Wexley Hits Nerve with Seattle Sounders Soccer

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Back in 2007, Seattle was awarded a franchise in Major League Soccer, beginning a campaign to bring pro soccer to the forefront of the city's sports landscape. Charged with establishing the team in this market was Seattle's own Wexley School for Girls. The agency started with some momentum – Seattle had a popular pro soccer team in the 1970s and is a hotbed of soccer participation – but was essentially building a franchise identity from scratch.

Opening Day crowd
Opening Day crowd
Fast forward to the Seattle Sounders inaugural game last month – 32,000 fans, 22,000 season ticket holders, a team leading the league in merchandise sold and a win in the first game – and it's clear the campaign to launch the Sounders has been an indisputable success. The grassroots creative marketing work Wexley began long before the team hit the field seems to have paid off. Starting with the campaign theme of "Give Us Your Full 90," the shop's goal was to build a grassroots, fan-based enthusiasm for the team. Components included "Scarf Seattle," where thousands of Sounders scarves were posted around the city for fans to take up the cause, as well as scarfing familiar city landmarks like the Space Needle. Online, fans were asked to spread the scarf gospel themselves by taking pictures around the city and the world with the Sounders scarf and posting it on ScarfSeattle.com. In addition to the expected outdoor and print blitz leading to the team's launch, the agency also interacted with fans online to organize ready-to-go traditions like a thousands strong march to the stadium before the first game.

We spoke to creative directors and co-founders Cal McAllister and Ian Cohen, as well as managing director Brian Marr about their initial goals for the campaign, the challenges of launching a sports team from scratch and more.

How did Seattle's soccer past inform how you approached marketing this new franchise?
McAllister: Seattle's kind of a soccer crazy town, so our objectives were planned out but they were pretty much set up to meet fan demand. When we pitched we went in with a three year plan because what we really needed to do is create this love affair between the team and the fans. So Year One was basically designed to inform and educate the fan base, but not the "Don't' pick the ball up with your hands" kind of education. It was more to let everyone know the team was coming and fans would have something fun to do on Saturdays. This is the type of city where people meet at pubs at 4 a.m. to watch European soccer, so there wasn't much game education needed, just about the Sounders. Year Two our goals were to establish team traditions, repeat some of the things from Year One, do the march to the stadium and the scarves and just establish the Sounders tradition in town. Then Year Three is to turn it into an institution, and the goal was to let the fans steer the team's direction in terms of traditions, etc. from there.

Cohen: Yeah, communication with supporters groups and clubs was crucial. It was essential we got them behind our initiatives and also to just stay true to the soccer tradition of making them part of the marketing. We actually thought we'd be pretty anonymous in this process but they're pretty savvy and really liked what we were doing. We, along with team management, are very open to working with fans on promoting the team.

Marr: That's where establishing credibility with them began and that's what our campaign Give Us Your Full 90 is about – encouraging all the fans to be on their feet the whole match giving the team everything they have. I think the supporters really embraced that and made it a success. Cal: Yeah, the fans were really involved from the start. The team name was picked by fan vote in the newspaper. The management team is adopting a system where fans will have a say in team operations, like picking a manager and so on, so the idea to have fans closely involved and feel ownership of the team was there from the beginning.
Scarf Seattle campaign
Scarf Seattle campaign
What were some of the biggest challenges of this campaign?
Cohen: One of the main challenges was how to differentiate this sport from the Mariners and the Seahawks, teams that have been here for a while and have established traditions. And how to elevate soccer to an equal professional level as these other sports and teams. I think it can be seen sometimes a fringe sport, but the ownership group wanted this to be a pro organization in every way, from the stadium to the fan support, on par with these other sports.

Marr: To add to that, in the beginning, it was about convincing all the partners we needed to get involved and get the message out, like sports talk radio and things like that. There was a particular sports radio station here that, when we went to them before the season and said "Hey, how about a 30 minute pre-game show?" they said "Yeah, we'll start covering the Sounders as soon as we start covering men's ping pong" or something to that effect. Two games into the season, they have a 90 minute show before each game called "The Full 90." The team wasn't getting any play on the evening news, and now it's every night so it's been great to see everyone jump on board.

March to the Stadium
March to the Stadium
How have things changed or evolved from launch through to the team's successful start on the field?
Marr: Our approach on this was to put social media at its core and use that as the foundation to then layer on the other pieces. We did some traditional media, like billboards and a lot of out-of-home and some print. Then it was building up the site so people could interact with and about the team. Then it was about the grassroots stuff to elicit fan involvement, which was the Scarf Seattle campaign came in.

McAllister: A lot of the sustainability is there because we now have things like 15 people who Twitter about the Sounders more than we could if we hired someone to do it. So we'll do little instigator events and things like that, but it's about encouraging the existing fans to maintain that momentum.

Marr: Every game is sold out for the next month or so, and we anticipate that by May the rest of the season could be sold out. So now it's about continuing to activate the brand in ways that are appropriate on that grassroots level over the course of the year. And in terms of establishing traditions, we'd really like the fans to anticipate what the Sounders will do next each season.

More Scarf Seattle
More Scarf Seattle
What have the biggest campaign surprises been for you guys so far?
Cohen: It's also hard to gauge, no matter how much you plan for it, what the energy of the crowd will be during the game. But so far (three games in) about 15,000 of the 27,000 people in the lower bowl are standing the entire time. They're just going crazy the whole time. We had a guy from London watching one of the games with us and he turned to us and said, "This is real." We weren't sure if it was just going to be the first game, but it's kept going. I think people have become truly engaged with the team. When they yell "Scarves up!" there are 30,000 scarves in the air.
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