Back To The Basics: A Strong Brand Foundation

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the fundamental need to approach work differently. But even more specific, how we can shift from this digital vs marketing mindset and get back to the basics of doing strong brand work.

It wasn’t that long ago I was pumping out decks that screamed from the mountaintop the need to be “digital first”. As I’ve written about before here, that extreme notion became a mantra because companies needed a radical shift in resources. Digital needed its due. Now, I cringe at the thought of promoting that within an organization.

Social in its early days was the thing you gave to interns. But as we like to say in this industry, we aren’t d@mn interns anymore. Digital is the front door to brands today. Tools have matured and evolved to a place where we can track true ROI. These channels are about our brands, building relationships and driving revenue and business. And for the most part, organizations don’t question the value of the channels.

In the quest to become digital-first though, so many organizations have created (unintentional) silos. Sometimes these silos manifest through an actual structure and sometimes in how we approach the work.

Digital often lives on an island with free reign to do whatever it wants from a voice, tone and creative perspective. A level of autonomy is critical and valuable, but operating in the total wild, wild west doesn’t do a brand justice.

As a result, we’ve lost sight of what matters most: A strong brand foundation. We start with the tactics instead of the big picture. We’re too focused on the day-to-day and not enough on the long-term vision. This results in an inconsistent experience and our brands end up showing up differently across channels.

It’s time to get rid of these silos and mend what we’ve broken. We have to start treating digital as marketing and marketing as digital. We have to start with our brand strategy. Taking this holistic approach matters in sport for a lot of reasons.

It’s your “it” factor.
First, a strong brand strategy will set your team apart from the rest. It becomes your North Star for how your brand should come to life through voice, tone, aesthetics and the stories you tell. When you have defined what your brand is and isn’t, long gone will be the days of pop culture memes and gimmicks. You have your own, unique thing to focus on.

Gets buy-in & gives guidance.
Additionally, when you work as a team to put things to paper, people understand the vision and rally around it. A strong brand strategy gives everyone alignment on the focus and what they should be executing on. It eliminates the guessing game. Additionally, it helps you push back when things don’t make sense because you have a reason for being.

Moves us beyond scores.
Finally, when we focus on our team as a brand, it pivots us away from just the scores. It’s easy to get caught up in the on-the-field performance with the tactical nature of social. Teams have the ability to connect with consumers in an emotional way though. It’s our job to bring to life the DNA and value of our team to life way beyond the scores. We have to build the emotional connection with fans. This work takes focus and a strong understanding of our actual brand DNA and what it stands for.

So, how do we start approaching our work more holistically? A few tips at a high level (aside from blowing up the org chart):

Put your brand strategy to paper.
Every team, league and brand should put to paper their brand strategy. This could be a blog post all its own, but the exercise can include and is not limited to: Defining your values, stating your goals, understanding what makes you unique, writing a mission statement, knowing your consumer, tapping into a personae, etc.

All work, whether it’s social or a more traditional marketing channel, should ladder back up to the overall brand strategy.

Approach seasons like a campaign
Because sports are cyclical it can be easy to get caught up in the same routine each season. As marketers, we have to fight the urge to fall into the same ‘ole trap. One way to ensure you are mixing things up is to think about every new season as a brand campaign. That doesn’t mean every season comes with a new tagline (although that could be a component). It means creating a compelling narrative through which content and creative filters across all channels

Good ads are an art. They don’t sell; they move people to stop, pay attention, share and (hopefully) convert. Good ads entertain and connect on more than a superficial level. New campaigns each season helps us to share a strong message and a rallying cry for fans that’s consistent across all channels. More on brand campaigns here.

Begin with a brief.
Any seasonal campaign or a content series (actually any creative) must start with a brief. I’m a big believer in creative briefs and getting teams to buy into it. Good briefs start with your why. This includes your brand strategy and then your specific goal for the project. Briefs ensure that creative has a reason and gives the team a solid box to play in.

