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Coming up huge: Playoffs bring out the best in NFL's campaign
Published February 25, 2002
The NFL's road to Super Bowl XXXVI was one of the most challenging in its recent history. Still, as usual, football persisted — in fact, thrived — on the shoulders of the powerhouse St. Louis Rams and unexpectedly great seasons in New England, Chicago and Pittsburgh. And just as the players raised their game to meet the win-or-go-home challenge of the postseason, the marketing people at the league kicked their postseason advertising and marketing up a notch.
The NFL's playoff advertising captured what its regular-season efforts struggled to deliver compellingly: the true nature of the game and those who play it. Football is a game played by soldiers and strategists. At a primal level, football fans unite in support of their armies as they do with virtually no other sport. And the NFL's advertising to promote its championship tournament delivered a powerfully enticing invitation.
When John Collins, the NFL's marketing leader, speaks of the NFL brand he's shaping, he talks about presenting football as a great entertainment brand — as a communal, uniting experience.
During the course of the season, working with the New York office of Young & Rubicam, the NFL implemented an advertising campaign that conveyed this message with varying degrees of success. This NFL brand campaign, featuring the tag line "This is what it's all about," though strategically sound, was weighed down with too many mundane and heavy-handed executions. Communication of the NFL's entertainment brand was too often not entertaining enough.
But any regular-season advertising tentativeness disappeared with the NFL's playoff work. The commercials were direct and energizing. Set to the rumbling beat of U2's "Until the End of the World," the work featured current and past players and coaches shot in extreme close-up, sharing their personal thoughts on the playoffs.
The messages ranged from feelings about the playoffs and what they mean, to hearing about who these legends think of as playoff legends. Bucs (then Raiders) coach Jon Gruden, putting his death scowl on the camera, talked about "guys who come up huge" and how you've got to "feel it to believe it." And Marcus Allen summed it up with "This is where legends are born: playoff games."
As you heard these guys, who appeared to be psyching themselves up for the games as they spoke to the camera, the "this" in the "This is what it's all about" NFL tag line resonated much more powerfully in the postseason than it did all season long.
The postseason shots in black and white added to the drama and power of the commercials, and the bright red cinema bars at the top and bottom of the screen color-matched the bold red NFL Playoffs logo. Well done!
Perhaps some of the success of the playoffs campaign was due to Collins handing off the playoff work to his NFL Films group, led by the incomparable Steve Sabol, rather than to Young & Rubicam. Sabol worked his up-close-and-personal style without a script (just Q&A) and allowed the featured players and coaches to make eye contact.
Additionally, Collins created an arrangement with U2 that extended beyond NFL advertising to include the band's extraordinary halftime performance at the Super Bowl, and getting blanket music licensing rights for all NFL broadcast partner networks so they were able to use U2 tracks in their NFL promotional advertising.
James H. Harris (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the CEO of Chicago-based strategic marketing consultancy ThoughtStep Inc.