Gateway makes marketing splash

It takes a lot these days to thumb one’s nose at the NCAA and look unique doing it. The Indianapolis-based college sports bureaucracy is perhaps the easiest target in all of sports for second-guessing, sniping and ridicule.

Yet Gateway Inc., the California-based computer manufacturer, pulled off such a feat this month by offering USC and LSU a combined $31million in scholarships and computers to play another football game to settle their currently split national championship.

The company, of course, was using the ploy to help sell its large-screen plasma televisions. But the offer was sincere, so much so that Gateway chairman Ted Waitt last week went on Fox Sports Net’s “Best Damn Sports Show Period” and showed two actual checks for $10million each on the air. Another check for $10million was waiting for the winner of the USC-LSU clash.

The scene reminded some of the classic 1976 “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which producer Lorne Michaels held up a certified check for $3,000 for the Beatles in an unsuccessful bid to reunite the legendary band.

“In most fans’ minds, they can’t see why this game can’t happen,” Waitt said. “It flies in the face of common sense.”

Though the game will not happen, sports fans can expect more such guerrilla marketing from Gateway. With the company continuing to make a major expansion into consumer electronics like digital televisions, cameras and home theater systems, pro and college sports will continue to be an important platform for the company’s marketing.

Its USC-LSU offer was backed up by several full-page newspaper ads and a clever Internet-based campaign that invited angry football fans to send their pleas for a Division I-A college playoff directly to NCAA chief Myles Brand. The company also is currently running a high-profile TV ad campaign for its plasma screens that has aired during the college bowl season and NFL playoffs.

And unlike many of its rival companies, Gateway employs a corporate culture that regularly enjoys breaking custom and challenging convention. In practical terms this month, that means the company will be in and around the NFL playoffs as much as possible but will not fork over the more than $4million a minute required to get ad time during the Super Bowl.

“Our attitude as an advertiser and marketer is to work to create our own blocks of opportunity where they weren’t before,” said Gateway spokesman Brad Williams. “We have a long history of being outspoken in areas that are important to us and our customers.”

The company, seeking to regain profitability and market share in a brutal fight with Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others, has made prominent sports marketing moves before, most notably acting as the official computer supplier of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Later this year, Gateway also will sponsor the U.S. Olympic team in Athens.

But sports remains a fairly new area in which the company has brandished its full marketing force, and the industry has taken notice.

“I don’t think there’s much question they given a boost to their brand value because of what’s happened here,” said Don Hinchey, vice president for the Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports consulting group. “The offer for the NCAA title game, by nature, was a sort of one-off promotion, so they’ll need to be looking ahead to the next move. But their desire to forge a connection with fans and consumers via football is right on target.”

The last time Gateway caused such a fuss was in April 2002 during a prominent battle with the Recording Industry Association of America. Congress was considering significant restrictions on most devices that played digital music or video. Fearing a loss of a lucrative piece of its computer business, Gateway ran a series of catchy ads encouraging customers to “enjoy digital music legally” and offered a free tune of its own for downloading off the Internet.

The RIAA saw that as nothing but encouraging further music piracy, calling the effort “a gateway to misinformation.”

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