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Inside UnitedHealth Group’s Approach to Partnerships

At last month’s virtual Sponsorship Mastery Summit, Allen Hermeling, senior vice president, sponsorships and growth for UnitedHealth Group, shared the healthcare giant’s sponsorship strategy and objectives, as well as discussed what he has learned in making the move three years ago from sponsorship seller to buyer.

Allen has enterprise-wide responsibility for UnitedHealth Group’s major partnerships. UnitedHealth Group is comprised of two units: UnitedHealthcare, a leader in health benefits, and Optum, an information and technology-enabled business that delivers clinical and pharmacy care services.

The company has partnerships with The Players Championship PGA Tour event, the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, New England Revolution and other pro sports teams and events. Golfer Rory McIlroy is an Optum brand ambassador. UnitedHealth Group also has signed recent partnerships with the Essence Festival of Culture, the James Beard Foundation and Peloton.

Prior to moving to the corporate side, Allen spent 10 years establishing and securing corporate partnerships for the Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals and the Washington Football Team.

Below are some of the key takeaways from his presentation

1. UnitedHealth Group’s sponsorship marketing strategy is guided by the following principles:

Focus on strategic partnerships. “It is critically important to build models where everybody wins and evolve sponsorships so that one plus one equals three.”

Build ownable, scalable platforms.

Create connected activations. “Activations that can help people experience our brand and be leveraged across multiple properties throughout the sports and entertainment ecosystem.” An example is holding press conferences with athletes and others in which the questions are asked by children. UnitedHealth Group has conducted such events with McIlroy, the Patriots and other properties, generating engaging content for use on digital and other platforms.

Disruptively engage around the sweet spot. “The sweet spot is the intersection of what matters to the brand, to the audience and to the property. If you can live in the sweet spot, that is where your greatest impact is going to be made. It’s important to constantly ask the question, “Is what we are doing relevant to the brand, relevant to the audience and relevant to the property?”

2. The company’s “Big 4” objectives by which it defines and measures success are:

Drive our business and serve our members.

Advance our brands. “Whether that’s the understanding of our brands or driving positive sentiment.”

Demonstrate our commitment to the communities we serve.

Engage our employees. In 2020, the company’s sponsorship events reached more than 350,000 employees and actively engaged more than 36,000.

Allen mentioned that three years ago, the company was “overwhelmingly focused” on the first objective: driving business and growth. “Quite frankly, we were leaving a lot of opportunity on the table and our CMO recognized that we could activate around other areas as well. That’s when we drafted the “Big 4” objectives.

“We didn’t allow the growth piece to subside, because if that happened, it would be very difficult to justify the investment in the sponsorship from an ROI perspective. It was about leveling up the other three areas to be on par.”

3. UnitedHealth Group considers the following factors when making decisions to expand or diversify its sponsorship portfolio:

Geography. Current and future employee and customer concentration, as well as key states and growth markets.

Brand. In addition to brand architecture, “are the partnerships we are leaning into consistent with and/or connected to our current and planned media spend?”

Customer. High-impact growth experiences and fit with psychographic and demographic interests.

“The portfolio we had three years ago was heavily weighted to football and golf and an old, white male demographic. Not that that demographic is not important to us, but we have embarked on a journey to diversify the portfolio and the people we reach through new partnerships such as the ones we have with the James Beard Foundation and Essence Festival.”

Sustainability. This factor is inclusive of delivering societal return, diversity and inclusion, and employee engagement.

“If you can market and tell a story at the same time you are benefiting society, it’s incredibly powerful. Sustainability is critically important, as beyond just being the right thing to do, this is the way businesses are being measured. Any publicly traded company is being held accountable to this by Wall Street.”

General. Sponsorship opportunities must 1) demonstrate a fit with corporate values; 2) offer competitive differentiation and 3) have executive leadership support.

4. Allen also shared with the audience of sponsorship salespeople his perspective on selling now that he’s on the other side of the table.

Play the long game. “Progress is not linear. There will be fits and starts, you will have periods of success and then periods of not doing well. Don’t give up. Don’t get discouraged. Trust the process. Don’t take the short-term gain at the expense of long-term opportunities that can really unleash value.”

Sales is a discovery process, not a convincing process. Your job is to 1) uncover the needs that a prospect has and 2) know your unique assets to figure out where the opportunity for strategic partnership exists.

Your contact is fighting as hard for budget as you are for the sale.

Brand priorities and decision rights are constantly in flux. “I can tell you as someone inside a brand, as soon as you think you’ve got it figured out, or that you have a pathway to get something done, a priority changes, or who has the decision rights changes. Who you need to engage, or who you need to get support from for the decision, or who you can and can’t upset with the decision that gets made are all constantly changing.

Sponsorships can come from anywhere. “Don’t get stuck pursuing the same contact or opportunity for too long. Hedge your bets and figure out what other opportunities exist to engage with other people in the organization that won’t alienate your main point of contact.”

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