Vote, also sponsored by Esurance.
Among the 2015 digital ballots, three players exceeded the previous high of 11 million-plus set by Josh Hamilton in 2012: Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson led all players with a total of 14,090,188, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout received 14,013,021 votes and Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals set a new National League with 13,964,950 votes.
To support its MLB alliance, Esurance signed an endorsement pact with San Francisco Giants catcher and three-time World Series champion Buster Posey, an organic relationship considering that Esurance is based in San Francisco. Posey, whose deals also include Under Armour, BodyArmor and Topps, stars in a new TV spot as part of Esurance's "Sorta You Isn't You" campaign from Leo Burnett, Chicago, ("Sorta Doctor") and will represent the company in activations through the rest of the season.
Among its other alliances, Esurance has been the official car insurance partner for the U.S. Open tennis Grand Slam since 2010 — a deal that is ending after this year's event — a sponsor of six Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series events leading up to the U.S. Open in New York (Aug. 31-Sept. 13), an official partner of both the NFL's San Francisco 49ers (which will host Super Bowl 50 in Levi's Stadium this February) and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Beyond sports, Esurance is a sponsor of South By Southwest.
Esurance said it would continue its deals with top tennis doubles players Bob and Mike Bryan as well as Victoria Azarenka even after its U.S. Open pact ends.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Chris Lee, Director of Brand Partnerships and Social Engagement at Esurance, about the brand's first-year alliance with MLB, the impact of sponsoring the first all-digital All-Star Game and Final Vote balloting and the company's strategies to built brand awareness and its consumer base via tech-driven sports alliances.
NYSportsJournalism.com: How would you assess your alliance with MLB to this point?
Chris Lee: The alliance with MLB has been terrific. When you look at the digital numbers showing how many people are consuming games and watching highlights and following baseball on social media, the scale is incredible. And that's our target audience. People who are tech-savvy, have busy, interactive lives and who, while they might love attending a three-hour baseball game, also want to have information at their fingertips from a digital and social media standpoint. We felt there were so many equities there. What this new group headed by (first-year) commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to do with the sport is very parallel with what Esurance is doing in the insurance category: Be active and do business online, be innovative leverage the tools of technology and social media and, for us, be the insurance company for today's modern consumer.
NYSJ: How would you compare it to other sports alliances in which Esurance has been involved?
CL: As a brand, we have been actively involved in sports sponsorships for the past eight years. We have a huge presence in tennis, including a major sponsorship with the U.S. Open, different tournaments and deals with Victoria Azarenka and Bob and Mike Bryan. We've also had deals with the NBA, NFL and other baseball teams in the past. We are always looking to generate brand awareness. Being in the insurance category is ultra-competitive. It's all about getting your brand out there to consumers. What we look to do is align with properties and platforms that give us the largest reach in scale. But also make sense in trying to reach our core target audience.
NYSJ: Were there any second-thoughts about aligning with MLB before the deal was actually signed?
CL: We began our conversations with MLB a little over a year ago. When MLB approached us, we understood there was a sense that baseball was regarded as a traditional sport steeped in history that didn't easily make changes. So there was some question as to why an insurance company that works in the digital world would want to deal with that? But what they talked about was the new regime with commissioner Rob Manfred and their commitment to modernize the fan experience and the way the game is consumed. When they came to us and discussed having an all-digital vote, they felt it was time to make a change. It was a testament to them to see that people had moved passed the paper ballots and much more into the digital space.
NYSJ: Were you surprised by the number of votes cast digitally? Did it exceed the expectations of Esurance and MLB?
CL: We didn't go in expecting to receive a set number of votes. As a first-time sponsor, we certainly wanted to see big numbers and reach a huge audience. It certainly was a huge shift and a testament to baseball and their technology team that they made the switch so seamlessly. There were people who assumed that this could have gone backward because they were taking away a process with which people were familiar. But MLB did a terrific job of promoting it, driving it and making it intuitive for fans. They made the move and voting simple and easy.
NYSJ: Have you seen this translate to brand awareness?
CL: It's too early to process the numbers from a baseball standpoint, having launched the partnership in April. But I would say that the exposure we have received from being a partner in this program, and also going back to the Super Bowl when we launched the 'Sorta You' campaign, has been phenomenal. It goes back to what I said about why we do the sponsorships we do: Brand awareness. Putting ourselves out there. To know that there are millions of fans and consumers who are seeing our name and engaging with who we are as a brand through the ballot has been a fantastic opportunity. We are really happy with our relationship with MLB and we are looking forward to the next few years of our partnership.
NYSJ: Given that both Esurance and Buster Posey are based in San Francisco would seem to make the alliance organic, but were there other factors involved in making him the center of your MLB marketing?
CL: There are so many great players in baseball and we looked at a few different guys. But with Buster, it just made sense in so many ways. He's a guy who has phenomenal talent. He's the 'Face of MLB' (as voted by fans via MLB Network). He has all these accolades at such a young age. But he's also a phenomenal person. I had the opportunity to sit with his wife Kristen and him for several hours way before we got into this baseball relationship we now have. We were just blown away with how articulate he is, how much he thinks about who he is as a person, as a player, his brand. With Buster, we feel as if we have someone who checks all the boxes as to someone we want as a partner. He has been great advocate for us.
