Sponsors in Volvo bridging oceans with global word

International companies seek to bind customers, employees worldwide


April 24, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Chances are good that when the Volvo Ocean Race fleet sets sail on Sunday, you will still be unfamiliar with Dubarry, djuice, ASSA ABLOY and many of the other corporations that have paid a fortune to become sponsors.

That won't come as a surprise to the companies, or be necessarily a disappointment. The Volvo race is unlike traditional sports sponsorships in which a business pays millions of dollars to draw attention to its products. Most of the action in the round-the-world race takes place on the high seas, far from spectators and the media.

But for its sponsors, the Volvo race is not just a quadrennial publicity stunt. It is a global, water-borne rally that can bridge continents and draw together employees, partners and customers.

"We don't really believe we will sell more locks," said Carl-Henric Svanberg, president of ASSA ABLOY of Sweden, the world's largest lock maker.

ASSA ABLOY paid more than $10 million to have a boat in the nine-month race for a specific reason: to unify a newly assembled, worldwide conglomerate.

ASSA ABLOY spent $1.2 billion acquiring companies - including the U.S.-based Yale Lock Co. - over the past two years, adding 12,000 employees around the world. The race is a chance to get the workers together, both figuratively and literally, Svanberg said.

He and other key executives fly to each port stop and convene strategy meetings of employees, all of whom have been receiving updates on the yellow and blue boat that carries the company's name.

A crew member attends to answer questions and reinforce a message of teamwork that Svanberg wants to impart. Important customers and partners are invited out for a sail on a 64-foot, high-tech boat identical to the one competing in the race.

"It is all about getting people involved and working together," Svanberg said. "It's been great for us."

Scott MacLeod of Octagon Marketing in Stamford, Conn., said the Volvo race wouldn't be cost-effective for a company looking to raise its profile. "It's not as much exposure for the brand as it is internal communication and developing enthusiasm in the company," said MacLeod, a senior vice president.

That may be one reason that so few sponsors return , he said. Of the 13 official suppliers or sponsors in the last running of the race, 1998, only two are on the roster this year. One of them, Volvo, bought the rights to the Whitbread Round the World Race from Whitbread, a British brewer that co-founded the race in 1973.

Among the new sponsors: Dubarry of Ireland, the official supplier of marine footwear, and djuice, a Norwegian Internet firm that is backing the boat djuice dragons.

"For the right company it can be the right thing - it is adventurous and exciting," MacLeod said. "To keep doing it year after year is expensive."

EF International Language Schools sponsored two boats in the last race, and its EF Language won. The Swedish-based firm did not participate this year, and probably will not do so again. But it was popular with employees, said Lori van Dam, spokeswoman at the company's North American headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.

"It worked on a lot of levels for us by bringing our staff together," she said. "It definitely changed our view of the company and it was extraordinarily exciting."

A European endeavor

The race has always had a European accent, but even more so this year. Among the eight boats in the 32,700-mile race, none has an American firm as a principal sponsor. Of the 15 official race suppliers and sponsors, only two are U.S.-based (not including Volvo, which is based in Sweden but owned by Ford Motor Co.).

This is chiefly because yachting is more popular and receives more media coverage in Europe, MacLeod said. Besides, he said, "To spend $15 million on a corporate communications event is not very American. It is very European."

Jim Andrews, editorial director of the newsletter IEG Sponsorship Report, said sponsoring a boat in the Volvo race is not for the faint of heart. Most companies probably do it for highly individual reasons - not just to draw attention to themselves.

"That $10 million can buy you a lot of advertising," he said.

Maximizing the promotional value of the Volvo race requires additional outlays on advertisements that link a company to the race, he said. In that, the race is similar to the Olympics.

"It is more about brand imaging than brand awareness," Andrews said.

"Sailing as a sport brings a lot of images and values such as endurance and strength and partnerships. By putting a brand logo against the backdrop of the Volvo Ocean Race, you are sharing those values," Andrews said.

Upscale followers

Outside of the cities where the race stops - Miami and Baltimore - the event attracts minimal mainstream media attention in the United States. It was featured once on ABC's Good Morning America, and has had regular updates on ESPN2 and the Weather Channel.

But the people who follow the race, through specialty magazines, Volvo's Web site or visits to a port, tend to be upscale.

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