SBJ/July 12 - 18, 2004/Opinion

How to market an unpredictable product

“Just win baby.”

When Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, first uttered these words, he was sharing his brand strategy with the world. This famous statement has a swagger that has become synonymous with the owner and this franchise and evolved into the organization’s rallying cry.

As any packaged-goods marketer who makes the switch to sports finds quickly, sports brands are different and marketing them a difficult proposition. In addition to the challenges that traditional consumer brand marketers face — market share, speed to market, changing consumer purchasing trends, brand positioning and differentiation — sports brands have unique problems. There’s the added pressures of labor negotiations, negotiating TV and broadcast deals, community outreach, fan development, sponsorship and ticket sales, and maintaining facilities. Sports brands must contend with losing, trades, injuries, retirement, strikes, lockouts and drug tests.

For all the talk of branding in sports, there may be more differences than similarities. Sports consumers are fans; Microsoft consumers are, well, consumers.

Sports fans are loyal and passionate. They invest more than money; they invest emotion and time over much of their lives. Fans are thrill seekers who live vicariously through their sport. Sports fans experience their product in highly emotionally charged environments, in extreme sensory overload during high-level human competition.

Consumption patterns are different. When was the last time you saw a Coke buyer in a supermarket aisle, cheering, face painted in red, dressed head to toe in Coca-Cola gear?

Corporate brand managers recognize the difference. They partner with sports properties to connect their brand to consumers through the power of sports.

This association gives their product the appearance of vitality.

To get back to Davis’ mantra, the common belief in our industry is that the best strategy is to sign that star player, put together some winning seasons and voilà! The reality is that many sports marketers have watched their careers pass by while waiting for their general manager to make the deal that puts the team back in the win column.

The best way to approach this dilemma is through “dimensional branding.” This approach breaks a brand down into its basic building blocks — its emotional and physical components. Take a look at the New York Yankees, for example. Their brand can be boiled down to “winning, tradition and New York.” If the Yankees have an extended losing streak, which is against the winning dimension, then they can turn to tradition or the other dimensions that make up their brand.

For another contemporary example, look at the Detroit Pistons. Were the new-look Pistons simply the result of brilliant personnel assessments and incredibly shrewd salary cap maneuvers? Perhaps. However, the team’s fierce and tireless “defend the net at any cost” attitude is also the outcome of a brand rebuild, conceived nearly four years ago.

In 2000, the Pistons were a team that had lost its way. They could not win in the playoffs. Their advertising campaign claimed the Pistons were “Taking the NBA to School” — not consistent with their performance or brand DNA. Worse yet, the team had declining attendance, wavering fan interest, dwindling sponsorship sales and little hope in sight.

SME was asked to help revitalize the Pistons brand. Through an in-depth brand study involving team officials and fans, we concluded that the team was disconnected from its “brand DNA” and needed to recapture whatever that was in a hurry. We recommended that the Pistons transfer the essence of the historic Bad Boys era to the current team.

This was achievable because the study revealed that the Bad Boys were not really perceived as “bad,” but as hard workers with unrelenting desire. From this notion of hard work and dedication, the Pistons’ “Every Night” brand positioning was born.

“Every Night” has had several advertising iterations since it was first unveiled in 2000-01 as a series of Joe Dumars interviews . Since then, “Every Night” has evolved into “Goin’ To Work, Every Night,” “I Will, I Am Goin’ To Work” and the current “Workin’ It.”

This positioning helped fuel the incredible turnaround of this franchise because it is a proposition that appeals not only to the players and the organization, but also to the blue-collar Detroit sports fans. They relate to the hard work it takes to be successful and how rewarding it is when you get there.

From a team management perspective, “Every Night” is attractive because it provides guidelines by which to draft or trade players, to consider free agents, to hire a coach, general manager or even the front-office receptionist. Superstar talent may come along once in a franchise’s history, but hard work can be manufactured.

Moreover, with “Every Night,” the Pistons have a central platform for all brand communications. Everything that they do and say stems from a single thought, creating consistency of action and message throughout the organization, which is essential in rebuilding a strong brand.

How important was developing this sense of “brand self” to the success of this franchise? For the first time in 10 years, Pistons tickets are hard to come by. They’ve led the league in attendance the past two seasons and have increased the number of sellouts each year. Sponsorship sales are way up, there is optimism about the future. Oh, and there’s that NBA championship.

Players like Ben Wallace exemplify the Pistons’ “Every Night” effort, through relentless defense and shot blocking. Overall team attitude is now in line with the spirit of the Bad Boys, Detroit and its fans.

Most important, this franchise had the courage to change, and in the process gained a deep understanding of its own brand. Sports brands are different; discerning their essence provides an organization with a resource to communicate with fans in fresh and compelling ways for years.

A new ad campaign can give a consumer or sports brand a temporary lift.

Dimensional branding gives sports executives control over the marketing of their uncontrollable property.

Edward M. O’Hara is a founder and chairman of SME, a New York sports branding consultancy.

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