"To know that there are millions of fans and consumers who are seeing our name and engaging with our brand through the ballot has been a fantastic opportunity."
NYSJ: The 'Sorta You' campaign is quirky and when using celebrities seems to work best with people who have have an unconventional image: Lindsay Lohan ("Sorta Mom") and Bryan Cranston ("Sorta Walter White"). How did Posey fit in and how did he react to the storyline, which sees him 'sorta' bring a doctor who could deliver a baby?
CL: He was a great sport and he came in very well prepared. He was aware of the 'Sorta You' campaign and knew what he was getting into. He had seen the Super Bowl spots. He and his team were prepared. He was great about it. He knew it made sense in the context of the campaign. He is known as being calm and in control, but we also found that he was a funny guy. And it translated into a great spot.
NYSJ: How have sports alliances and doing creative related to sports worked overall for Esurance in reaching your target audience?
CL: We feel it has been very successful. Our sports sponsorships have given us a great platform to be creative. The 'Sorta You' campaign shows that we strive to customize and tailor to the specific needs of individuals and not people sorta like them. So when you look at the spots that ran during the Super Bowl, the spot with Buster and our new one with they Bryan Brothers, it's a great message, a great reflection of the brand that really speaks to our target audience.
NYSJ: What are you doing during the All-Star Game and related events to follow up on the voting that Esurance sponsored?
CL: We have focused so much over the past few months on the players and the game that now we are pivoting our focus and celebrating the fans. As part of the balloting process, we asked fans to check a box that read, 'I want to be an Esurance Fan All-Star!' which then entered them for a chance to win a trip to Cincinnati to attend the All-Star Game. We (then) selected a fan All-Star team, with 31 fans, covering the markets of each Major League club (plus a wild card winner). They each (got) two tickets, airfare and hotel and access to the Game as well as the Home Run Derby. They will get to meet (Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famers) Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan, attend a pre-All-Star Game party and other events. Also, we have a presence at FanFest, where fans can become what we are calling 'Instant All-Stars.' They have the opportunity to take a digital 180-degree photo array that we will turn into a 3D animated gif that will show them jumping against an outfield wall to make a catch, which they can share on social media.
NYSJ: Anything beyond the Posey commercial that fans and consumers not in Cincinnati would be able to see?
CL: On social media, we will have a lot of content for local and national markets focusing on the stories that the fans we invited to the All-Star Game taking about their connection with family, friends and other fans when it comes to baseball. We really want to hone in on that. For example, we have a story about a father who went to an All-Star Game with his dad in the 1980s and is now bringing his kid to an All-Star Game.
NYSJ: How important is it to your overall strategy with MLB to bring to life these personal experiences?
CL: It's really designed to celebrate the fans, the game and the partnership that we are building with baseball. This alliance is about bringing to life the modernization and the great qualities of baseball. And as a brand, giving us the platform to reach what we see as an actively-engaged fan base.
NYSJ: What does Esurance have planned for the rest of the season with MLB?
CL: We are developing with MLB a platform for the second-half of the season that we are targeting to kick off around the time the playoffs start. We will then have extensions through the rest of the calendar year. Baseball has become from a consumption standpoint a year-round sport. We see this as a year-round alliance, far beyond the April to October time frame. There is so much great content, so much social media communication. We want to capitalize on that. There will be extensions throughout the calendar year. The goal for us to is create an Esurance presence with MLB throughout the year.
NYSJ: You have Posey signed, so if the Giants make the post-season would there be special activation?
CL: We plan to continue to work with Buster through the season to help us reach an actively-engaged fan base. It is a long-term partnership. Social content will be a big part. We also have additional content from the 'Sorta You' TV commercial that we will use from a social media standpoint. We certainly will be talking to baseball fans through the rest of the year. We don't have an official alliance with the Giants, but we would be able to capitalize on our relation with with Buster, which you would see even if the team is not in the playoffs. But being based in San Francisco, we'd certainly be thrilled if the Giants won another World Series.
NYSJ: This is Esurance's last year as an official partner with the U.S. Tennis Open, an alliance that began in 2010. How did that relationship help to grow Esurance's brand?
CL: This has been a great partnership for us. We will have a strong presence this year, including a new TV spot with the Bryan Brothers as part of the 'Sorta You' campaign ("Sorta Mike Bryan"), branding on-site, branded busses running throughout Manhattan and back and forth to Flushing (where the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is located) and other activations. This will be our last year with the Open as we are pivoting our focus on MLB. We had a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Tennis Assn. and there is nothing but great, positive feelings. They certainly understand why we feel it is time to move on. We are leaving on great terms. We still have a great relationship with Victoria Azarenka and the Bryan Brothers. And you never know, we might find ourselves back in tennis someday as an official partner.
MLB, ASG, Posey Insured By Esurance
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