- Experiential Marketing
Tailgate Tactics: How Brands Win Over Sports Fans
Every season, sporting events of all kinds draw massive audiences to stadiums, living rooms, and parking lots.
Parking lots? Yes. Where athletic events happen, fans gather in parking lots to tailgate. This American tradition is big business, yet relatively few brands have taken advantage of the opportunity tailgating presents. Here are some ideas to help your brand tap the vast potential of tailgating.
What Is Tailgating?
“Tailgating” originally referred to the practice of dropping the tailgate on a pickup truck and using the truck bed as a kind of portable kitchen. Sports fans parked outside stadiums hours before the game and brought grills and coolers to serve family, friends, and fellow fans. The tailgate grew in both size and popularity over the years, with fans pulling up chairs, hoisting beach umbrellas, and adding more and more amenities and activities to the experience.
Tailgating’s stay-at-home equivalent, sometimes called the “homegate,” offers much the same setting — it’s a viewing party organized around a televised sporting event, held at the host’s home. Whether at home or in the parking lot, indoors or out, the vibe is the same — and that’s what’s special about sports, and about tailgating.
Why Target Tailgaters?
Experiential marketing around sports offers the perfect opportunity to build relationships with fans, who are already passionate, engaged, and looking to build on the fun, memorable experience of the sport itself. These qualities make them receptive to brand activations, pop-ups, swag, and other marketing centered around tailgating.
Another reason to target the tailgating crowd? By making your brand part of the tailgating experience, your business can ride that wave to customer loyalty and lasting relationships. Here are some ways brands have accomplished that.
Get to Know the Fans
Few activities cut across demographic lines like sports. Black and white, young and old, middle-class and wealthy, sports fans are a broad cross-section of American society, and that means your customers are among them. In college football, for example, writes Lisa Major for ATN Event Staffing, “You’ll find men and women of all ages in attendance which allows any brand to easily interact with their target consumer — no matter who they are.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim your experiential marketing efforts at a more specific segment of that audience, however. A deep dive into your brand’s slice of that audience — for example teenagers, women, families with young children, or retirees — can help your message reach the very tailgaters you’re looking for.
One way to undertake this deep dive: personas. “Come up with a name and image for each persona,” writes Julien Raoust for Fanprime, and ask yourself questions that dig into their gameday experience: What does that persona like about the team or sport? Where do they tailgate — at the stadium or at home? What do they like to do pre- and post-tailgate? What are their tailgating preferences as to food, drink, activities, etc.? What challenges or problems does that fan face in the gameday experience? This process will help you identify unmet needs within your target group as well as the best media — real-world or digital — to reach them.
Study Teams’ Traditions
Traditions around pro and college sports run deep and wide. Beyond mascots and team colors, get to know those traditions, which are woven into the fans’ tailgating practices. “That starts with a deep understanding of the unwritten rules, customs, quirks and traditions of their territories — the sanctity of an old-timer’s honored spot; the Michelin-level dedication of the grill masters; the contempt for the mooch,” writes marketing manager Eli Haddow for peteramayer.com.
A recent example of a brand that acknowledges this reverence for tradition is Dr Pepper. The TV ads in the brand’s “Fansville” series poke fun at the idea of sports traditions without mocking fans or specific teams. Spots in the campaign featured major figures in college sports, including former football coach Les Miles, former linebacker Brian Bosworth, and quarterbacks for both Clemson and the Alabama Crimson Tide. By working with the concept of tradition rather than specific team traditions, Dr Pepper managed to create tailgating-relevant ads any fan of American college football can relate to, and laugh at.
Create Immersive, Brand-Driven Events
In the last few years, several well-known brands and their partners have created mini-festivals within the larger tailgating experience.
Recognizing the multicultural nature of soccer’s fanbase, Coke created the Beats, Cleats & Eats activation, which “highlighted key facets of North American soccer culture, from food to music to art, and spoke to its diverse fan base,” writes Kate Shea. Coke partnered with food, adult beverage, and other brands to build a kind of mini-festival within the larger MLS Soccer Celebration — a space where fans could explore multiple brands and experiences.
When the Super Bowl moved to Las Vegas, celebrity chef Guy Fieri partnered with a promotion company to create the Flavortown Tailgate, an immersive experience sponsored by Pepsi and over a dozen other well-known brands. Flavortown included a bar, live music performances, and “lounges, smokehouses, and interactive zones where guests can engage in tailgate games and enjoy delicious food”. Flavortown organizers plan to take the event to other U.S. markets, customizing the festival to suit each market’s culture and fans.