Start with the idea not the channel.
Understanding what you want to get across to the consumer is a key component to taking a holistic approach. This means a couple different things.

First, it’s about understanding what as a brand you want to communicate to your fans. What are the key things you want them to takeaway? Start with the priorities.

Second, it’s about defining your content strategy that cascades off brand priorities. This ensures your channels focus on pushing messaging that brings to life the DNA of the brand. It also helps ensure a quality vs quantity approach instead of throwing things at a wall. In essence, it gives the content you produce a reason for being.

Finally, when it comes to seasonal campaigns or a big content series, concepts presented back from a brief during the first round should be high level. It’s not about tactics; it’s about nailing the one thing you want to get across. Getting the message right is critical. And, it should be simple enough to communicate in 90 seconds or less.

Adopt an IMC model.
Adopting an IMC model helps to bring all the channels together. Even if digital, creative and marketing are technically in silos through organizational structure, an IMC model can help bring every channel together. Weekly editorial meetings and collaboration documents (like Google Docs) are a great way to start the process.

Mold the message to the channels.
Once you’ve defined your content strategy or nailed your big concept for a campaign then you can focus on the tactics. This is where you define a platform approach and mold the message to each channel. Essentially, it’s the nuances of what works and what doesn’t. It’s imperative as marketers that we play to each channel’s strength. There should be a synergy to your, yes, but the way the message comes to life might be a bit different. The tactics matter here, at this point.

Define the lanes.
I promised I would not get into org charts, but I have one thing to say: It’s important everyone understands their lanes and where’s the final say. When organizations treat digital and marketing separate, the lines of responsibility get blurry. For example, does the Marketing Director have final say over the digital creative or does the Digital Director? It can cause tension if people feel like they are stepping on each other’s territories. There should be a clear line of delineation of where responsibilities start and end to remove any guessing game. It’s important that everyone’s responsibilities are clearing outline and they know their part in the IMC model (if you’ve adopted).

 

This blog post barely scratches the surface of what we need to do to break down silos and start treating our channels more holistically, but it’s at least a start. What tips do you have for getting back to the basics of a strong brand foundation?

Package Audio With Design For Engaging Content

There’s a new philosophy I’ve adopted. And, it’s this: If you work in digital and sports, one of the big keys to your job is packaging content in a unique way. In a world where almost everyone has access to the information and assets, your job isn’t just to distribute. Your job is to find a different (on brand) angle with the content.

We’re in a constant state of content overload and a sea of sameness. Even highlights, which weren’t widely distributed a few years ago, can feel exhaustive in feeds. Between broadcast partners, teams, leagues and even fans, distribution is not the issue. The challenge is thinking about things differently. To stand out today, one of the keys is to continue to push the envelopes of creative through design and execution.

Thanks to podcasts, audio has become a recent trend in content creation. From strong quotes at press conferences to play calls, there are a lot of different opportunities to capture and leverage audio.

One thing I’ve noticed with audio, is teams, brands, etc. tend to be creative in their execution. The blend of sound plus design (since people don’t always turn on sound), makes a powerful combination. And, it’s the perfect example of how to think about packaging content in unique ways.

If you’re looking to mix up your content and do something different, below are a few examples of leveraging audio in sport. And, they are all great examples of how to package content:

 

NBA On TNT’s Audio Toons

Forget watching the broadcasters sit around and talk in the studio or the broadcast booth. Listen and watch them in cartoon form. This is probably one of the most creative executions I’ve seen. They took audio from what could be a traditional studio segment and leveraged design (and fun) to mold it for social. This, my friends, is the perfect example of packaging content.

 

Razorbacks – Call of the Game

Calls add a level of excitement and emotion to a normal highlight. Good ones especially, have a way of pulling you in. This “Call of the Game” example from the Razorbacks is a perfect example of combining design and audio into an engaging piece. Layering in the call with the highlight makes it more than “just a highlight”. Plus, the design helps to capture attention when scrolling through the feed.

