Brand Matters In Sports & It Takes Work To Get There

One of the things I’ve believed for a long time is the need for sports team to build up their brands well beyond the scores. In an unpredictable industry with so many variables you cannot control, a team’s “brand” should be the one constant.

If you spend all your energy focusing on the team performance, then you put all your bets on building a brand based on winning. After all, if you’re only focused on team performance, then the only way you’re going to connect with fans is if you perform at a high level and win consistently. 

This video below from Steve Jobs on their Think Different campaign captures the essence of what brand marketing is about. As Steve says, it’s about values. It’s about being clear what your brand stands for and what you want fans to take away from it. 

More than that though, Steve nails it when he says “even a great brand needs investments and caring if it’s going to retain its relevance and vitality”.  It’s this idea that really hits home with sports. If you want to remain relevant during the highs and lows of team performance, then you need to give fans a reason to care and feel invested beyond wins.

But what does it take to build a brand for a sports team? I’ve been spending a lot of time working through brand work and how we define it, execute it, and bring it all to life. I’ve come to this place where three core components are required: your brand identity, your brand strategy, and your brand plan. And while I think many people lump these all together, I believe they are all three distinct building blocks that must work together.

Brand Identity 

The first building block of your brand is your brand identity. I realize this might be counterintuitive to all the “strategy first” that’s been ingrained in our heads, but hear me out.

So often, when a brand identity is talked about, the only focus is on the logo and look and feel. Your brand identity is not just a logo; a brand identity is about your DNA and the things that make you unique. Visuals are a huge component of any brand, but to believe it’s the only thing that defines your brand identity feels fundamentally flawed and ultimately waters down the work it requires to build one. 

Before marketers build out any plans, they must understand why a brand exists, and your brand identity helps you get there. Building your brand identity should be strategic in nature, but it’s not your strategy. Think about your brand identity as the team’s compass for how to bring the brand to life. 

I don’t believe there are hard fast rules for building out your identity, but a few things to consider including in the identity work that will help you understand what you stand for:

Your Origin Story – How was your team or company founded? Are there any interesting facts, moments or themes from the beginning that helped to build your foundation today? 

Your Why – This is where you include things like your brand ambition, purpose, vision, and values. 

Your Personality – If your brand was a person, how would it talk, write, and interact with others? This is where you outline your muse, your voice & tone and your writing style. 

Your Look & Feel – This is exactly what it sounds like. Your logo, visual identity and style guide. 

Your Brand Platform – A brand platform is what you want to communicate and your public-facing messaging points and tagline. 

The result is a brand book to guide internal and external partners when you put this all together. For the most part, this won’t change and any additions or changes should be subtle. 

Brand Strategy  

On the other hand, your brand strategy is about the visionary roadmap to bring your brand identity to life. 

Your strategy should first start with your goals, but these goals must cascade down from “your why” that you outlined in your brand identity. 

Once you understand your goals, it’s important to take a look at your competitor landscape, the opportunities and the challenges. By doing this work, you’ll start to see the white space opportunities that could help you reach your goals, stand out from your competitors and ultimately build a strong brand identity. 

The final part of your strategy is to outline the methods – those key big focuses – that you’ll take to reach your goals and vision. 

Your strategy should be more long-range, forecasting ahead and giving you a roadmap of the big vision for an extended period of time (often spanning two to five years) — but it will need to be revisited and re-built, unlike the brand identity. 

Brand Plan 

Your brand plan is about the actionable actions you will take to implement your strategies, and these are the tactics that the team executes on a day-to-day basis. 

Your brand plan changes more frequently. Even if your strategy is a three to five-year roadmap, you’ll look at your brand plan yearly, quarterly and even in opportunistic moments. 

All of these components come together for a robust plan that will make sure your team is standing out, well beyond the scores. This is important for everyone within the organization to know — and is most likely relevant for external partners as well. Building a strong brand requires buy-in from everyone within an organization, and it’s not just the job of the marketing team to contribute.

Once you have your work on paper, I also recommend distilling it into a simple framework that people can easily digest. Like the work above, there are a lot of ways to do this, but here’s a sample of what a brand architecture can look like.

Take this work and evanalegize it.

Does this sound like a lot of work? That’s because it is. But if you only focus on short-term tactics, you’ll only get short-term gains. Teams and leagues must play the long game.  

If you build your brand right, you’ll build fan affinity that

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