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Volume 21 No. 1
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The Sit-Down: Ed O’Hara, SME Branding

As the leader of a firm that has produced some of sports’ most indelible logos, he discusses how the business has changed over 25 years.

O ur work can’t just be about driving merchandise sales. It has to stand for more. With the proliferation of sports and entertainment over the past 25 years, there’s a greater need to stand apart.

Today, 30 percent of our business is research — that’s been the most dramatic change. It’s a much more complex process and there are people involved at the highest levels.

Photo by: SME
When we did the Pac-12’s branding, we spoke to 2,700 people, everyone from university presidents to student athletes and their parents. In 1994, we might have sent a questionnaire to 10 people.

We’ve all grown to be so much more than logo factories. The business now encompasses launch strategies, event marketing consultation, and video production.

That’s the future. I see it with my kids: Their Google is YouTube. We all need to master video production to keep up.

With a sports property, tradition can be a detriment if it is too ingrained.

Think about some of the big European football clubs. Change is not in their vocabulary, when it comes to their brands. Still, Liverpool has the greatest tag line in the history of sports: “You’ll never walk alone.” That gives you a chill — and it’s written into their logo.

When you’ve won a championship, your marketing department has the easiest job in the world. It’s the ones that don’t win that really need to work at it. So you lean on intangibles.

There’s such an investment of emotion in sports you can tap into. Maybe it’s a legacy from your dad. The concept of “hometown” always has a powerful connection within sports.

The Miami Marlins played the home card big time in moving to their new stadium in Miami. It became all about bright colors, Latino music, South Beach and all the excitement that Miami evokes.

Look at what the Nets have done with Brooklyn — and they went from near the bottom to the top in NBA merchandise sales. More importantly, at the same time, they made a great statement about being part of the fabric and revival of Brooklyn.

When SME started, we had this period I call the “tooth and nails” period of logo development: It was all about designs with creatures and speed lines. Our mistake was trying to tell the entire story in a logo.

A single logo doesn’t have all the responsibility anymore. It has to be at the center, supporting other elements.

Media now almost dictates the brand strategy. The great logos — New York Yankees. Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys — they tell just a bit of the story. The rest is dependent on their history and what you bring to the experience.

New brands obviously don’t have tradition on their side, but the trend now for everyone is clean and simple.

You’re just not going to win every year, so the best sports brands don’t sell on-field performance. They’re about something deeper and more intangible. Of course, that’s more difficult to accomplish, and people get seduced by winning.

A brand like Coca-Cola can sell on consistency. With sports, that’s a lot tougher sell year after year.

We’ve been working as [the agency of record] with the Yankees for seven years. The years they don’t win, it’s all about pride and pinstripes. The years they do win, it’s about championship history. Of course, that’s easier when there is a strong tradition.

Disney’s Mighty Ducks logo broadened the parameters as far as what you could have as a primary mark in sports. It made it OK for teams to be youthful and helped legitimize the notion that sports were essentially entertainment. Think of where that took Disney — they went on to purchase ABC and ESPN.

Clearly, within our business, technology has changed things radically, but there’s been an even more profound change in how people consume sports. Technology has fueled increased fan engagement. It’s embodied this sort of brand democracy.

Everyone has a voice now. Floyd Mayweather is asking fans to decide who he should fight.

Corporate secrecy is ending. You have to respond or ask fans how they feel. The result in our business is engaging with constituencies more and earlier.

The trend that will take us through the next 10 or 20 years is the collegiate business. Realignment puts everything in the blender, so it’s got to be about rebranding and conferences’ figuring out who they are and what they stand for.

College and university presidents are more involved than ever, because now they realize that it can’t just be about legacy issues. Sports are their front porch. There are 7,500 colleges and universities all fighting for distinction — that’s a real challenge.