Additionally, this is a great sponsorable series. It would be really strong with a mobile partner since there’s a natural integration to “call”.

 

Warriors Talk

Talking heads aren’t always the most visually appealing thing. So, even if a coach or player had an interview that would really resonate with fans, it can be hard to pull them in. The “Warriors Talk” execution is a great example of how you can leverage design to pull people in to listen. It’s is a great example of packaging content a little differently. And, it could work in a variety of situations, whether you take a page of out this for simple interviews on the field or for press conferences.

 

The Players’ Tribune

First-hand accounts are the heart and soul of The Players’ Tribune content. And, as a result, they rely a lot on interviews and audio in their content. They do a good job experimenting with how to package content. Below are a few examples that stood out recently.

 

ESPN + Split Screens

ESPN uses split screen executions with audio bites and highlights. Showcasing interview snippets with the moment the audio is referring to gives amazing context for fans. And, the design pulls you in. This is a great example of why packaging content is so important. The audio clip alone might not capture attention, but the use of the clip and the highlight with the design makes for a powerful creative execution.

 
As you can see from the examples above, taking the content we have at our fingertips and infusing design is a critical. The teams and brands that stand out now and in the future will push creative envelopes. They’ll take something ordinary (like an audio clip) and make it unique. How we package and design today is key.

What executions with audio bites have you seen that stand out?

Sponsored Content: Nailing the Concept

Sponsored content is all the rage these days. As, it should be. It’s helped bridge the gap between organic social and driving business goals for teams, leagues and brands. After all, there isn’t anyone around the leadership table that’s going to complain about revenue opportunities.

If we’re increasing sponsored content in our feeds though, we must commit to executing right. Slapping logos on content and treating channels as billboards will make people tune out, unfollow and disengage. Sponsored content is a beautiful way to prove ROI, but it’s not an easy “check the box” if you actually want sponsored content to do its job.

There are many keys to getting sponsored content right (see here), but this post tackles one of the most important: Nailing the concept. This is what moves you away from a billboard to actually interesting, engaging content.

Nailing the concept requires two things. First, connecting the dots between both brands. And second, leveraging design to integrate the sponsor seamlessly.

 

Connecting the dots.

The best sponsored content is one that has a natural tie to the sponsor, while still being relevant to the team or brand. It’s about finding the synergy that exists between the two. I typically attack connecting the dots in the three phases below.

Do your research.
The first step in connecting the dots is to do your research on the potential sponsor. Spend time understanding the product and their value proposition. Browse the potential sponsor’s website to learn about their values, mission and the language they use. Understand their products. Look at their social media accounts and voice. Do everything you can to learn about their product and their brand DNA.

Write down phrases.
While researching the company, jot down any phrases or words that could relate to your team/product/sport/brand. Don’t leave anything out during this process. Jot down anything closely and loosely related. This isn’t a time to overthink or play favorites. You never know what can spark an idea.

So, for example, let’s say you work for an NFL team and Ford is a sponsor. During this phase, write down anything that ties into their brand and potentially the team/the sport. Quick examples include: Drive, Go Further (their tagline), on the road, built tough, miles, the full lineup, ride, etc.

Start the brainstorm
After the research and writing down phrases, it’s time to start actually concept content series based on the synergies you found. How do the words tie into your team/sport and content that would interest your fans?

A few examples of how it might work with the Ford examples above:

“Drive” is an easy one since it’s synonymous with the game. You could showcase the “drive of the game”, the winning drive, etc.

“Go Further” could be a sponsored series around good returns, showcasing the significant yardage. Whether you want to do a return of the game of a monthly highlight package that showcases the best returns.

“On The Road” or “miles” could be a series that showcases where the team is traveling for away games. The “miles” could be a series during the schedule release to showcase how many miles the team will travel in total. And, the “on the road” could happen during the actual season for each road trip.

