The Legacy of the Red Baron Pizza Squadron Sponsorship Program


Competition often drives innovation, dynamic change and new opportunities, which can then revolutionize an entire product category or — in the case of the Red Baron Stearman Squadron — the entire air show industry. However, the success and professionalism of the team was never meant to be more than a vehicle to sell pizza.

In 1973, Tony’s Pizza owned by Schwans Sales Enterprises based out of Marshall, Minnesota, was the number one frozen pizza in the United States until Tombstone Pizza entered the market and changed the frozen pizza market forever. (Tombstone Pizza got its name from the Tombstone Tap, a tavern located across the street from a cemetery. The tavern was owned by two brothers – Joe and Ron Simek – who also first introduced Tombstone Pizza. Tombstone Pizza is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kraft General Foods.)

Back in Marshall, Tom Caron, Director of Marketing for Schwans Sales Enterprises, watched as the new competition took a bite out of Tony’s market share. “In one year, a lot of things changed when we offered bigger pizza, a deluxe, a supreme, but it didn’t slow the market erosion,” explained Carron. While on a red-eye flight, he realized that the difference wasn’t the pizza, but the name. In a market saturated by Italian name brands, Tombstone stood out simply by being different. Caron started brainstorming as to what would convince Marvin Schwan, a proud German, to approve a new pizza line. Being a former history teacher, he landed on the idea of the Red Baron from World War I and quickly called the packaging company to see if the name or image had been trademarked. Twenty-five dollars later, Red Baron Pizza was born.

In the seventies, a company would have to spend five to six million dollars to launch a national product and another five or six million dollars for marketing, which consisted of buying circular store ads and slotting spaces in grocery stores and supermarkets. The intense competition in the frozen pizza business spurred Caron to try something radically different.

“Maynard Kruse in the [Scwhans] aviation department reported to me and had actually taught me how to fly,” said Caron. “I asked, ‘Can you bring me a few tri-wing Fokkers,’ but Maynard convinced me that Stearmans were the solution.”

The original concept was to launch the line with lower costs by using the Red Barons flight team to target the grocery store managers who could buy the product and get it into the frozen food cases. By using this very innovative method of launching a new product line, Carron was investing in a grass roots distribution system that leaned heavily on the local and regional sales force and was activated by the flying team.

Months in advance, the ground team would carefully build relationships with the grocery store managers who made decisions about what products to carry in their stores. Schwans representatives would explain and promote the team’s upcoming visit. They’d use in-store displays and circular advertising to help ensure that the general public knew about the team’s participation in the upcoming air show. And as the show got closer, the Schwans ground support team would arrange dinners with the Schwans sales force and flights with the Red Baron pilots for local store managers, purchasing representatives and other decision makers.

“It was one hell of a lot of work for the people on the ground nearly a year in advance,” explained Caron who said the public relations group in Marshall would also arm the ground team with press kits and work with the media. “They had a better integrated performer system than anyone [else in the air show business] and always arrived early to give rides for the press, grocery stores, and customers,” adds air show organizer Rick Grissom.

However — at this point — the rides, promotions, and media were strictly to promote the brand with the grocery stores at events created by Red Baron, for Red Baron.  Kruse says the pilots believed the natural progression was to start flying at air shows to broaden the audience. “I wanted my own parade, not to be in someone else’s parade. When you went to an air show, you were in someone else’s parade,” challenged Caron, “But there was increased pressure to fly things like Oshkosh, which for the pilots was like their Academy Awards.”  So, over time, the team transitioned from flying principally at dedicated Red Baron events to flying at air shows.

As the program matured, the team set the standard for the other air show performers by their professional dress, commitment to safety and showmanship. The ride portion of the program grew to include into sweepstakes, raffles, and charity flights, but the program never lost sight of its principal function as a sales tool for frozen pizza.

During the days leading up to the individual events or air shows, the ground team would secure display space, live store demonstrations, coupons, and give retailers an experience they couldn’t buy. In exchange, Red Baron received valuable promotion and shelf space through a more cost effective promotion vehicle that separated Schwans’ product from those of its competitors.

“We would see a 20 percent increase in continuous volume after the event. We used the consumer to reach through to the customer [which, from Schwans’ perspective, was the grocery store manager],” explains Caron.

“Approximately two months before the air show, the team would fly into a local civilian airport to give rides to buyers and managers from local grocery stores that carried the Red Baron products. Local media was also invited for flights,” said Dale Drumright, former director of the NAS Norfolk air show, “This was a wonderful ‘kick-off’ to encourage marketing within the stores to promote the NAS Norfolk Air Show and, of course, their products.”

The Red Baron program was becoming the most sophisticated, tightly integrated marketing program that the air show industry had ever seen.  For the first time, air shows benefitted from a sponsor’s promotion in the days leading up to the show rather than strictly weekend entertainment.

MCAS Miramar Corporate Sponsorship Director Dino Richardson worked with the team for 17 years. “They activated through their retail channels with in-store promotions and with give-away VIP passes for their hospitality chalet for the ‘best’ in-store displays, which might include scale wooden models and paper models of their Stearmans or Miramar Air Show posters. They would even tow a full scale Stearman to retail locations to promote their presence and the air show starting a week out from the event,” explains Richardson.

