Tailgate Marketing: Uniting Brands with America's Unique Tradition

min read
October 13, 2023

By Eli Haddow, marketing and business development manager

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We hear a lot about division today. And even how political and social disagreements are extending into brand choices. Bud Light, Target, Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby. All brands that have faced boycotts or backlash for their values, their executives’ statements, or their marketing. Even our sports leagues have come under attack.

It would stand to reason, then, that brands are searching for common ground, for some type of behavior that unites rather than divides.

I humbly submit the tailgate. I’m one of the millions of Americans whose passion for their team or school bleeds into the parking lots and campuses of our country (Geaux Tigers). Tailgating, though predicated on a competition between teams and fan bases, is one of the few communal experiences we have that remains convivial, joyful and even united in its own self-love.  

And it’s a wide-open opportunity.  

The market for tailgate party advertising

PETERMAYER pegged the market for tailgating supplies—that's everything from burger buns, to ice, to beer, to your wireless router setup—at somewhere between $6 and $12 billion. This is based on a few metrics, including the fact that the average NFL tailgater spends $500 per season, and a third of tailgaters don’t even attend games, but the market could even be more than $20 billion, according to some estimates. Moreover, tailgating is a longtail event, usually unfolding over several hours with opportunities for all types of brands to participate.

Which begs the question: Why aren’t brands showing up in unique ways to reach this audience?

You can probably picture most marketing around the tailgate. Maybe a 30-second ad that cuts between interchangeable shots of beer emerging from coolers, tongs flipping hot dogs, balls being tossed among fans in generically colored jerseys. Perhaps there’s even an “ultimate tailgate package” sweepstakes involved (“Just give us your email address!”).

Tailgating is a complex tradition that’s being misunderstood

These approaches reflect a monolithic tailgating tradition from coast to coast, but the reality of the scene is much more complex—enough so to have spawned a study by two Notre Dame professors, John Sherry and Tonya Bradford. In their analysis, the academics shared the insight that tailgates thrive on the sense of participation that individuals feel when they contribute to the action.

Tailgating is the game for the millions of us who don’t don uniforms. That’s what makes the practice uniquely collaborative and joyful.

The benefits of belonging and tailgating

That idea of participation, rather than spectating, can be a potent uniting factor in our current environment. Most Americans feel misrepresented in their politics and daily life. And with feelings of belonging at a dangerous low in this country—74% of Americans don’t feel belonging in their local community—tailgating offers us a chance to contribute to something we enjoy. In this context, brands have an opportunity to reach people in an atmosphere that’s remained free from much of the division prevalent in our society.

To show up authentically within this tapestry, brands need to show they understand the tailgate—and they need to prove they belong.

Connecting with and marketing to an audience of diehard tailgaters

That starts with a deep understanding of the unwritten rules, customs, quirks and traditions of their territories—the sanctity of an old-timer's honored spot; the Michelin-level dedication of the grill masters; the contempt for the mooch. Tailgating truths like this stem from years, sometimes decades, of organic behavior.

In Louisiana, that means understanding the language on the ground—a “Geaux Tigers” or “Who Dat” for fellow fans, or potentially a “Tiger Bait!” hurled toward a rival. The local menu is important, too. In Baton Rouge, you’ll find whole hog roasts or alligators spinning over open flames, depending on whether the opponent is an Arkansas Razorback or Florida Gator. But mostly, you’ll see gumbo and jambalaya.

Brands that have turned quirks into innovative campaigns

A few campaigns in recent years have successfully translated quirky behavior into brand love.

Dr. Pepper’s Fansville Campaign

Dr. Pepper successfully reached college football fanatics through their “Fansville” campaign, now in its sixth “season,” which animates the minutiae of college football love and lore into a mock TV drama. Following the campaign’s launch, Dr. Pepper experienced an unprecedented 3.4% lift in dollar sales.

Budweiser’s “Real Men of Genius” Campaign

Going back a few more years, Budweiser’s “Real Men of Genius” campaign celebrated the underappreciated wins in their consumers’ daily lives. It became one of the brand’s longest running campaigns and even reappeared a few years ago.

McDonald’s Special Menu

More recently, McDonald’s created special meals based on the quirky ways that fans order off its menu. In 2020, the QSR giant began releasing celebrity meals, boosting same-store sales by double digits thanks to entries from Travis Scott, J Balvin and BTS.

How to approach the tailgating audience

It will take significant immersion and listening to do the same for tailgating, but the payoff could be consequential. For brands in the food and beverage space struggling to differentiate themselves, fitting in at the tailgate scene could spawn major brand loyalty from a dedicated base of fans. And for ancillary products like camping gear, tech and apparel, understanding fan traditions and behaviors could help products go from store shelves to tailgate essentials.

Before jumping into communications, think about the needs and wants that tailgaters have throughout their day. Where can your brand fill a need? How can you create behavior that blends into the existing scene, rather than shout on top of it?  

A compelling answer could help break through the noise—and division—in our everyday lives and remind us of the pleasure of the weekend.

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