“Ride” could be a human interest series during the NFL Draft or Rookies that showcases each player’s “ride” to get to the NFL.

Hopefully the above illustrates how you can connect the dots between potential sponsors and your brand. Some of the connections will be strong and easy to make (like Ford), others will be more subtle and take time.

It’s a creative process. Trust in it. You are going to come up with a lot of ideas that don’t work, but commit to the exercise and throw anything and everything out there. You will land on a gem. The key is to keep talking through it and fine-tuning the ideas.

 

Design seamlessly.

Once you have nailed the concept you want to move forward with, it’s time to approach how the creative will come to life. Design plays a critical role in making sure the sponsor integration feel natural. When done right, sponsored content won’t disrupt the feed. There are a few keys to take your idea from concept to execution while working with sponsors:

Keep platforms in mind.
Not all content belongs on all platforms. Once you decide what concept to move forward with, it’s important to think about where it should come to life. Don’t force a series across all platforms to guarantee more impressions for the sponsor if it isn’t going to perform there.

Set expectations.
When bringing concepts to a sponsor, it’s important to set the expectation that creative should feel seamless to your brand. If your team has a look and feel, even sponsored content should follow that. Approach this as a positive thing (because, it is). If the creative feels like everything else it won’t feel like a billboard, and as such, will perform better.

Create a style guide.
In a similar vein as expectations, take the time to put together a style guide and examples of what the creative on your channel looks like. If partners see your look and feel before the concept is final, they’ll have an idea of how it will come to life. You’ll get less pushback when the look is more seamless to your brand vs pushing the sponsor’s colors and guidelines.

Bring it to life.
Once you’re ready to bring the creative to life, it’s important to take a content-first approach. Don’t let the fact that you have a sponsor attached to it affect your design. Create as you would, making sure that strong and engaging creative is the top priority.

Another key is to make sure the message comes to life. In your creative brief, let the designer know what to accentuate. So, with the Ford “drive” example, the design should play into the idea of “drive”. The fan should connect the dots between “drive” and “Ford” easily,

Finally, work with your creative team on logo placement that gives visibility but doesn’t distract. If you’re accentuating the key message, it should be easy to make this happen.

 

Examples

So, what are some examples of sponsored content that connects the dots and integrates design seamlessly? Below are a few examples to see how it all comes to life. It’s important to note that all of these examples go beyond slapping a logo on a piece of content. They find the synergy, and that’s the key.

Chicago Bears + Tide

For Mother’s Day, the Chicago Bears, Tarik Cohen and Tide helped moms to “take a load off” on the holiday. THIS is the perfect example of a brand partner integration. Good content, fun play on words (attached to the product), access to a player and something people want to share.

Verizon + Miami Dolphins

This example from the Dolphins showcases how to align a product with a series. Phones are for talking, so it’s natural for Verizon to sponsor quotes from players and coaches.

SuperCuts + MLB

SuperCuts tagline is “Ready to Go” which lends itself perfectly to so many scenarios in sport. In this example, MLB aligns the sponsored series with MLB debuts and the idea of being “ready to go”. When someone gets a hit in their debut, this series is triggered. It’s a seamless integration that does not feel forced.

Zoom + Warriors

While stats aren’t necessarily that connected to Zoom, this is a great example of how to leverage design to integrate the sponsor. This content is visually appealing and the sponsor doesn’t feel intrusive, even though they have quite a bit of visibility.

Indochino + Yankees

Indochino is men’s clothing company where everything is a custom-made experience. The suits are literally, “Made to Measure” as their tagline says. The idea of “Made to Measure” is a natural fit for stats and integrates their brand proposition seamlessly into this content series.

Delta + LAFC

When it comes to airline partners, series that showcase the team on the road are a perfect fit. The creative execution from LAFC on this is strong. The Delta branding feels so natural in this creative that it does not feel like an ad or sponsored series at all.

