In Charlotte Business Journal, Sept. 28 2021 – includes comment from our Tar Heel Sports Properties’ VP/GM

Story by Managing Editor Erik Spanberg. Online Version

Bojangles is putting a slight twist on two of its sports marketing mainstays: college football and NASCAR. In recent months, the Charlotte-based fast food company has signed 70 college athletes — many of them football and men’s basketball players — to promote the company’s tailgate-friendly chicken and biscuits menu. Endorsers include Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and UNC Chapel Hill quarterback Sam Howell.

They are among the highest profile college players in Bojangles’ core Carolinas markets, home to 469 of the restaurant chain’s 772 stores. Known as name, image, and likeness agreements, they are college sports’ version of what long ago became common in pro sports: familiar players pitching products. The difference is that college players were prohibited from profiting from their names and likenesses until state laws changed, and the NCAA relented, effective July 1.

On the NASCAR side, Bojangles last year signed retired driver and current NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the voice of its ad campaigns as part of Bojangles’ update to its logo, restaurants, and overall presentation. Dale Jr. and Bojangles had worked together before, including an appearance in a TV ad while he was still an active driver. The Bojangles ad was tied to his Pepsi endorsement.

In September, the company added Dale Jr.’s weekly podcast to the mix. The podcast, hosted by Dale Jr., features interviews and conversations with current and former drivers and others in racing. Each 2-hour airs online in an audio format, in a long-form video version on YouTube TV, in a condensed TV version on NBC Sports Network, and in vignettes on various social media feeds. In each version, Bojangles will be benefiting, Mayhoff said.

Jackie Woodward, Bojangles chief brand and marketing officer, said that sports has been and will continue to be the heart of the company’s marketing efforts. The newest additions represent tweaks rather than a shift in direction. “It’s really simple: Our customers love sports,” she told CBJ. “Whether that’s football to wrestling to soccer to bass fishing to golf, they love sports. It continues to be a big part of this brand. What matters is what sports are most relevant to them.”

Bojangles declined to disclose any marketing spending amounts, percentages, or changes in spending. The company did say it is increasing “activation” — bringing sponsorships to life in various ways — “to hammer home the message.” AC&M Group, EP+Co, Genesco Sports Enterprises, and VaynerSports work with Bojangles on the company’s sports advertising strategies, campaigns, and negotiations. Sports partnerships must align with what Bojangles customers are interested in, measured in internal and external data, convey a sense of fun, and increase sales, Woodward said. “Really activating in ways that will make consumers think of Bojangles more frequently and visit us as a result of that relevance, that’s where the rubber hits the road for us,” she added. The company doesn’t disclose sales figures or specific trends related to those measurements.

Signature Sports Group President Steve Hall, whose Charlotte-based firm helps regional and national brands promote their products through college sports, credits Bojangles for developing an effective sponsorship approach. “From integrating player personalities to customized packaging to what they recently did at Clemson with basically decorating the exterior of (a restaurant) with Clemson branding, they do things that stand out and ultimately connect with the fans and customers,” he said. “And with all the clutter and messaging in the market, innovation stands out.”

Bojangles has stores in 14 states. The company has targeted Florida, Ohio, and Texas, among others, for expansion. Hall said those areas, with high interest in college sports, will likely lead to more sponsorships.

Tony Mayhoff, head of brand partnerships for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s racing and media companies, said Dale Jr.’s long-running relationship with Bojangles as a pitchman made the expansion into online media a natural fit. “Our partnership strategy is one in which authenticity is the priority,” Mayhoff told me.

“We know, and metrics tell us, that fans can see through the rest of it. An endorsement has to be authentic, and Bojangles is authentic to Dale.” The podcast partnership includes putting the Bojangles name on the studio, including a neon sign visible in many camera shots.

Before each taping on Tuesday mornings at Dale Jr.’s race shop and business headquarters in Mooresville, Bojangles delivers biscuits and other items that are seen on set. The backdrop and product placement are the main elements; there aren’t likely to be dedicated ads in the podcast. A sports marketing executive told CBJ there could be risk in using a retired driver as a primary spokesman, even one with the Earnhardt name. Dale Jr. retired in 2017. The executive noted that each year out of active competition tends to chip away at interest and visibility.

Mayhoff pointed to Dale Jr.’s role as a NASCAR analyst on NBC, including cameos on the network’s coverage of the Super Bowl and the Olympics, as a near-constant high-profile presence. And, because he’s no longer racing, Dale Jr. has been able to build more of a lifestyle image that resonates with fans, he added. Mayhoff sees similarities between Dale Jr. and Bojangles. Both, he said, are national brands that retain a deep sense of their roots in the Carolinas.

Bojangles does not sponsor any active drivers. From 2012 to 2019, the NASCAR Cup series race in Darlington was known as the Bojangles Southern 500; the company no longer sponsors any races. Darren Heitner, a sports attorney who represents both brands and athletes, told CBJ that, from his vantage point, it comes as little surprise to see companies such as Bojangles and fast-food chicken rivals Raising Cane’s and Zaxby’s making an aggressive push into college athlete endorsements.

Beyond the basics of aligning restaurant companies whose geography overlaps with avid college sports audiences, this initial phase has a newness and novelty offering additional benefits. “It almost feels like the first war in name, image, and likeness is the chicken wars,” he said. “I think it’s very easily justifiable, especially right now not only because of the value that you can get negotiating with these players who have no basis to negotiate and don’t have a true appreciation of the value of their services but also based on all the attention that’s being paid to every deal that’s consummated.”

Charlotte, Bojangles’ hometown, is the only territory where pro sports sponsorships overshadow the company’s longstanding ties with various schools and now, athletes. Local sports ties include agreements with the Major League Soccer expansion team Charlotte FC, the NFL Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Motor Speedway, the minor league hockey Charlotte Checkers and naming rights to the Checkers’ home arena.

The privately owned company and its franchisees have sponsorships that include team logo-branded tailgate meal boxes for Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wake Forest, among others. “We provide great reach and a great platform to help them tell their story,” said Chuck Schroeder, vice president and GM of Learfield Tar Heel Sports, the company that sells North Carolina sponsorships. Schroeder cited promotions such as a two-for-a-dollar biscuit promotion tied to the men’s basketball team scoring 100 points as an example of how sponsor tie-ins can become focal points.