Unconventional Activations and the Power of Virality

Unconventional Activations and the Power of Virality

The entire sports business space is constantly evolving. New technology, trends, and best practices force every aspect of the industry to innovate, and sponsor activation is no different. We are in the midst of the “Social Media Era.” Traditional sponsorship practices and activations of naming rights, commercials, and such are not enough on their own to drive a successful sponsorship deal. You need to harness the power of virality.

Two of this year’s college football bowl games were the perfect examples of this evolution within the sponsorship space: The Dukes Mayo Bowl and the Pop-Tarts Bowl. (Both TicketManager partners!)

Dukes Mayo Bowl

Many may think that a condiment company is a strange choice as the sponsor of a college bowl game. But Duke’s Mayo has fully bought into the uniqueness of their sponsorship and utilized this to their benefit.

Duke’s Mayo first took over the title sponsorship in 2020, following the departure of Belk. Since then, they have created massive marketing campaigns around their mascot, Tubby, their now famous “mayo bath,” and other outlandish mayonnaise-related activations leading up to and during the bowl game.

Tubby, an anthropomorphic mayo tub with extremely thick eyebrows and a set of outward-turning eyes, has been the focus of countless internet memes since his debut in 2022. His likeness has been seen by millions on social media, helping Duke’s get brand recognition beyond what they had ever been seen before.

Fans lucky enough to be in attendance got their fair share of mayo-related fun as well. Five fans were selected for the “Duke’s Mayo Combine” described as, “five physically and mentally fun drills.” A panel of judges then selected two winners who were crowned “Official Mayo Dumpers” and would assist Tubby in the much-anticipated mayo math.

This now legendary mayo bath may be even more famous than Tubby.  The winning coach of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl receives the mayo bath following their victory, where Tubby and the combine winners dump a water cooler full of mayonnaise on the coach’s head in lieu of the traditional sports drink dump. This outlandish and arguably gross activation has become an absolute fan-favorite, with videos of the dump going viral each season. In 2023, video of West Virginia coach Neal Brown receiving his celebratory mayo dump generated close to a million views in under 24 hours.

All this social media attention is not for nothing. These eye-catching activations led to Duke’s Mayo setting online sales and website traffic records following the 2023 edition of the bowl game, proving that this kind of out-of-the-box activation leads to real results.

Pop Tart’s Bowl

The Pop-Tarts bowl is the prime example of how to capitalize on the virality of a unique activation.

In 2023, Kellogg’s announced that they would change the name of the Cheez-It Bowl to the Pop-Tarts Bowl. They then began their now famous marketing campaign featuring the “world’s first edible mascot.”

The edible mascot debuted following Kansas State’s win, when the Pop-Tart mascot stood above a giant toaster holding a sign saying, “Dreams Really Do Come True.” The mascot was then lowered into the toaster. Soon after, out of the toaster emerged a mascot-sized actual Pop-Tart! The massive snack was then consumed by the Wildcat players and coaches.

This unusual activation was an absolute hit. Fans at the game posted photos and videos from the activation that garnered countless clicks and likes. People could not get enough of the edible mascot or the seemingly never-ending supply of memes stemming from the sponsorship. You could not go onto any major social media platform following the game without seeing a post about the comically morbid activation.

Apex Marketing Group estimated that the sponsorship and its surrounding activations generated around $12.1 million dollars in brand value from social media, TV, radio, and digital news exposure. Apex’s CEO, Eric Smallwood, said that that figure accounts for a more than 25% increase in value compared to the previous year. All because of this creative and eye-catching activation.

As said best by our own Jim Andrews in his blog expanding on unusual activations like these, “Rather than shy away from commercialization, a few sponsors are leaning into it and taking it to an outlandish level in hopes of not only capturing attention but sharing a laugh with the target audience and ultimately winning them over.”

For better or worse, social media is becoming endemic to modern life, and brands are working to capitalize on that. The success of these unusual sponsorship activations, in both sales and reach, proves that social media virality is the future for these smaller-scale, non-traditional avenues of sponsorship.

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