Like a trailer to a truck, Chrysler's Ram brand has been hitched to the world of rodeo and its vast community of horse enthusiasts.
It's a marketing match that has made Ram the dominant automotive sponsor of America's rodeos and has helped it sell "countless" trucks over the past three decades, says Bob Hegbloom, director of the Ram truck brand.
And it continues to cement goodwill for the Ram brand among the 12 million spectators who will attend Ram-sponsored rodeos and surrounding events this year in the United States and Canada, and the millions more who will watch on TV.
The Ram imprint is so prominent on the various rodeo circuits that Ram-sponsored events are known generically as Ram Rodeo, even though many have other title sponsors. Ram will sponsor 300 professional rodeo events in 2014 and another 300 amateur, college and high school rodeos, Hegbloom said.
"You don't realize how big rodeo is until you've had a chance to experience it," he said.
Hegbloom declined to say how much the brand spends for the sponsorships, but said dealers share in both the investment and the payoff.
Hayden Elder, owner of Elder Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram in Athens, Texas, was one of the first dealers to champion Ram Rodeo in the early 1980s. Every April his dealership is the dealer sponsor for the Ram Rodeo stop in Athens, a growing city in ranch country southeast of Dallas. For about $3,000, Elder gets to show off four trucks in the 4,500-seat arena that houses the weekend event and gets banners and other publicity.
"Ram Rodeo is the best grass-roots marketing program ever developed by an auto manufacturer," says Elder, whose son and daughter have competed on the professional rodeo circuit through the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
At the Athens event, the public address announcer frequently implores visitors to check out the trucks during lulls in the action and visit the Elder store for a test drive. More than that, Elder says, "You have horse people in the stands" who remember Ram when it comes time to buy a truck or the family needs a new vehicle.
Elder's son Forrest joined the dealership as Internet manager a few months ago after spending years on the professional circuit as a calf roper. Forrest Elder said at least 80 percent of the people he knew on the circuit drove one-ton "dualies," pickups with four wheels on the rear axle. Ram versions easily can top $60,000.
The trucks can pull horse trailers that cost $100,000-plus and carry horses worth $50,000 or more each.
He said it was not unusual for him and his friends to put 90,000 miles on a truck in one season traversing the circuit from Oklahoma to Missouri to California to Montana.
Those acquaintances on the professional circuit, from as far away as New Mexico, have bought Ram pickups from Elder. His dad, Hayden, said that type of loyalty isn't unusual among riders and their families.
Hegbloom said he noticed that loyalty the first time he attended the national finals of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in Las Vegas three years ago. That competition brings together the top money winners on the circuit for 10 days of riding and music that fills a 17,500-seat arena every night and turns the Vegas strip into a sea of cowboy hats and western garb each December.
Ram is the vehicle sponsor, while Wrangler, the jeans brand, is the title sponsor.
Hegbloom said that when he pulled into his hotel parking lot it was filled with pickups, and most of them were Rams.
He said that's consistent with what he has seen at other Ram-sponsored rodeos: attendees drive Rams in far greater proportion than the brand's national market share.
Ram's connection to the rodeo goes back to 1981, making it one of the longest-running grass-roots marketing campaigns in automotive history.
The Ram Rodeo sponsorship program was started by Jack Lowry, a Pennsylvania Ram dealer who saw an opportunity to promote Ram pickups at rodeos based on research showing that more than half of all rodeo attendees drove trucks.
That first year, Lowry's Ram Rodeo sponsored 18 rodeos, working as a vendor to Chrysler, said Mike Orman, owner and president of 100X Marketing Group, the company that now manages the sponsorships for Ram.
While the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has some national sponsors, rodeo has no single sanctioning body to oversee national sponsorships of the competitions themselves, unlike NASCAR. The vast majority of events are hosted by local chambers of commerce or volunteer organizing committees that must reach out to sponsors individually for support.
Orman said it's a credit to Ram's image among these grass-roots rodeo organizers that the brand gets invited back each year by virtually all of the independent rodeos.
Through Ram's partnership with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, organizers of Ram-sponsored events also gain access to the sport's elite cowboys.
Orman said Ram is content to keep the number of events it sponsors at about 600 so it can provide appropriate marketing support to the rodeos and to local Chrysler dealerships that participate.
Ram is the title sponsor of a couple of rodeos, including the Ram National Circuit Finals taking place next month in Guthrie, Okla.
In recent years, Ram has added a social media component to the grass-roots campaign, Hegbloom said. Ram staff is brought along to the big events like the Las Vegas finals to blog, tweet and post Facebook photos of the riders, music and fun.
Orman said events run every month of the year and have appeal far beyond the professional circuit. Half of the 600 Ram-sponsored events are for amateur rodeo riders, he said.
Rodeo is a sanctioned college and high school sport in Texas and several other states, with hundreds of thousands of participants, Orman said. There's even little league rodeo for youngsters around the country.
The amateur events offer an opportunity for local Ram dealers to get involved and show their support for the schools and community groups that put on the competitions.
And a good percentage of those families are pickup owners or potential customers, he said.
Spectators at the amateur events may not own a horse, Orman said, "but who's to say that someone living on a cul-de-sac doesn't have a bass boat to tow?"