Crossing Borders, Spanning Sectors: How BMO Evolves Its Approach to Partnerships

Crossing Borders, Spanning Sectors: How BMO Evolves Its Approach to Partnerships

Josh oversees a wide-ranging partnership portfolio that includes pro sports team in Canada and the U.S., including the Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes in the CFL, the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues in the NHL, and the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls in the NBA. Additionally, BMO is a partner of CF Montréal, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Toronto FC.

BMO is also the official bank of the Calgary Stampede, while in the U.S. BMO Harris is title sponsor of the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival in Chicago, and the BMO Harris Bank Summerfest in Milwaukee.


In his conversation with All Access Interview Series host Jim Andrews, Josh explores making changes to strategy and tactics to keep partnerships fresh, relevant and delivering against short- and long-term objectives. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.

Jim: You oversee essentially two sponsorship programs, one in Canada and one in the U.S. Can you tell us how that works from a management and decision-making standpoint?

Josh: You could look at it as two different sponsorship portfolios, but at the end of the day we’re one company. Our objectives will always remain the same. At the end of the day, we use sponsorship to drive affinity, drive revenue and build the brand. That ebbs and flows and evolves. Where we are today is quite different than where we were two years ago, certainly different than five years ago, but we are always using the sponsorship tool to drive the same results, whether in Chicago, Toronto, Milwaukee, Vancouver, or anywhere else.

We don’t have national partnerships. We concentrate on regional partnerships, whether that’s teams, events or other sponsorable programs. The term I always use is connective tissue. We try to find connective tissue between all of our partnerships to bring about results.

Jim: That sounds more challenging than having a national partnership where you can concentrate on that relationship. You have a lot of different organizations and people to work with to achieve your goals. And on top of that, BMO’s objectives for sponsorship range from long-term brand and loyalty building, and supporting the customer experience, to shorter-term customer acquisition and revenue goals. What is the balance and do you feel that partnerships are better at achieving some goals vs. others?

Josh: When I think about the most important skill for our team, and this may sound cliché, but it’s relationship management. There are multiple balls in the air. Each of our partnerships has multiple rights, benefits and touchpoints and our success lies in the close relationships we have with each partner.

At every level, from my role down to the day-to-day and execution, the relationship is so solid. And if it isn’t, that’s where we run into trouble. When we’re not paddling in the exact same direction as our partner, or there’s a gray area we haven’t discussed or we’re not approaching things as “teammates” then it doesn’t work.

Relationships are a big thing, and attention to detail is also really important. If we’re doing an execution around a new product launch in Toronto with the Toronto FC, it does need to change a bit if we’re going to do something similar in Chicago with the Chicago Bulls, for example. That’s where taking a program and making it specific to the market becomes so important. Our team is really good at that, and it’s where a lot of our results come from.

Jim: I would imagine that’s also part of the explanation for why BMO has a lot of long-term partnerships. How do you keep things fresh, both in terms of making sure that activations are relevant, as well as evolving the overall strategy?

Josh: I believe in long-term partnerships. If you’re trying to exact some level of consumer sentiment or business results, it’s not going to happen overnight in the sponsorship world. It takes years and years to build that equity and comfort level with what we are trying to do as possible.

That said, there is the risk of becoming complacent or falling back on what works. We need to push the envelope; we need to be allowed to make a misstep or two. We may try something and if it doesn’t work, that’s okay, it’s not going to hurt the brand. It was just may be a direction, an activation or an execution strategy that didn’t hit the mark. And if it does work, let’s double down on it and make it better and better.

It’s also important to keep the strategy sharp and fresh. Over the last five years, our strategy has evolved from where it was really centered on making our BMO customer feel special. We called it the BMO Effect. And if you weren’t our customer, how could our sponsorship presence and activation make you say, “Hey, I wish I was a BMO customer.” In the last couple of years, we have shifted to being a purpose-driven organization. BMO’s purpose is to boldly grow the good in business and in life. A business of our size and impact owes it to our customers and our communities to make a difference.

We’re shifting our partnerships to ensure we are making that difference, whether it’s minority-owned businesses in the U.S. or underserved communities in Canada, we are using our partnerships to exact change. We can only do so much as a bank—banking isn’t terrible sexy—but when a bank and a basketball team or a bank and an MLS team get together and build programs, use assets such as players and social media, and put that all together to do some exciting and socially impactful things, that’s where the bullseye is for us these days.

COVID also forced us to pivot from in-arena engagement and high-touch experiential into digital and virtual, and we learned a lot.

