SBJ/May 19-25, 2014/Marketing and Sponsorship

From Clippers’ struggles, chance for ‘a real brand renaissance’

Sitting at Donald Sterling’s public ostracism a few weeks back, we couldn’t help but feel it was the first of a 400-act play. Since we’ve long maintained that “NBA” stands for Nothing But Attorneys, we’ll leave it to the best minds at the league and their counsel at Proskauer and Wachtell, Lipton to sort out the legalities.

Still, there are a few things within our purview we feel comfortable opining upon. The stampede of sponsors seeking to disassociate themselves from the Clippers in the wake of Sterling’s ugliness was predictable. Marketers are generally timid; they duplicate more than they originate. Still, those team sponsors ducking for cover should have rung hollow to anyone in this business. Is no one willing to call B.S.? OK, we are. When a team is in the playoffs, we feel it’s safe to assume that the preponderance, if not all of the sponsorship monies, have been paid. All those sponsors running from the Clippers were doing it for PR value alone.

For the purpose of debate, let’s assume any remaining sponsorship or media fees haven’t been or won’t be paid to the Clippers. The NBA splits basketball-related income with its players down the middle, so can’t we safely assume that the players and the Sterlings would be hurt equally in that case?

Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES

One veteran marketer says of the rebranding opportunity ahead of the Clippers, “I would die for that assignment.”

However, what we really wanted to broach are the marketing issues inherent in the Clippers debacle. Whenever the team is through parading through the non-hardwood courts, there will be a relaunch and repositioning of sorts. So we asked smart marketers with relevant experience what their strategy would be.

One thing’s definite: Clippers Nation has never been larger and there’s an unprecedented opportunity here for it to achieve national reach. From a brand with almost no discernible equities and a team that played red-headed stepchild to the Lakers, the Clippers have become a symbol for all that is right. The marketers relaunching Tylenol never had that advantage.

“Fans want to see the Clippers overcome the odds, so with an ownership transition, there’s an opportunity for a real brand renaissance,” said Greg Economou, former NBA senior vice president of marketing and CMO at the Charlotte Bobcats, who is now at Dick Clark Productions. “As a brand guy, I would die for that assignment.”

Maria Woike worked on the Clippers account over the past few years for Irvine, Calif.-based HEILBrice, the team’s longtime ad agency.

“This has been heartbreaking, but at the same time exciting, because the Clippers now have an opportunity to represent something much bigger than basketball,’’ said Woike, now creative director at New York branding firm SME. “They’ve always been a little brother at best. Now they need to come out with a bold, confident voice to show they showed grace in the face of disgrace and built triumph from tragedy. Isn’t that what we love about sports?”

Adam Silver’s NBA already seems more transparent. Our kitchen cabinet advised that the Clippers need to be held to an even higher standard.

“The [new tag line for the Clippers] ‘We are one’ isn’t sustainable unless there’s a real commitment to an open and embracing team culture,” said Alex Kaminsky, vice president, brand advertising and activation, at YP Holdings, and a former director of marketing and advertising at ESPN. “They should be more transparent than any other team. Think about HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks.’ That’s how open, honest and transparent the Clippers should be.”

Changing the name and logo is usually near the top of the to-do list for any neophyte team owner. However, with the Clippers becoming a lightning rod, we found little support for a name change.

Tom O’Grady, former NBA senior vice president/creative director, recalled working on a Clippers logo change around a decade ago that involved waves and the beach. It was nixed by ownership.

“The fundamental truth is that L.A. has never felt more connected to the Clippers, which now symbolize the power of a team to overcome adversity, so I would not even think about changing the name,” said veteran sports marketer Jeffrey Pollack, a former NBA vice president of marketing and corporate communications. “If you handle their emergence authentically, they can emerge from this as a championship organization — regardless of the outcome of the playoffs.”

Tom O’Grady, former NBA senior vice president and creative director, recalled working on a Clippers logo change around a decade ago that involved waves and the beach (see illustration). It was nixed by ownership. “You don’t want to tell people that the name is toxic when the reality is, it is starting to mean the opposite,” said O’Grady, who now heads Gameplan Creative, a Chicago sports and entertainment branding and marketing agency. “To me their logo has always looked too much like the Lakers, so I could see a change there.”

The notion of using the “new Clippers” to finally differentiate the team from the 16-time NBA champion Lakers was one we heard quite a few times. The smartest version of that came from Momentum CEO Chris Weil, who sees this sordid situation as an opportunity for the Clippers to “out cool” the team once known as “Showtime.”

“The first thing I would do is change them from the L.A. to the Hollywood Clippers. Add some fractional ownership from some Hollywood stars and it’s the coolest game in town,” Weil said. “Instead of free agents taking their talents to South Beach, they’re taking them to Hollywood.”

Who wouldn’t like that?

“I don’t see the Clippers brand as beyond repair,” said Bill Frederick of sports agency Fanbrandz. “I’d want some research to see how their fans relate to the Lakers and vice versa. Once you have that, there’s probably the best opportunity you’ll have to convert some of their [Lakers] fans into some of yours.”

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


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