What’s Behind our Super Bowl Obsession?

Most Americans know that this Sunday brings the biggest football game of the year. Super Bowl XLV will feature two of the most storied franchises in NFL history, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers. The Super Bowl has become more than a game; it is a cultural event that has become an unofficial national holiday. A study done for the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association projects consumers will spend $10.1 on purchases related to the big game this year.

Among notable statistics from the NAMA survey:
• 171 million people are expected to watch the game (the largest audience ever)
• 61 million people plan to attend a party
• 35 million people plan to host a party (for the 61.2 million to attend!)
• 4.5 million people plan to purchase a new television
• 75% of persons surveyed said the commercials serve as entertainment
• 18% said commercials help to increase their awareness of the brands advertised

Wow! The Super Bowl’s attraction to a large majority of the population is undeniable. It is amazing in part because fans of 30 out of the NFL’s 32 teams will feel a sense of emptiness Sunday. Their teams will not be playing, yet many of them will be watching. And, many people who watch little or no football during the season will be tuned in Sunday (including 2 people in my home). How did we get to this point? The NFL helped build the Super Bowl brand, obviously, with a great on-field product, broadcasting partners that bring the drama into our living rooms, and transforming the game into a major entertainment event.

Before we give the NFL all of the credit for the popularity of the Super Bowl, we should acknowledge it is the beneficiary of human nature. We like to be part of communities of people, whether it is fellow football fans, friends, or family. The Super Bowl is an opportunity (if not an excuse) for us to come together with others with whom we share common interests.

Marketers seeking to build a great brand can learn from this characteristic of the Super Bowl and sports in general. For all of the talk about how the Internet isolates people, most of us want to belong to a community, be it face-to-face or virtual. What can you do to promote development of a brand community, a group of customers and friends that share an affinity for your brand and products?

As for Sunday’s game, we know that among the expected 171 million viewers will be fans of the Steelers and Packers. I am sure my friends Mark, Faye, and Mike will be decked out in black and gold; my former students Joshua and Katie will no doubt be cheering on the Packers. Regardless of which team you support, enjoy as you spend time engaged with your community whether it is at home with your family, at a party with friends, in a pub with strangers, or with your hashtag-wielding pals on Twitter.

Leave No Brand Story Untold

What makes a brand resonate with consumers? A cool logo? No. A catchy slogan or jingle? Nope. The best creative efforts of an ad agency can take a brand only so far. People connect with brands in the same way they connect with other people: they are attracted by their personal stories. We value brands that we perceive as having something in common with us- our values, interests, attitudes, and mindsets. The connector that attracts us to a brand is its story. What does the brand represent, offer, and do that I can relate to and matters to me? To know a brand’s story is to add a dimension to one’s relationship with that brand.
The importance of telling stories comes to light this week with the Broadway debut of Lombardi, a play that tells the story of legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, both on-field accomplishments and off-the-field relationship with his wife, Marie. Despite being the namesake of the NFL’s Super Bowl trophy and generally regarded as an NFL coaching legend, many of today’s NFL fans know little about the man behind the Lombardi persona. To that end, the NFL should be praised for its marketing involvement with Lombardi as a way to preserve the Vince Lombardi story for fans today and in years to come.
If you own a business or are responsible for marketing a brand (which includes all of us since we are managers of our personal brand), is telling your brand’s story part of your branding platform? Maybe your brand story is told through fiercely loyal customers, or maybe it is shared by employees that are on the front lines of serving customers and carrying out the brand promise. Perhaps there is heritage to share, stories from the past like the Vince Lombardi story. The stories are there, why not share them? People are more likely to connect with your brand through the emotions wrapped in a story than they are the features built into a product. Leave no brand story untold.

Advertising Age – “NFL Backs Broadway Play About Legendary Coach”

Toyota’s Tiny Sports Marketing Play

Toyota is a brand that is heavily involved in sports marketing. It is a force in NASCAR, is naming rights holder of the Houston Rockets home court (Toyota Center), and is a sponsor of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” telecasts. But, Toyota’s tiniest association with sports may be its most innovative. Toyota rolled out a concept called the Tiny Football League (TFL) that is integrated into its sponsorship of the halftime show on “Sunday Night Football” and supported with a web and social media presence.

The TFL is a lighthearted take on the world of youth football. The TFL website invites youth teams to add photos, stories, and videos. Toyota is running a contest in conjunction with the TFL initiative in which 8 youth teams will receive $5,000 each, and a team selected by fan voting will receive a $10,000 donation. Criteria used to judge teams include evidence of teamwork, determination, and constant improvement.

