- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

At nearly every sporting event of significance, the caveman and the gecko are there.

On the outfield concourse at Nationals Park. In the crowd at Verizon Center. Sitting next to tennis legend Billie Jean King at a Washington Kastles match downtown.

They are the mascots of Chevy Chase-based insurance provider Geico, which has generated a nearly ubiquitous presence at sporting events both locally and across the country. In the last several years, few companies have been bolder in raising their profile through sports sponsorships, and Geico has more than doubled its advertising during sporting events on television even as others have cut back.

“You name it, we’ve done it,” said Ted Ward, Geico’s vice president of marketing. “It’s a good way for us to maintain a regular, constant appearance of our brand name. In many cases, we have much more substantial relationships than just a sign on a wall or a board. It’s proven to be an effective piece of our overall mix. We’ve been pretty aggressive.”

Geico’s flood-the-zone strategy has led to partnerships with every major professional sports league, and the company also boasts deals with professional tennis players and golfers, including Fairfax native Steve Marino. In the District, Geico has partnerships with every major team, is the title sponsor of the local ATP tour event, and sponsors several programs on Comcast SportsNet and other stations.

And Geico’s promotions are some of the most creative around, according to local team executives.

The Geico caveman and gecko are fixtures at most Washington Capitals games, and the company is a sponsor of the team’s opening night as well as all overtime periods and shootouts. Geico also sponsors “Capitals Red Line Monday,” a weekly show on Comcast SportsNet.

In addition, Geico was one of the founding sponsors of the Washington Nationals and sponsors the popular Presidents Race during the fourth inning of games. Beyond the center-field concourse, fans can have their picture taken with large sculptures of the racing presidents characters alongside Geico’s bright green gecko.

“If you take a look at what Geico has done and how it’s worked for both of us, it’s a great model to follow,” said Chartese Burnett, the Nationals’ vice president of communications and community relations. “It just makes sense when you can get as much activation as possible. It’s good for our fans, it’s good for business and it’s good for the sponsor if you can really think creatively.”

Geico had a big presence as a sponsor of the recent Washington Kastles season. On Sunday, the company’s caveman character sat next to King, the World TeamTennis founder, and danced on the court during a halftime hip-hop performance. Geico also gave spectators handheld fans emblazoned with the gecko’s face.

The company’s advertising strategy is the result of coordination among Drew Mills, a sports marketing consultant in Rockville; New York-based Horizon Media; and the Martin Agency, an advertising firm in Richmond that is the creative force behind most of the ad campaigns. Geico has employed all three firms for more than a decade.

“Sports is a good way to speak to your current policyholders and reach new policyholders at the same time, and in a positive environment,” said Mills, who has been the point man in arranging most of Geico’s sports sponsorships.

Geico declined to discuss how much it spends on sports advertising, but independent research firms say the company more than doubled its spending in 2008. Nielsen Media Research reported that Geico spent $90 million on TV advertising during sporting events last year, up from $44 million in 2007. TNS Media Intelligence said such spending rose from $67 million to $126 million. Both firms report that Geico is now one of the top 20 sports advertisers in the country, trailing only traditional sports advertisers such as beer manufacturers, major automakers and communications firms.

Indeed, commercials featuring the caveman, gecko - and most recently, a stack of dollar bills with eyeballs - have become a staple of sports broadcasts. David Campanelli, vice president and director of national television for Horizon Media, said advertising during sports is an effective because most events are watched live, ensuring that commercials won’t be skipped. And sports broadcasts are popular among the young, upscale male segment that advertisers covet.

“We’ve really stepped it up the last two or three years to become a major player,” Campanelli said. “It was something that was really out of reach for a while. We were always kind of biding our time waiting to get involved, but in the last few years we’ve been able to take advantage of some great opportunities.”

Aiding Geico’s aggressive strategy is that others have cut back spending. Major U.S. automakers have slashed their advertising budgets, and even top-spender Anheuser-Busch has scaled back after being acquired by Belgian brewery InBev last year.

For the most part, Geico’s sponsorships are of the small-to-medium variety. The most expensive deals, Ward said, often involve a corporate hospitality component that the company doesn’t seek because its sells its insurance directly to consumers. This may explain why Geico is not a sponsor of the AT&T National golf tournament, perhaps the one local event most reliant on corporate hospitality spending.

Sponsorship experts said Geico has been effective in creating a brand awareness that is not always easy to achieve.

“It’s a matter of moving away from selling on merely price to using sponsorship to promote their products as brands and make that emotional connection to consumers,” said William Chipps, editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report. “At the end of the day, what they get out of it is to build their brands… ideally they can get some positive rub-off by aligning and supporting an organization that consumers care about.”

Geico is now the third-largest auto insurance company in America, behind State Farm and Allstate, and holds about an 8 percent share of the market. Whether that growth is the direct result of sports sponsorships is impossible to know, but local team executives said they have been impressed with how the company has used advertising and sponsorships to inject some life into auto insurance, a relatively stale product.

“When it comes to how to brand, they’ve taken a very basic business that doesn’t really have much to it in insurance and personified it and made a life out of it,” said John Greeley, vice president of sponsorships for the Caps. “They’ve been very loyal in the D.C. market. They’re a great supporter of ours and are one of our most important sponsors.”

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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