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2 Sports Marketing: Branding & The Olympic Rings

The Winter Olympics begin this week from the balmy town of town of Sochi, Russia. Not my idea of a glamorous winter setting, but no matter where they’re held, I love the Winter Games.

sochi-2014-logo-4I got hooked as a boy when Franz Klammer made his infamous, gold medal downhill run at the Innsbruck Games, and I’ve been watching ever since. I’ve even watched some of the curling over the years.

The summer games are fun too, but they don’t have the thrill-factor of the winter games. A diver doing a twisting three-and-a-half into a pool just isn’t as compelling as a guy on skis doing a triple flip with five twists.

Gotta land on your feet and ski away.

Four years ago the Vancouver Games started on a very sad note, with the death of a luge competitor. There have been other unfortunate mishaps in the Olympics over the years… Terrorism in Munich in 1972. The Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles games in 1984. The Tanya Harding thing in 92. A bomb explosion in Atlanta in 1996. But every time the games suffer a set-back, the Olympic brand bounces back stronger than ever. The brand is perched on such a high pedestal around the world, it’s almost bullet proof.

Here’s an example: In 1995, the IOC awarded Salt Lake City the Winter Games for 2002. As it turned out, the decision was fixed. IOC members had taken millions of dollars in bribe money. As a result, the top leaders of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee resigned. Ten members of the IOC were expelled and 10 more were sanctioned.

But the Olympics rose above the fray. By the time the Salt Lake Games commenced, the scandal was all but forgotten. Organizers actually raised the price of corporate sponsorships 30 percent.

In the last 20 years the pricetag for an Olympic sponsorship has risen dramatically. NBC paid $775 million for the Sochi games alone, $4.38 Billion for the Olympic broadcast rights through 2020.

Expect more than 1,500 hours of coverage across six NBCUniversal platforms (NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network and NBC Olympics.com) and more than 1,000 hours of live streaming coverage — more than Vancouver and Torino combined. Visa paid $65 million dollars just for the privilege of associating their brand with the Olympic rings for four years.

No other sporting event commands that kind of attention in the corporate marketing world. You could argue it’s the most desirable brand affiliation on earth. Companies are clamoring to hang their hats on those Olympic Rings.

Why? Because the Olympic brand represents something that goes way beyond athletic competition. It’s the intangible “spirit of the games” that makes it riveting for the audience, and desirable to the corporate world.

Every Olympic Games is filled with real-life stories of triumph and tragedy. Every night for two weeks there are new characters, new story lines, new scenic backdrops, new drama. It’s heroes and underdogs, great feats of strength and stamina juxtaposed with delicate dance moves and tears of joy.

As the San Jose Mercury News put it, “it’s the ultimate reality show.” And we eat it up. It’s human nature. It’s a two-week event, every other year, that has all the components of great brands:

wbWINTERluge_wideweb__470x325,0• The Olympics are authentic and unscripted.

At the Olympics you find ordinary people pursuing their favorite sports, not for the hundred million-dollar endorsement deals, but for the pure sense of personal accomplishment. Especially in the winter games. (Even in Canada there can’t be much money in curling.) There are track athletes who switch to Bobsled in the winter, just to have a chance at achieving their dream of competing in the Olympics.

The authenticity is obvious in post-run interviews… The athletes are less rehearsed and obviously passionate about their sport, and about the Olympics. You don’t get those canned, banal responses like you do in the NFL. For instance, Lindsey Vonn was riveting after her win in Vancouver .

And when it comes to PR damage control, the IOC has handled things pretty well. When Olympic officials went on TV to face questions about the luge incident in Vancouver, the tears were genuinely heartwrenching. No spin whatsoever.

Corporate America could learn a thing or two.

• The Olympics are dramatically different.

Most notably, the Olympics are less commercial than other mega-events like the Superbowl or the soccer World Cup.

There’s no on-field branding allowed in the Olympics. You’ll never see a giant VISA banner hung behind the medals stand or along the boards in the figure skating arena. And the athletes aren’t plastered with logos, ala-Nascar.

At The Games, the Olympic brand always takes precedent over any other type of branding, personal or corporate. So even when you have NHL and NBA stars competing in the Olympics, it’s not about them. It’s about The Games.