The Red Baron Pizza Squadron became the most sought after team because of the heavy advanced event promotion and the team’s ability to generate massive media. Internally, Caron’s idea to use the team as a tool in establishing the new brand among grocery store managers had worked extraordinarily well. Over time, a sponsorship model had evolved that wasn’t all about flying; it was about taking full advantage of all the marketing opportunities that were made available by the flying portion of the program.

In the late nineties, the concept evolved, shifting from the customer and distribution to the consumer and consumption. Caron retired and — with a mature product that no longer struggled for shelf space in supermarket frozen food aisles — the marketing department sought to expand the program’s ground footprint while still retaining the basics of the original program. In addition to its original goals, the program would now work to encourage air show spectators to buy more Red Baron frozen pizza.

Bob Tiernan, of Cameo Marketing, was hired to improve contracting and strengthen the relationship between the team and the product. “Research showed there was a problem. The consumer wasn’t connecting the dots. They weren’t making the connection between the frozen food aisle and seeing these planes at the air show,” says Tiernan.  His team created the popular “Flight Club” a 120 foot by 140 foot entertainment and chalet space with one portion still dedicated to Red Baron’s business guests and the other portion open to the general public with flight simulators, a small theater and other branded activities to engage the young. While in the Flight Club, consumers could also purchase oven-cooked pizza right on site as part of a concessions/sponsorship agreement with the air show. The team also generated goodwill with the show organizers by feeding their volunteers and, of course, providing coupons.

“These extras really made it a win-win for the show and the performer. The Red Baron group brought in top notch equipment, which only enhances their brand, as well as brings up the stature of the show grounds, etc.  The bonus of getting volunteers fed just gave us more on our bottom line as well,” explained Brenda Kerfoot, of the Dayton Air Show.

Continuing the shades of the original purpose of entertaining the grocery managers, a special VIP area was reserved offering a catered meal, shade and the chance to meet the pilots.  However, the sales force was no longer used in the same way.

The Red Baron Pizza program was an outstanding success by any measure and — at the time — was one of the most innovative ways to launch a new national program. The team based its decisions on which to shows to fly at on the likelihood that the show would help sell more pizza.  But, after 28 ground-breaking years and numerous awards, Schwans called the Red Baron home, permanently. In 2007, the company announced it was re-focusing its marketing to television and advertising and away from event marketing.  Unsubstantiated rumors have circulated ever since about the “real” reasons for disbanding the team.  And it is ironic to many that Schwans no longer uses event marketing to promote a brand that was launched and built using event marketing. But there is no doubt that Red Baron Pizza remains at the top, both in sales and in the hearts of air show fans everywhere. Many people would share Rick Grissom’s opinion. “They were probably the greatest thing in this business. They did everything right.”

Bonus: What You Can Learn from the Red Baron Program

Among the many legacies of the Red Baron Stearman Squadron is a virtual checklist of sponsorship-related lessons learned and potential pitfalls. Any air show performer working to establish a world-class sponsorship program would do well to learn from the team’s experiences and innovations during the quarter century that the Red Baron program ran.

  1. Offer specific goals for your program and then meet or exceed them. Corporate North America is no longer interested in “visibility.” You need to have concrete and specific plans for delivering specific and quantifiable return on investment. You also need to have a way of calculating and demonstrating that you are delivering those returns.
  1. Become inclined to say, “Yes” whenever possible.
  1. If you are flying for a sponsor, you have to be willing to subordinate your focus on airplanes to the more important objective of helping the sponsor sell more products or services.
  1. Develop a multi-faceted program that puts all of the available resources to work in achieving your sponsor’s objectives: media, hospitality, couponing, cross-promotions, a ride program, product sampling, everything. It will increase your footprint, increase your potential of being successful every weekend, and – ultimately – increase the return that your sponsor gets on their air show investment.
  1. The most successful sponsorship programs are built on personal relationships. The Red Baron program was most effective when it recognized that its success was dependent on creating a network of relationships in each city where the team was performing.
  1. Know your true audience. Is it the consumer? Key decision makers? Buyers?
  1. Activation is key. A sponsored performer presents the sponsor with an opportunity. If the performer and/or the sponsor don’t invest in support/activation personnel to take full advantage of that opportunity, the full value of the sponsorship program will never be realized.
  1. Sufficient lead time is critical. A fully integrated sponsorship program takes weeks to activate at each show site. A successful program will be built on the assumption that the performer’s staff or the sponsor’s staff will be working with people and businesses many weeks in advance of the actual air show in that community.
  1. The most successful programs are built on the premise that everybody benefits: sponsor, performer, event organizer, media, spectators. Build your program on that assumption and it will have a much better chance of surviving and prospering over the long term. As an example, if your media program provides the media with a compelling story and provides the air show with increased exposure and attendance, then it will be much easier for you to get coverage that will also increase visibility for your sponsor. A win/win/win situation.
Previous articleWhy do all SAC Cards Expire on December 31?
Next articleAn Introduction to Planning Air Show Traffic Patterns, Parking and Shuttle Operations
Deb Mitchell
Deb Mitchell is a former broadcast journalist who ran the NAS Oceana Air Show in Virginia Beach, Virginia for several years and helped create the Air Show Buzz website.