Jim: I have often held up the BMO Effect strategy as a sponsorship best practice example, so I’m intrigued by the shift. Is it safe to say that the move to purpose-driven is because of what’s been happening in the world the past few years?

Josh: Yes, it is fair to say. To be clear, we are not totally departing from some of those revenue-driving, sentiment-driving and opinion-driving activations that we proved out through the BMO Effect. We still care deeply about our customers and want to add to their experiences. We will still have those activation points as the core of what we do.

Rather than a shift, it’s an evolution. We’re taking some of the top-of-the-funnel activations and moving them toward a greater good.

Jim: BMO has a number of high-profile pro sports partnerships, but also many community-based sponsorships with festivals, holiday lights parades, etc. Can you compare working with those types of organizations as opposed to pro sports properties?

Josh: Practically, it’s a day or a week versus an entire season, so from a planning perspective they have their own opportunities and challenges. But these events are so important to their communities. The Calgary Stampede, which is the world’s largest rodeo and is a 10-day festival in July, is a great example. BMO has been a partner for a hundred years. It’s a community event, but there is also a lot of agricultural business done there. So it makes sense from a business perspective for BMO on a number of dimensions. Summerfest in Milwaukee is important to the renaissance that the city has gone through, the cultural development, as well as doing some great things from a social impact perspective. It’s great for the community and for our business, so it’s a no-brainer.

Jim: Category exclusivity is an intriguing area for banks and financial services. We often see pro sports properties divide the category. I know here in Chicago, BMO has a non-exclusive relationship with the Blackhawks, but an exclusive one with the Bulls. Does it come down to the cost of exclusivity, or are there other factors that go into deciding when to seek it and when it’s okay to share the space?

Josh: Our choice would always be to be the category exclusive partner. It does boil down to price, and it boils down to the opportunity that exists, by which I mean if you have a team that has been category non-exclusive for a long time, it would be hard operationally to go from non-exclusive to exclusive in one season. With deals expiring in different years, it would be painful to wait until they all expire to secure exclusivity.

So the opportunity often comes down to: There are other banks already involved and the team will offer to carve out an identity for BMO through programming, etc. It’s up to us to determine whether we can make that work, make it more impactful so that it is more cost-effective than a more expensive category exclusive partnership.

There is no other bank associated with the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks. Those are two amazing category exclusive partnerships that we are very proud of and where we use every ounce of that exclusivity to drive value. You can make both types of partnership work. There are different objectives and different tactics involved in a non-exclusive partnership versus exclusive, but both are workable.

Jim: How has the way BMO judges the performance of its partnerships changed in recent years? What metrics are you looking at and how are you measuring?

Josh: The biggest change in the 20-odd years I’ve been doing sponsorship marketing is judgement of performance and the importance of that data. When I first started with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, having a rink board up and seeing the brand was enough for most companies to feel good and say the sponsorship was working.

Over the last 20 years, the KPIs associated with sponsorship performance have become as complicated and as data driven as any measurement of marketing tactics. At BMO, we have spent the last two years—just over two years—refining our sponsorship performance platform. We have worked with some great external partners to build a platform that is showing us our performance on a bi-annual basis—accounting for the time to input the data from teams and other sources covering all the different assets from TV to in-stadium, etc.

At the end of the day, it’s about the value of the marketing assets unlocked, consumer sentiment that is driven and direct revenue back to our business. Those are the three dimensions that we are basing the performance platform on. It helps us make decisions, helps us on where we should be concentrating our efforts, helps us on re-investment or divestment, and helps us with what’s working and not working. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s on its way to being an extremely valuable part of what we’re trying to do every day in sponsorships.

Jim: How significant a role do your partners play in helping collect the data and information you need for that platform?

Josh: Our partners have been so eager to help—to be good partners. There has been a learning process and a shift if how things are reported, but all of our partners are on board as true partners to help us bring this performance platform to a place where the information is credible and actionable.

That is indicative of the level of competition and the level of service that teams and events are giving their partners these days.

Jim: How does legalized sports betting becoming a larger part of the fan experience, align with a banking brand and positioning around financial responsibility?

Josh: It’s an interesting question and there isn’t an easy answer. Is there a direct conflict? No. Are sports betting sites in it for the same reason as a financial institution or some other consumer brand? Perhaps not. But they are legal entities with every right to participate. As long as they are held to a high standard and are not up to anything nefarious then they are more than entitled to drive their business.

As a lover of sponsorship, I hope they use the tools in an effective way. But will BMO be jumping into a partnership with a betting site around one of our teams? Unlikely. Otherwise, live and let live!

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