Sleep Number + Vikings

This from the Vikings is an interesting example of finding the synergy that’s a little more subtle. It’s hard to imagine tying in sleep patterns to a team’s content, but the key here is timing. Fans will stay up way past their normal bedtime to watch their team, especially in a big game or rally. The timing behind this — after a big win — makes the content relative and relatable for fans.

Adobe + Chicago Bulls

Interesting team art is a big trend these days, so I love this series #BullsIllustrated series form the Chicago Bulls. It’s a content-first approach aligned with a partner that makes sense. Because the partner integration is so natural and strong, it does not take away from the great, creative work.

Tijuana Flats + Orlando Magic

It would be easy with a Tex Mex restaurant to resort to a sweepstakes or promo code, but the Orlando Magic found a way to take a content-first approach. Playing into the idea that tex mex food is hot, they created a throwback video looking back at “fire” plays. And, the graphics in the video are a great tie to the Tijuana brand.

There’s a lot more to the process of nailing sponsored content, but I hope this high-level overview and examples provide some inspiration. It’s important to remember that the best sponsored content provides value to the fans, the sponsor and the team. That requires a content-first approach and nailing the execution. Take the time to get the process right for coming up with concepts and pushing the creative boundaries. It’s hard work, but worth it.

As we continue to sell social sponsorships and the volume rises, integrating right needs to be a big priority. Invest in sponsored content, but also invest in doing it right.

What good examples of sponsored content have you seen? Share your examples and thoughts!

3 Strong Content Plays from the San Jose Sharks

During the NHL Playoffs, there were a few things that caught my eye about the San Jose Shark’s approach to content. From a dynamic GIF series to opponent match-up content, they manage to the push the envelope and stay true to their brand. If you need a little content inspiration, check out the three strong plays from the Sharks below.

 

Dynamic, doodle GIFS.

The San Jose Sharks have one of the most creative and dynamic in-game GIFs series I’ve seen. The GIFS remind me of a stellar Snapchat doodle, but animated. They’re unique, well executed and infused with personality. Take a look at them.

The best in-game GIFS play to the emotion at the time. These work because they entertain, show personality and add to the viewing experience. And, on top of that, they push the creative execution. The San Jose Sharks in-game GIFS are a great example of dynamic content that captures attention.

 

Fun, game day information content.

There are certain things you have to publish on your channels that are going to be a little drier. That’s a fact. Things like game day information aren’t meant to entertain; they’re meant to inform. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t try to have some fun with drier content to get people to pay attention.

During the playoffs, the San Jose Sharks had a series that showed fans “how to get in playoff mode”. The step-by-step instructions were a fun spin and the information was easy to absorb. Plus, the creative was eye-catching. It’s a good example of taking something that could be extremely dry and having a little more fun.

6️⃣ easy steps to turn #PlayoffModeOn for Game 4.

A post shared by San Jose Sharks (@sanjosesharks) on

As mentioned earlier, there are certain things you might have to push out that aren’t as bright and shiny. Still, it’s worth pushing the envelope on how to convey that information. We are all competing for attention. If your fans need to know important information, find a way to make them see it.

 

Fun opponent content.

There is something about the brand the San Jose Sharks that is a little eclectic and can push the edge. And, during the playoffs, their they did a stellar job hyping up each opponent match-up.

Their face-off content often infused culture and a little bit of savageness to get fans hyped (but in a way that was brand right). While this wouldn’t work for all teams, it feels right for the voice and tone they’ve built. And, I love the extra dose of creativity here.

#DuckHunted

A post shared by San Jose Sharks (@sanjosesharks) on

#DuckHunt

A post shared by San Jose Sharks (@sanjosesharks) on

 
It’s always fun to see how teams push the limits of their creativity. And, the San Jose Sharks are a great example of that. What have you seen during the NHL Playoffs that stood out?

