Sponsorship Essentials Part 2: Q&A with Dan Dillon, CMO of Arizona State University

By: Claire Lingley

Dan Dillon is the CMO of Arizona State University with an extensive marketing background in the restaurant and consumer world. In Part 2 of “Sponsorship Essentials”, he speaks towards how he got his start, his experience in this industry, and how ASU is changing the way collegiate properties look at branding and sponsorship. With ASU, it’s not merely a transaction, but a deeper partnership.  Looking at the way ASU’s branding and marketing is going, other universities may want to follow suit.

Q: I understand you got your start in the restaurant/consumer side of the industry.  What drew you to the academic world?

A:  The opportunity at ASU was a unique opportunity. I don’t know if I was as intrigued by the industry as I was intrigued by what’s going on here at ASU, the role that marketing could play, and the role that brand management needed to play in terms of the overall mission of what is trying to be accomplished here. I was persuaded by President Crow (ASU President), that marketing could be a difference maker for the university, that it could add value, and that what he wanted to build was the capacity to do brand management, which is something that wasn’t currently here and available for the university, and quite frankly isn’t prevalent in a lot of universities.

It was the opportunity to do something different, to build something that didn’t exist, and to try and add value to a university that felt like it needed marketing to help it get where it wanted to be.

Q:  What is it about your experience in the restaurant and consumer industry that made President Crow approach you, and has helped you in your position at ASU? 

A:  The principles of marketing apply regardless of sector.  In the case of what my background has that was interesting to President Crow was a lot of variety, so with that variety, there was a belief that I could draw on that experience to solve unique problems at the university, despite not having higher-ed experience.  Quite frankly, the problems that we were trying to solve, or the main issues and opportunities that existed at the university, were getting awareness of, and credit for, a lot of what was going on here in a way that defined the brand, the reputation of the brand, and the quality of the brand.  That’s marketing.  That’s generally trying to impact people’s perceptions of a brand in order to have some favourable outcome.

Enrolling, applying, donating, buying tickets or advocating for the brand or participating in events; those are all outcomes that are impacted by marketing and branding. I think President Crow just looked at my background, and because of the number of categories and sectors I had been in, felt that I had enough of experience to drive those types of favourable outcomes here at the university.

Q:  Speaking towards that, you led the creation of the ASU Enterprise Marketing Hub. Can you speak a little bit towards that? What are your goals with it heading into the New Year and beyond?

A:  I arrived at ASU in 2013.  There wasn’t an enterprise marketing hub function; there wasn’t a centralized marketing department.  There were over 400 people with marketing or communications in their title not reporting into one area, not taking direction from one area, but if we were going to operate as we decided we were, as a branded house, not a house of brands, then it was necessary for somebody to manage the branded house, and that’s ASU.

We quickly came to the conclusion that trying to centralize the marketing intake and getting everybody to listen to one leader or report into one area was culturally going to be difficult to implement.  Rather than to go down that path of a command and control approach, we went with a more consulting approach.

We created the Enterprise Marketing Hub as an internal marketing agency that would provide a select set of services and consulting advice on how to manage and build brands at the school level, and the same time, with the belief that in doing that, we could start to manage and control a little bit more of the look and feel and projection of the ASU brand.  If you were a unit and wanted access to that in the form of research or financial resources, or creative resources, or tools that were being used at the enterprise level, then you had to agree to follow some governance and follow some guidance, and that’s a franchised model.  You’ve got the benefit of being a part of a larger organization, but in return, you have to follow and adhere to some guidelines and principles that we were trying to put into place.

The Enterprise Marketing hub has continued to evolve into a stronger unit because of this franchised model approach. 

Q:  Have you experienced difficulty in convincing outside brands joining in to invest in the University outside of the traditional Athletics-focused sponsorship? 

Later in your career, you’re going to be as successful as your experiences that got you there.

A:  We’ve changed the model to more of a partnership model.  Sponsors, yes, they get the ability to brand physical assets or put signs up in our stadiums, but we’ve also made ourselves more accessible from other areas of interest other than just building brand awareness through signage. 

So in talking to Adidas, or Coke, or Starbucks, or Mayo, or all these different brands that we are partnering with, what we’re offering is a deeper relationship than just a transaction, whereby you give us a sponsorship check and we give you a certain amount of signage in our athletics venues.  Instead, we are co-founding research and giving these brands access to either our alumni or our students in ways that are beneficial for them in that they drive their revenue, or drive their brand perceptions, or drive their brand awareness. 

We’ve got ways and assets that are not just about logos on billboards or logos on signs, they are much more sophisticated marketing tools and tactics that we are making available.  And that’s a change in the way that we are approaching sponsorships and partnerships, in that we are trying to build a deeper relationship that isn’t just a transactional one or isn’t just about the more traditional, “Name this building; Name this stadium; Put your name on this sign up here” type stuff, because what we’re finding is that the need of these bigger brands that have large budgets is not necessarily brand awareness. 

You know, Coke putting their logo up all over the stadium doesn’t really help them that much.  What helps them is the ability to create experiences that drive affinity.  Allowing them to create events, and to sponsor events, and to participate with our students and alumni in a unique, memorable, engaging way, provides much more benefit to Coke, both in brand affinity and ultimately revenue, than just putting their logo up on our scoreboard.

Q:  Speaking of that, the ASU-Starbucks partnership, that seems like a really unique relationship, can you give me a short history of how that came to be?

A:  It’s pretty simple and I think it goes to the university and the leadership’s propensity to be innovative and creative and solve problems.  Really simply, President Michael Crow and Howard Schultz were at a foundation gathering that they both are board members on.  In the course of conversation, Howard explained that Starbucks had 150,000+ baristas and over half had started post secondary education but not completed it.  Howard and President Crow both agreed that completing a college degree would not only help the individual but also Starbucks.

President Crow gathered a group of us at the university and said, “Okay, how are we going to design a program that enables Starbucks to be able to offer this?”

His desire was to offer the opportunity to get a college degree for free, as long as you’re an employee at Starbucks working more than 20 hours a week, and so we designed a program in such a way that Starbucks could afford to offer that benefit to their employees, and their employees could get high quality degree options available online and be able to complete their degree.  In the beginning, it was complete their degree, and we since have evolved to actually obtain a degree.  Even if you haven’t started, even if you’re a first-time freshman, you still can take advantage of that benefit: as long as you are working 20 hours a week at Starbucks, you can take an ASU-Online program, enter your degree and obtain it.

Q:  Going to switch gears just a little bit here, what is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?

A:  Early, early, early on in my career, it was get as much different experience as you can and in as many different places, brands, and companies.  Don’t ever say no to opportunities.  Fundamentally, this was unique advice at a time where people were starting at companies and staying for 30 years.  Getting a lot of experience at a lot of different places, or getting to a place that offers you a lot of experiences, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to move companies, but it’s important to seek out those opportunities so that later in life you’ve got a wide variety of experiences to draw from to help solve problems and create opportunities.

Later in your career, you’re going to be as successful as your experiences that got you there.

Q:  If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be?

A:  That’s a tough one. You know it’s funny, my wife would say this, I am not star struck or enamoured by individuals per say, I find a lot of people really very interesting in very unique ways, but if I had the opportunity to have dinner with anybody, and it sounds really silly, I’d rather go out to dinner with my dad than someone I don’t know.  Primarily, because I find him to be more interesting than a lot of people who I go out to dinner with. 


Dad, if you are reading this, I’d say the same thing!