At a time when it has become very expensive to be associated with top tier sports properties, Toyota’s foray into football via the TFL is brilliant. Toyota enjoys the best of both worlds. On one hand, its tie-in with the NFL via NBC’s Sunday night broadcasts give it the exposure a national brand like Toyota seeks. For Toyota, linking its presence in football to grassroots programs allows the company to show concern for local communities. The potential payoff in terms of how consumers perceive Toyota because of the Tiny Football League may be far greater than a more costly investment as an official sponsor of a major league sports property.

Football is the number one sport in the U.S., but there are ways to be associated with America’s favorite game other than an expensive sponsorship rights deal. Toyota’s TFL is a great example of how to link a brand with consumers’ interests in a creative way, one that taps into the benefits of sponsorship without the typical level of financial commitment.

Marketing Daily – “Toyota Talks Tiny Football in Corporate NFL Push”

A Case for Moving from Product to Experience

As the new NFL season debuted, several media outlets ran stories about the challenges some NFL teams are encountering selling tickets. A surprising 22 games were blacked out in 2009, thanks in large part to a dreadful economy. And, the prognosis for 2010 is no better; attendance league-wide is expected to decrease for the third straight year. But it is too convenient to blame attendance woes solely on the economy. Many NFL fans have found that watching games in the comfort of their homes in high definition with access to replays and multiple games is a suitable substitute for attending the game in person. Throw in money saved on tickets, parking, and concessions as well as not missing dealing with traffic and drunken fans, and watching games on TV at home becomes a more attractive alternative.

Some sports industry observers wonder if the fact that football is a great sport for television will ultimately lead to a decline in game attendance. It will happen… if the NFL treats live games as a product. The reason is that products can be duplicated, at least the benefit products provide are relatively easy to copy. In this case, technology enhancements have made watching NFL games on TV an acceptable substitute for watching a game in person. Compelling arguments can be made that the TV product has some advantages such as different camera angles and replay capability, not to mention the convenience and cost savings mentioned previously.

Before the NFL is declared in a state of emergency, let us not forget that the brand is still very strong. It commands premium prices for tickets, sponsors, and media coverage. The key for the NFL to sustain its position as the premier sports property in the U.S. is to focus more on the experience offered by the live event. Steps have been taken already by addressing the problem of unruly fan behavior with a fan code of conduct. Further enhancements can be made by introducing more technology in stadiums to give fans options for consuming content beyond what is transpiring before their eyes. Sponsors can play a role, too, in adding value to the game experience. Interactive exhibits, games, and spaces give sponsors opportunities to have “quality time” with attendees.

Products can be mimicked to offer similar benefits at lower costs. Experiences can be unique encounters between brand and consumer that substitute products simply cannot match. This contrast does not apply just to the NFL. Whatever you sell, there are likely substitutes available. What can you do to move from selling a product to offering an experience? Remember the old adage: people don’t buy products, they buy benefits. Today, that adage can be modified to read “people don’t buy experiences, they seek meaning from the experiences they have.” Add meaning, and you add value.

Sponsorship Rights Fees: Know When to Say When

In the high stakes game that is NFL sponsorship, MillerCoors has folded. The winner: Anheuser-Busch. A-B signed a 6-year deal to become the official beer of the NFL beginning in 2011 that will pay between $43 and $50 million per year over the life of the contract. The asking price became too high for MillerCoors, and a determined A-B committed the dollars necessary to again partner with the country’s most popular professional sports league. MillerCoors has enjoyed a successful run as NFL sponsor, and during that time it launched the popular ad campaign featuring former NFL coaches’ press conference sound bites used as fodder for offbeat questions asked by Coors Light drinkers.

Did MillerCoors make a mistake by not retaining its NFL rights? Distributors liked the NFL sponsorship because they saw a correlation with sales. And, MillerCoors brands were able to hang on to market share in recent years in a sluggish market for beer sales. Yes, sponsorships like the NFL deal can lead to desired brand impacts such as top-of-mind awareness, brand image enhancement, preference, and increased sales. Sponsorships require a return-on-investment mindset, just as any business investment entails. The situation faced by MillerCoors is not unique. Other companies have walked away from high profile sponsorships of properties such as the Olympics and NASCAR. It is possible to reach a point beyond which sponsorship spending levels do not generate incremental benefits. And, we must remember that the NFL rights of upward of $50 million must be supplemented with additional spending on advertising, sales promotions, social media, and other initiatives to leverage the NFL association.

The partnership with the NFL has been beneficial for MillerCoors. Unfortunately, many business relationships end similar to many personal relationships: divorce. The NFL’s desire for higher rights fees did not mesh with MillerCoors’ needs to responsibly manage its marketing dollars. A consolation for MillerCoors is that it still can tap into the popularity of pro football through its coaches’ ad campaign and separate sponsorship deals it has with 22 of the NFL’s 32 teams, not to mention the possibility of new creative directions.

