Rules of Consumer Engagement

What Sports Marketing Has Taught Me About Making Connections

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John Brody
John Brody

One of the hottest marketing buzzwords these days is "engagement." It's easy to see why: In a world of DVRs and digital downloads, where consumers are bombarded with thousands of marketing messages a day, "traditional" advertising has lost much of its punch. Engaging people -- that is, enticing them to invest their time and attention in interactive and shared experiences -- is a powerful way to create an emotional connection with a brand. But as many marketers have learned the hard way, just building an iPhone app, sending out an email newsletter or starting a blog doesn't guarantee a real connection.

As someone who has spent the last 15 years in the sports-marketing arena, I've spent countless hours thinking of methods to engage consumers. After beginning my career on Madison Avenue at a major ad agency, I served as chief marketing officer of the Boston Celtics and spent 12 years as a senior sales and marketing executive at Major League Baseball. Recently, I joined global sports marketing agency Wasserman Media Group as a principal and its head of global sales and business development. It's been an exciting and memorable journey that has given me a window into many different types of sports businesses. It's also taught me a great deal about how media and content must work together to connect consumers with brands.

We all know that the key to marketing anything is identifying the needs or desires of the potential customer. If you're marketing an insurance product, a pharmaceutical drug or a sports drink, your customers' needs, respectively, might be financial security, a healthier life or a thirst quencher. But the need sports satisfies is different; it is less tangible and reactive. It is differentiating because it is emotional, it is passionate and it is built into our persona as we grow and learn who we are. When I first got into this business, I thought fans were simply looking for entertainment, a diversion from the challenges of daily life. But as I learned more, I discovered that sports fills a deeper emotional need for communal experiences -- of delivering hope, anticipation, excitement and shared memories.

Let me give you an example. When I first started to dig in at the Celtics, I asked to see the materials and data that led to the team's branding message, as well as what the team's brand message actually was. I was impressed to learn it had been written by none other than my boss, the legendary Red Auerbach, the team's former coach, general manager and, at the time, president and vice chairman. The message was simple and brief: "To win championships." It was an understandable approach for Auerbach, who had won a record-breaking nine titles during his tenure as coach. But it had been years since the team claimed its 16th NBA title in the mid-1980s, which meant we were failing at our marketing message each year we didn't bring home the Larry O' Brien trophy. We were actually under-delivering to our fans, and we were disappointing our consumers. So I suggested a different strategy. It occurred to me that we were in the business of providing our fans not an unbroken string of wins and limitless success, but rather the aspirational possibility -- the hope -- of another win. So we transformed our message to "Green 17," branding the team's quest for its 17th title, while emphasizing the connection to our signature color. The message to our loyal fans was simple: Show your support for the team's mission by wearing something green. We tied our quest to their hope and rallied behind something they could act on: Celtic Green!

That's engagement in its simplest form.

Today, there's so much choice (aka clutter) in the marketplace, not just in sports but in all media, that it's essential to be relevant and know what your consumer wants. Sometimes the easiest way to figure out how to engage your audience is to put yourself in their shoes -- or on their couch.

Shortly after I joined MLB, in 1999, we were looking for a platform that would truly resonate with baseball fans and be a viable marketing program for our corporate partner, MasterCard. We knew that baseball fans are obsessed with the statistics and records that allow them, however imperfectly, to compare players from different eras. So we came up with the concept of an All-Century Team. We thought, what baseball fan hasn't gotten into the water-cooler argument about who was the best second baseman ever? So we asked fans to choose the 100 best players of the century. As fans with a passion for baseball ourselves, we knew it was a dialogue we would want to be a part of. It turned out to be the most successful promotion for MLB or MasterCard. Note: The success of All-Century Team led to the 2002 MLB Memorable Moments platform, also executed with MasterCard, where we asked our fans to choose their "most memorable moment" in MLB history.

Today I'm focused on growing the agency's domestic and international businesses. In this role overseeing our evolution and expansion, I am constantly reminding myself and my team that we must connect with the consumers and deliver them hope. We must also never lose sight of what programs would matter to us, as fans, because the moment we lose our fandom we have lost our connection.

One of the things I love about my new job is the challenge of putting myself in the mindset of sports fans around the world -- cricket fans in Mumbai, football fans in New York and basketball fans in Spain. I learn something new every day. (I guess you could say I'm engaged.)

But whatever the sport and whatever the country, the goal is always the same: Find the need, know your audience and create a program that resonates with them emotionally.

John Brody joined Wasserman Media Group in August where he is a principal and member of the executive management team based in New York. A 15-year sports industry veteran, Brody spent 12 years at Major League Baseball, the last seven as a senior VP, leading the corporate sales and marketing division. Brody also spent two years as exec VP-CMO of the Boston Celtics. He also spent four years at Y&R. Brody is a three-time winner of the Sports Business Journal "Forty Under 40 Award" and is a member of its Hall of Fame.
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