Set Yourself Up for Career Growth

There has been a lot of talk about the highs and lows that come with working in social. The “newness” and growing pains associated with this industry can be exhausting. It often results in countless reorgs and lack of a clear path of growth for people on teams. No doubt, there has to be a shift within organizations to set their digital teams up for success.

I recently wrote about what digital teams need to survive and thrive, but there’s another side to this story. And, it’s about what we can do personally to set ourselves up for success. The key is to be proactive with your own career.

The list of tips on being proactive could go on forever, but below are four big keys to consider for anyone working in social.

 

Advocate for the work.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about working in this industry is never make an assumption. Do not assume people understand the work. Do not assume they know what you do on a day-to-day basis. Do not assume they know the hours it takes. Do not assume they know your long-term goals.

If we want organizations to take digital roles seriously, we have to find ways to bring the work to life. We need to show the totality of the work that’s going on and not shy away from celebrating success. This can come in many forms.

At one organization I was with we used to do a weekly email called “7.5”. Each week we highlighted “7.5” things the team and senior executives needed to know about our digital channels. This included big wins, lessons learned and industry updates. The extra “.5” was always something more lighthearted and fun. Sure, the email highlighted the success of the team, but it was also informational, educational and fun. And, most importantly, showed how the team was helping to move the needle for the company. It wasn’t boastful, but educational, and made people more invested and interested in the work.

The weekly email is a very small example of how you can help advocate and educate others about the work of the team. Every organization responds to information differently, so find the best medium to bring the work to life. But remember, it’s not about boasting as much as it is educating and showing how the work back to organizational goals.

 

Move on from the tactical role.

The more tactical roles in social media are bright, shiny and fun. There’s a certain thrill that comes with covering games and being in the middle of the action. Anyone that’s work in social knows what a “case of the refresh” means. It’s addicting at times, right?

Eventually though, to move up the ladder, you have to peel yourself away from the actual execution and control of the channels. You have to go from a tactical role and into a strategy role – and one that is bigger than social. You have to start focusing on digital as a whole and larger marketing initiatives. Find ways to take on other projects within your org outside of social to give you more visibility and a wider range of experience.

No one can expect to stay in the exact same role, doing the exact same work and get promoted. It’s critical to push for more work outside of the tactical platform work if you’re looking to grow.

 

Take time to career map.

If you asked me early in my career what I wanted to do long-term, the answer was always “work in social”. It took years and stops along the way to understand there was so much more opportunity beyond the platforms. And yes, that I had a keen interest in those things.

As mentioned earlier, when you work in social, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work and not think about the long term. And, because of the certain adrenaline rush that comes with the tactical work, people aren’t always eager to get out of their roles.

People that work in social often stay in tactical roles too long. One, because organizations don’t understand what growth looks like in digital departments. And, two, because the work is fun and there isn’t an urgent need to take on another role. Suddenly people blink and they aren’t where they thought they would be with salary, position or a combination of both.

This is why it’s so important to spend time understanding what your long-term career goals are. If you want to lead a team, become a VP or a CMO, that’s going to require you move on from the day-to-day of social and on to a broader role.

Think about what you love in your current role. Take that and apply to the bigger picture years down the road. And, start slowly taking on new work that will get you there even if that means stepping away from some of the tactical things you love.

If you take the time to career map, you will make more sound career decisions.You’ll know when it’s time to move on and what your next step needs to be. You won’t be flying blindly, but instead, will be leaping strategically.

 

Expand and take leaps.

I’m a big believer that getting a variety of experience (this can be internal or with another company), especially early in your career, is a good thing. It broadens your skill set, exposes you to new thinking and helps make you much more adaptable.

If you aren’t getting what you need out of your current role and organization — and you’ve advocated for those things — then it might be time to take that leap. Again, don’t let the thrill of working in social hold you back from what you want to do long term. At times the best thing we can do is take on something new.

This list skims the surface of how to start setting yourself up for success long term. I’m curious, what have you learned? Share your thoughts below.