Anheuser-Busch introduced the idea of “know when to say when” in a responsible drinking campaign in 1982. The advice given in that campaign has applicability in 2010 for MillerCoors as it understood the point at which it had to bow out of negotiations with the NFL. Sponsors must strike a balance between associating their brands with properties that can deliver marketing impact and brand stewardship that allows for balanced allocation of resources.

Lessons Learned from NFL Draft: Transform Events into Brands

Your business may hold events throughout the course of a year. Some events are for customers intended to generate sales, other events are for employees used to build morale, and some events are for the community or general public that serve as opportunities to interact with your brand. Holding events may be nothing new for you, but what about the idea of branding your events and marketing each one like you market your company or products? If you are skeptical about the payoff for transforming events into brands, look to the National Football League for inspiration.

The NFL held its 75th entry draft this week, and it has changed a great deal since the inaugural draft in 1936. The NFL Draft has gone from being an internal procedural event used by teams to stock their rosters to a multi-day, check that multi-week, experience that keeps football-hungry fans engaged with the NFL during the offseason. The draft itself is now a 3-day event, with TV coverage by ESPN and the NFL Network from the first pick to the 255th, and final pick. Audience ratings for the first night of the draft in which 1st round selections were made were about 6.5% of all TV households in the U.S. And, engagement of NFL fans with the draft took place for several weeks leading up to the draft. Consumption of information about players involved in the NFL Draft through traditional media and digital media kept fans talking about football ever since the end of the NFL season in early February.

Granted, not every brand can stoke the passion and interest of the NFL. However, if you are holding events already, why not explore how they can be branded to create more interest and engagement? For example, if you have a “company picnic,” replace the descriptive, uninspiring title with a branded name and logo. Make the event memorable to the target audience, and give them opportunities to interact with your event brands before and after the event. Social media provide many options for engaging people around your event brands long after the event is held.

Brands are important because they hold and convey meaning. In the case of the NFL Draft, it is about new beginnings and what might be for football fans as they follow the selections made by their favorite teams. Transform your events from one-off activities to an ongoing connection point with your brand.

Sports Properties Should Embrace, not Fight, Social Media

The National Football League has issued a policy against live blogging of game accounts. The policy bears some similarity to one issued by the Southeastern Conference concerning the use of social media at its sporting events. The aim is to prohibit transmission of game accounts, presumably to protect the massive investments of broadcast partners. Both the NFL and SEC have multi-billion dollar media rights agreements with traditional mass media partners. The no-social media policy appears to be an effort to thwart parties without financial stakes from becoming an information provider.

The policies of the NFL and SEC reveal a significant gap in understanding of the role and power of social media. Instead of going out of its way to ban social media, sports properties should be exploring options for greater integration of social media. A blogger posting game updates will not supplant a live broadcast on TV or radio, but it could drive traffic to broadcasts. Sports properties should view social media coverage of their events as free exposure, reaching consumers who may be best reached through social media. In particular, social media usage skews toward younger age groups. Young people are a challenge for sports marketers to attract. Why not meet them where they are and allow, if not encourage, social media distribution of information?

I am all for protecting the interests of business partners. Sports properties recognize that ambushing takes place whereby companies or brands that have not made investments as “official” partners try to benefit from an indirect association with a property. Social media usage does not seem to fit in the same category, however. In an open-source world, media and sports entertainment partners should make maximizing exposure a priority, and if other parties can help create that exposure, so be it.

Daily Online Examiner – “NFL Fumbles, Tries to Limit Live Blogging of Games”

NFL Extends Behavior Expectations to Fans

Under the leadership of Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL has been proactive in establishing guidelines for players’ conduct off the field. Now, the league is setting standards of behavior for fans attending their games. The “Fan Code of Conduct” sets expectations of fan behavior in parking lots before games as well as during games. Among the behaviors deemed unacceptable are visibile intoxication, abusive language, offensive gestures, and interfering with the game by throwing objects on the field. Fans violating the Code of Conduct are subject to ejection from the stadium and revocation of ticket privelges for future games.

It is unfortunate that the NFL had to go to the lengths of drafting a Code of Common Sense… I mean Conduct. Unruly fans in tailgating areas outside stadiums and in the stands detracts from the enjoyment and experience of other fans. Personally, I have little interest in attending an NFL game because I have been to enough games and encountered idiots who thought buying a ticket gave them license to go out of control. The cost of attending games is too high to allow a small minority of patrons to create negative experiences for others.

The NFL has taken many steps to protect its brand reputation by ratcheting up the personal conduct expectations of players. But, those efforts would be negated somewhat if the fan stakeholder group was ignored. People attending NFL games this season should take comfort in the fact that if inappropriate conduct or behavior takes place, there is recourse to involve security and address the problems. Thanks, NFL!

Link – USA Today: “NFL Unveils New Code of Conduct for its Fans”