Thinking Back, Looking Ahead: Ed O'Hara
In his 30 years with branding consultancy SME, Ed O’Hara has helped create some of sports’ most indelible logos — and he’s watched the business transform into one with a more holistic acceptance of marketing. The retiring president and chief creative officer of SME Branding, a Learfield company, discusses his career and the changing brand landscape.
BEGINNINGS: SME’s origins date back to 1989, when I joined a small merchandise design company (Sean Edwards Design). We combined package design and display layouts with aspects of consumer input and qualitative research for brands from Colgate-Palmolive, Avon and Kraft General Foods.
Our sports breakthrough came in 1991. I opened the National Registry of Advertisers book and called the first company listed: Adidas. Anne Occi (now Major League Baseball’s vice president of design services) answered and I asked if she needed design services. She said yes, but not at Adidas, but at MLB, where she was taking a new job. Eventually, I presented to her a work portfolio including Irish Spring, Palmolive liquid and Fab detergent. She hired us on the spot for our first sports project: the St. Louis Cardinals’ centennial mark. Within six months, we were working with every major American professional league. In a few years we went global, including the FIFA World Cup, Formula One, and we signed a six-year deal as the exclusive design firm for Collegiate Licensing Co., which led to rebranding projects at more than 100 Division I schools.
REPOSITIONING: The work we did with CLC back then was a reflection of the times. Schools viewed their brands only as a means to generate merchandise sales, so they were changing logos every few years. We realized that the path we were on was unsustainable — there were only so many redesigns. We repositioned to a strategic brand-building and engagement consultancy, a much larger and all-encompassing business.
BRAND PLAY: When we started, “branding” wasn’t a common word in sports; it wasn’t a cohesive notion like in consumer products — which is one of the main reasons we were so successful. Branding used to be synonymous with design. Now, design is a component of branding. Back then, a logo was just to sell merchandise. Now, it’s a visual expression of a team’s values. Logos were designed separately from brands; now they are built together, and supported by exhaustive market research. We used to begin designing when we got the assignment; now we’re in maybe six months of research and strategy work before design starts.
FAVORITE WORK: Either our seven years as agency of record for the New York Yankees or our ongoing work (12 years plus) with the Kentucky Derby. We helped the Yankees move their fan base from the old to the new Yankee Stadium, which meant successfully selling the most expensive tickets in sports during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The Kentucky Derby was trading on a single race and single logo. We helped them evolve to a brand that’s recognizable and successful by allowing them to expand from an event into a full-fledged lifestyle brand.
REGRETS: The (widely panned) 1995 New York Islanders’ “Fisherman” logo. To quote Forrest Gump: “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
CHANGING BUSINESS: The competition has evolved, which is good and bad. The bad is that more projects are shifting away from independent agencies and going to manufacturers like Nike, Adidas and Reebok, which often view the brand as just the logo on a uniform or T-shirt.
FUTURE: There’s an incredible amount of passion in sports — that’s never going away. The trend is toward big data and analytics, which are here to stay, but all the passion points of sports haven’t been fully leveraged. … In the upcoming revolution, it will be about understanding how the consumer brain works and what triggers emotional reactions that generate loyalty.
EVOLVING TO A CUSTOMER NARRATIVE: Branding is less and less about logos and more and more about trust, likability and engagement. Customers will own a brand’s narrative and the brand’s job will be to curate, evolve and engage that narrative in real time.