Michelob ULTRA and the Atlanta Hawks have forged a budding partnership that has expanded beyond your typical activations. Blending a mix of social, digital, and experiential, the two brands intertwined creativity to create a true association between both fanbases. Riding Michelob’s brand positioning of “it’s only worth it if you enjoy it”, campaigns cut against the grain of ordinary and provided truly innovative opportunities for a partnership to truly resonate within the community. Within this partnership, both brands are geared towards where the next opportunity lies.
“We have to look at our partnerships differently and be able to pivot accordingly,” said Andrew Saltzman, Atlanta Hawks chief revenue officer. “No one is better than Anheuser- Busch and Michelob ULTRA. It isn’t just about selling product in the building. They don’t have a brand awareness problem.”
Dynamic social media campaigns. Forward-thinking in-arena experiences. Elevated community support. The two have enjoyed a thriving relationship in terms of brand affinity and increased sales, further elevating the brand as the Hawks’ beer market leader.
ULTRA Drip “Name that Drip” custom content series
The “Name that Drip” social activation was conceived by Kerry Scalora, Michelob ULTRA brand director. The series showcases player fashion, style, and personality as their entrance into the arena is documented. The brand wanted an authentic way of building the association between looking good and, paying homage to their credo, “enjoying it”.
“The entire campaign communicated our image of a balanced lifestyle so perfectly,” said Scalora. “It was so authentic to have that interaction with the players and to see them have fun with it. It was important for us to help showcase the other interests that they have.”
The Hawks’ social team then took the campaign a step further. Rather than simply documenting the players arriving to the arena, the team covered up their faces and turned the coverage into a conundrum. Other players were perplexed and astonished as they guessed which of their teammates were drippin’.
“This was an incredibly unique campaign in which we heavily engaged with our players’ authentic personalities,” said Saltzman. “It was galvanized even further by our playoff run as a nationwide audience got to see who our players are beyond the court.”
The ULTRA fan campaign saw the two organizations wield an absolute bevy of who’s who celebrities and influencers. Household names like Lil Yachty, Polo G, AJ Terrell, and Grady Jarrett amongst others carried with them a social following north of 70 million all while paying homage to Atlanta culture. Influencers were seated within the “ULTRA Box” which included a PS5 and an immaculate view of State Farm Arena.
“It all came together,” said Saltzman. “We are so proud of our ability to pull something like this off. You can tell how genuine the experience was for those taking part.”
ULTRA Courtside Virtual Fan Wall
With the big picture, brand affinity scope one end with the ULTRA Fan campaign, the Hawks allowed for a more personal, intimate connection to be forged through the ULTRA Courtside Virtual Fan Wall. Born out of the NBA Bubble during the 2020 season, the Hawks brought their version to the table for the 2021 edition. With marketing and culture at the forefront, the wall allowed fans to interact with Hawks’ players behind the scenes.
“It was truly special to help bring to life those one-on-one interactions,” said Scalora. “It’s one of those “money can’t buy” experiences. It’s at the cornerstone of holding true to the Atlanta market.”
Watch parties and drive to retail
During the Hawks’ 2021 playoff push, Michelob ULTRA served as presenting partner of all watch parties at State Farm Arena when the team was on the road. With an average of 15,000+ fans per game, the brand blanketed their involvement with the team during their Eastern Conference Finals postseason run.
And yet it wasn’t only within the confines of State Farm Arena where Michelob ULTRA left their mark. Through the Atlanta Hawks Bar Network, ULTRA activated at on and off-premise locations throughout the season. Wielding custom bar kits and co-branded merchandise, along with a host of Hawks’ personalities including prominent team alumni and official team dancers, ULTRA extended the partnership throughout the market as beer sales in Atlanta grew by 74% over the past year.
These partnership elements in place have resulted in tangible success from a point-of-sale perspective. The consumption of Michelob products increased over 100% from the 2018 to 2020 season. Additionally, Michelob was the highest-selling brand before Hawks’ home games, making up 33% of all alcohol sales before tipoff.
Yet the ethos of this partnership is not held to the bounds of shrewdly determined sales numbers. The crux of this relationship is built on dynamic partnership innovation.
“It’s never just one thing to tell about the increase in sales,” said Saltzman. “We are in the live entertainment business. It’s about bringing it all to life and understanding what the partner truly wants and is going after.”
The process of progressing this partnership has stemmed from years of growing together, holding true to shared core values, and a ton of self-reflection along the way. The beauty about all of the activations was it wasn’t forced, rather projecting a natural association that made fans, influencers, and players alike eager to take part. A growth mindset and brand positioning have been constant themes throughout.
“When you do really good work, the challenge is “how do you enhance them and make them better?”” said Saltzman. “How do you course correct along the way? Are you galvanizing new customers?”
“Within our transition from Budweiser in taking over as the official beer partner of the NBA, we are dialed in on having fun with what we do,” said Scalora. “We aim to offer unique and premium experiences for basketball fans. Specifically for the Hawks, their fans are truly advocates for their team and the entire Atlanta community. That’s why from an engagement standpoint, our marketing extends to outside the arena.”
The success of this partnership has been palpable. Revenue generation. Brand affinity. Association amongst two genre-spanning brands. And now, the partnership has once again been formally recognized.
For the second year in a row, the Atlanta Hawks have been named Anheuser-Busch InBev’s “Partner of the Year”. They are the first organization, amongst any sports league, to win the distinction from the brewing giant in back-to-back years.
“With our league partnership, we value all of our team partnerships very seriously,” said Scalora. “The Hawks have been able to share that recognition of the award and elevate what we do together. I love when we do cool stuff that resonates with the market and can drive sales and brand positioning.”
“To win that award in back-to-back years is unbelievably gratifying,” said Saltzman. “It’s achieved across departments. It’s PR folks getting the message out. It’s social and digital folks coming up with unique campaigns. It’s activation folks tying it all together.”
Could we see a three-peat of this award in the midst? Time will tell. What we do know is Michelob ULTRA and the Atlanta Hawks will continue to brew partnership activations and pour their energy into multi-layered brand affinity.
Max Simpson contributes a variety of content to The Sponsorship Space, covering areas such as experiential marketing, activation analysis, and illustrating the "why" behind interesting partnerships.