SBJ/October 1 - 7, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Marketing, creative face post-tragedy dilemma

In the best of times, most marketers are a timid lot. They duplicate more often than they originate. So in times like these, "wait and see" has been replaced by "wait and wait." Accordingly, marketing in general, and sports marketing in particular, is in the deep freeze.

"The climate is just abysmal for anything related to marketing, and for those of us in sports marketing — which a lot of people consider trivial during good times — it's even more so right now," said Fred Ostern of Ostern Sports Marketing in Simsbury, Conn.

PURSE STRINGS TIGHTEN: With budgets slashed, 2001 already looked like a lean year for anyone in the marketing/media professions. Now, with many marketing plans shelved, there is talk of layoffs, as those with the purse strings draw them even tighter. Marketers like certainty, and that is in short supply. What we have is an inert industry.

"We're all trying to figure out when to come out of the bunker," said IMG senior executive vice president Bob Kain. As for the marketers whose doors are usually being knocked on by the Willy Lomans of IMG? "They don't even want to get in the boat to rock it," Kain said. "And you can't blame them."

The prevailing wisdom is that sports will provide a healing, cathartic salve of diversion and thus will maintain its value, even in the face of war. But there's even some doubt about that.

"Everyone says sports are recession proof, but we are at a different kind of time, a time when people almost feel guilty about cheering or laughing," said Shawn Bryant, a former NBA Properties marketer who now heads New York City marketing firm Game Face Ventures. The X factor for marketing is whether that condition is temporary or permanent.

Those involved in producing advertising creative have their own dilemma. Can any advertising be inoffensive, not to mention effective, when life and death is an everyday matter?

"Don't believe anyone in marketing that claims to be an expert, because this is uncharted waters for everyone," advised Roy Spence, president of Dallas-based GSD&M, which shelved Southwest Airlines' farcical ads in favor of three homespun ads espousing the virtues of the airline's family of employees. Now that relevance is a moving target, and everything is being questioned. The Southwest spots from GSD&M were heartfelt, but imagine a brand like E-Trade or ESPN trying to do homespun or patriotic creative.

"ESPN has always been a refuge, and we think it can still be," said ESPN senior vice president of marketing Lee Ann Daly, who dealt with the feelings of inadequacy shared by many white-collar New Yorkers by volunteering at a makeshift hospital in the days following the World Trade Center tragedy. "Our big question now is how a brand that has always communicated through humor adjusts."

You can expect a lot of abortive attempts as marketers try to wrap themselves in the flag, but it isn't just about patriotism. In the new age of uncertainty, Americans want something as reliable as their favorite chair.

"Consumers were already telling advertisers they weren't relevant by tuning them out," Spence said. "Now we're at a time when they want comfort, confidence and security."

Whatever brands can offer that will achieve a relevance that's right for the times.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@amcity.com.

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