How NFL brand partners are building buzz for this season's kickoff

Like the teams themselves, the NFL's brand partners are also putting their strategies in place for the 2014 season.

This is the second story in a two-part series about the NFL kickoff. Click here for part one.

With its 2014 season kickoff less than two weeks away, the National Football League’s brand partners are starting to engage fans with an emphasis on content, social media, and events.

PepsiCo’s Gatorade brand, which has worked with NFL teams since starting its partnership with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1969 and has been an official sponsor since the 1980s, recently launched the League of Captains campaign for the upcoming season.

It developed the concept after a small effort it conducted last year with DC Entertainment in which it created comics for Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and JJ Watt of the Houston Texans, says Molly Carter, senior director of marketing communications at Gatorade.

She adds that the comics were well-received by consumers, so the brand decided to double down this year with a larger campaign.

To develop the League of Captains, DC Entertainment created five football superheroes, each with their own personas, Carter explains. The heroes include Newton as The Blender, Watt as MegaWatt, Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos as The Sheriff, the New York Giants’ Eli Manning as The Big Easy, and Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins as Triiiple Impact.

In addition to making the comics available on Gatorade.com, the brand created a section of the website where fans can create their own superhero avatars and enter a contest for a chance to win a personalized cover drawn by DC Entertainment.

Fans who dream up their own superheroes can share their creations through Facebook and Twitter, says Carter.

To extend the reach of the effort, Gatorade launched limited-edition bottles featuring the League of Captains, and it is making printed comics available at pre-season games this month. It has also developed videos about the campaign to "drive people to purchase the limited-time-offer bottles," explains Carter.

The campaign also has an educational aspect. Gatorade has been working on "educating kids about heat safety and the importance of hydration," she adds. Its 2014 NFL campaign also includes a TV spot and online videos about the need for hydration.

FleishmanHillard works on PR for Gatorade, while VML handles digital and TBWA\Chiat\Day oversees creative.

Fellow longtime sponsor FedEx kicked off a social media campaign during the first week of preseason games to build fan excitement. The FedEx Air & Ground Trivia Sweepstakes, launched on Twitter, is part of the eleventh consecutive year the company is naming Air & Ground NFL Players of the Week.

Patrick Fitzgerald, SVP of integrated marketing and communications at FedEx, says the initiative is "much more interactive" this year than in the past. It’s also undergoing a youth movement with involvement from rookies Tajh Boyd of the New York Jets, Johnny Manziel of the Cleveland Browns, and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

The quarterbacks are asking fans trivia questions about the FedEx NFL Air & Ground awards, which are given to quarterbacks and running backs each week throughout the season based on fan votes.

Involving the players in the program drives more interested and increases the "healthy competition to win the award," explains Fitzgerald.

"[The players] take a lot of pride in winning because it’s a fan-voted award," he adds.

In addition to the social media effort, the program has a philanthropic component in which FedEx donates $2,000 to a charity in the hometown of each winning player.

In terms of paid media, Fitzgerald says FedEx has run ads on NFL.com, including its "highly coveted fantasy football pages."

FedEx’s internal marketing and communications team has handled the effort.

While the NFL has had a difficult offseason in terms of bad press, with negative attention on the effects of concussions, the two-game suspension of Ray Rice that many believed was too lenient, and the controversy over the nickname of the Redskins, there is no indication ratings will drop.

During last year’s Wild Card weekend, NFL games averaged 34.7 million viewers, an all-time high. CBS, Fox, and NBC all said ratings were up last year from the year prior throughout the regular season. More than 111 million viewers watched the Seattle Seahawks beat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.

Campbell's Chunky, the official soup sponsor of the NFL for more than 15 years, is "focused on kicking off in-store and in-stadium activations across the US" for the upcoming season, says Megan Haney, manager of brand communications at Campbell Soup Company.

The brand will work with NFL teams such as the Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals, Giants, Buffalo Bills, and Dallas Cowboys on events throughout the season, including in-stadium sampling of Chunky soups or customized activities with retail partners, such as Kroger in Cincinnati.

Haney adds that the brand has two events planned for this season at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey for the Giants, as well as a charity program with the Bills called Tackle Hunger. The company will donate 20 cans of soup to food banks in Western New York for each tackle made by Bills defenders this season.

To promote the initiatives, Haney says Campbell Soup works with the teams to amplify the efforts on social media through Twitter, Facebook, and newsletters.

The Chunky brand will also launch its first Tumblr for the 2014 season, featuring content such as news and game day recipes.

On Monday, Chunky kicked off its ad campaign for the season on NFL Network, followed by a national launch on September 4, when the Seahawks play the Green Bay Packers on the season’s opening night.

Another new element of the sponsorship is Chunky’s involvement with the NFL’s military partnership. The brand is launching an exclusive line of Chunky soups with camouflaged labels in Walmart, with donations going to the Salute to Service network, which includes the Pat Tillman Foundation, the USO, and the Wounded Warrior Project.

Chunky’s in-house team is collaborating with PR agency partner Weber Shandwick to spread the word about its NFL efforts, says Haney.

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