Make Use of the Space with Street Teams and Pop-ups
Even a smaller brand in a less-glamorous city can make a huge impact on the tailgating experience by choosing the right location and making good use of it.
Fans set up their tailgates in the expansive parking lots around stadiums and on college campuses, giving you plenty of room to maneuver. Take advantage by assembling street teams of brand ambassadors to spread your message over the vast area. “Street team brand ambassadors can be used to distribute promotional items, collect leads, promote products or services through targeted messaging, drive people to a physical activation, and more,” Major writes.
Recently, sandwich brand Jersey Mike set up mobile pop-up “restaurants” in prime high-traffic tailgating spots like fan zones and other tailgate events. The pop-ups featured “swag, lawn games, an interactive photo op, free samples, a place to lounge and the chance to win free subs for a year via the mobile app,” according to Kait Shea on eventmarketer.com.
Offer Promotional Items, Tailgating Supplies, and Product Samples
Like most of us, sports fans love free stuff — T-shirts, food, cups, stickers, shakers/pom poms. Choose team colors to elevate your branded swag from a mere throwaway item to an instant souvenir fans will take home with them. Offer foam fingers, koozies and other gameday supplies. Also popular: comfort items like bottled water, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, cooling towels, hand warmers, and phone chargers.
Bud Light’s recent activations targeted college students and featured DJs, interactive games, and photo ops and offered “limited-edition Bud Light College Team cans packaged in team colors,” writes Shea. Each package included a QR code and a chance to win exclusive team merch and a flyover in a private jet at a game chosen by the winner.
Other opportunities to put your brand in consumers’ hands (and minds) include branded frisbees, cornhole sets, mini basketball hoops, and, of course, footballs.
Tie Your Tailgating Pitch to a Larger Campaign or Theme
Connecting your tailgating experience to broader issues or your own advertising across other media not only creates consistency in your messaging but also makes both the tailgating presence and the advertising more memorable. Hellmann’s and Dove are two brands that took this approach.
Hellmann’s Mayonnaise has a long-term campaign against food waste that included a 2023 Super Bowl ad and a cross-country tour using a glass wall display truck carrying an enormous mayonnaise jar.
The ad tied into Hellmann’s broader #MakeTasteNotWaste campaign against food waste, but the ad itself was set at a home tailgating event hosted by comedian Pete Davidson.
The 30-second spot tells a story about Davidson making sandwiches using leftover ingredients from his refrigerator — the point being that Hellmann’s can be used to turn leftovers into a filling, delicious meal or snack. Combined, the Hellmann’s ad and truck immersed viewers in both the issue of food waste and the concept that Hellmann’s can be a great way to create meals from leftovers. Setting the ad in a tailgating-like scenario helped viewers see themselves as part of the action, and part of the solution to food waste.
For the 2024 Super Bowl, beauty brand Dove created a 30-second TV commercial tied to the issue of body confidence and sports participation in teen and preteen girls. Using the hashtag #KeepHerConfident, the ad is part of the long-running Dove Self-Esteem Project and ties back to Dove’s other body confidence partnerships and messaging, which include Body Confident Sport, a partnership with Nike that created coaching tools designed to build girls’ body confidence.
Take the Tailgating Experience Online
Hashtags written around your brand or the game are must-haves, but there are other ways to leverage social media for your experiential marketing. Photo booths, photo opportunities with interesting props and backdrops, and online contests encourage fans to share your brand across social media.
Contests give fans a reason to engage deeper — consider Bud Light’s QR code-driven contest, with prizes including team merchandise and a private jet flyover.
Keep in mind that whether at home or in the stadium, about 75% of fans use a second screen — phone, tablet, laptop — during games. Encourage engagement with your brand’s social media channels by offering giveaways for the best live tweets, photo, or other content using a specific on-brand hashtag, suggests Jennifer Flanagan on adtaxi.com. Combined with your on-the-ground tailgating tie-ins, your social media presence can help create memorable experiences for sports fans.
Promobile Marketing is a dynamic experiential marketing agency based in New York City. For over a decade, Promobile Marketing has collaborated with a range of brands—from budding startups to major CPG brands—on immersive marketing campaigns. Get in touch to discuss your next project.