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In the sout, college football is more than mere sport. It’s a way of life — some would even say it’s a religion.
So score one for Belk and its marketing team for tying into the college football bowl craze through its sponsorship of the annual Belk Bowl. Belk also sponsors the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament on the PGA Tour; the Carolina Panthers in the National Football League; the Carolina Hurricanes in the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves. It also advertises at college stadiums, among other sports affiliations, but there’s nothing like having a bowl game named after the company.
“When we took on the Belk Bowl, we realized it would be a big step, and a big investment. But we knew it made sense,” said Jon Pollack, executive vice president of e-commerce, sales promotion, marketing and the Belk Bowl.
Consumer research validated Belk’s beliefs. “We learned that our core customer loved college football and viewed it not just as a game,” Pollack said. “For them it’s a social event — an all-day affair. They dress up for tailgate. They dress up for the game, and they dress up for after the game. Men wear shirts and ties. The women wear dresses. It’s a big deal.”
Belk acquired the title sponsorship in 2011 and signed three-year contracts with the Atlantic Coast and Big East conferences, ESPN and the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., which is where the Carolina Panthers NFL team plays. Beyond the three-year contract, “It’s our intention to continue sponsoring the Belk Bowl,” Pollack said.
The event has gone through a few incarnations, having been known at times as the Queen City Bowl, the Continental Tire Bowl and the Meineke Car Care Bowl before Belk took over the title sponsorship and the first Belk Bowl happened in 2011. Belk is part of the process for selecting the college teams to play in the bowl game. They’re chosen from the two conferences.
As a marketing vehicle, the Belk Bowl is viewed as a touchdown by officials. They see it as a natural tie-in to the company’s marketing, which is built around the slogan “Modern. Southern. Style.” It’s also viewed as great national exposure.
“It exposes Belk brand to whole new audience,” Pollack said, including many football fans who live far away from Belk and never shop at the store. But they might one day, since Belk intends to expand its store base beyond its 16-state footprint and has a growing Internet business. The company is building additional stores in states such as Texas, where it already has stores, and considering pushing outward from its borders to contiguous markets and filling in certain markets with more stores.
In the days leading up to the kickoff, Belk builds anticipation with a host of events. There’s a Belk Bowl FanFest with food, interactive games, face-painting, Belk Bowl merchandise, cheerleaders, a battle of the marching bands and a concert. Last December, Lady Antebellum performed.
Belk also promotes the game at its department stores and through ads and promotions, utilizing print, television and the Internet, and gives out gifts to fans and players. The game is a big hit with the schools as well. Players have the opportunity to experience NASCAR and enjoy a shopping spree at the Belk flagship in Charlotte.
For the game itself, Belk gets to bring 300 to 400 associates to host the event and take numerous guests, including some of the store’s best vendors, customers and contest winners.
“It’s all about Southern hospitality,” said Pollack.
For the players, there are several upsides, as Pollack noted. They get to play in a professional stadium; their season is extended — for some, it’s the last game of their college career, and for others, it’s a showcase for future football opportunities. Like Belk, the colleges that play the game get increased recognition and exposure.
Last year the Duke Blue Devils squared off against the University of Cincinnati Bearcats in a humdinger of a contest. It was tied 34-34 with two minutes to go until the Bearcats exploded with 14 points to win.