The competitors even take an oath. They swear to uphold the tenets of the Olympic Charter and willingly pee in a cup after every event. They are required to put their own, personal gains aside for two weeks and compete “in the spirit of friendship and fair play.”

It may seem a little cheesy, a little old fashioned, but that’s a central element of the Olympic brand. It’s still relatively pure.

• The Olympics have remained relevant for more than 100 years.

The characters change and individual events evolve, but at The Olympics the themes remain consistent: Lifelong dreams of glory. National pride. Individual triumph of the underdog.

With the fragmentation of TV viewing, sporting events are becoming more and more important to the networks. And there’s something uniquely compelling about obscure sports that you’ve never tried, and that you only see during the Olympics…

Ski as fast as you can — uphill and cross country— then stop, drop and shoot. Plunge head first down an icy, serpentine track on a “Skeleton” sled, at 70 miles per hour. This isn’t Little League or typical, suburban soccer mom stuff.

For people who never ski it’s hard to appreciate the technical nuances of traditional, alpine ski racing. Same can be said for the skating events… The general public has no concept of the difficulty and physical demands of a 4-minute program. It looks too easy. Even though most people can’t relate, they still watch.

The Vancouver Olympics drew massive television audiences, even beating out American Idol in the Neilson ratings. Almost 35 million Americans tuned in to the last part of the gold medal hockey game. And in Canada, 80% of the population watched at least part of that game.

And hockey wasn’t the only big draw. Overall ratings of the Vancouver Games in the U.S. were up 25 percent over the 2006 games in Torino. That year, snowboarding, skier-cross and short track speed skating helped bring in record audiences among the 12 to 24 year-old demographic. In Sochi there will be a half pipe competition for skiers, as well as snowboarders, and they’re adding women’s ski jumping. Fly girl, fly!

Just as I was enthralled with Franz Klammer, a whole new generation will be inspired by this year’s athletes.

• The brand is way more than a mark.

Five, multi-colored, interlocking rings. That’s the official mark of the games that dates back to 1920. As the Olympic Charter states, the rings “represent the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games.”

You’ll often hear brand managers and consultants talking about “core brand values” and the underlying meaning of great brands. Well, the Olympic Brand means much more than just medal counts and TV ratings.

When you watch the Olympics, and get sucked into the story lines, you’ll see what I mean. In this age of Red Bull and the XGames, maybe the Winter Games aren’t as relevant as they once were. But we’ll see. I’m betting that even Sochi can inspire audiences and continue the legacy of the Olympics for two more years.

3 How to sell more stuff online.

Awwwww, the traditions of autumn… Halloween candy, the first snow in the mountains, and holiday shopping. You’ve heard of Black Friday… the mayhem-loving bargain hunter’s favorite day of the year. And “Cyber Monday,” the online equivalent. They’re coming up quickly.

The Wall Street Journal predicts there will be ninety six million online shoppers. That’s almost one-third of America’s population Googling for bargains. And there are probably nine million shopping sites to choose from.

Every e-commerce site from Amazon to Aunt Matilda’s Potato Mashers will get their fair share of the buying frenzy. But most e-commerce businesses could get a bigger piece of the pie, if only they’d do something — anything — to differentiate themselves from pack.

You can’t just regurgitate the manufacturer’s product spiel. You need to customize your pitch, improve your copy, and mix up the words a bit.

Besides a ridiculously low price, what do online shoppers want? Most are looking for information. If they’re not quite ready to fill their shopping cart, they need facts, reviews, articles or some kind of credible content that helps them narrow their search.

Amazingly few e-commerce brands actually fit the bill when it comes to informative content and sharp, convincing copy.

Take ski shops, for instance. I’m in the market for new ski boots, and I can’t even get enough information to research boots on line, much less purchase them. After hours of work I know a lot more about boot fitting, but I don’t know which models are most likely to fit my feet. In fact, I’ve been to every online ski shop I could find, and only one – REI – provides anything more than just the manufacturer’s stock product spiel.

My final choice: The Salomon with the custom fitting

If you want to establish a successful on-line brand you have to do more than just copy your competitors. You can’t just cut and paste the same exact blurb, same photo and the same specs and expect more market share than anyone else. You have to differentiate your store. Somehow.

You could offer unique products. (Most niched e-commerce sites offer the exact same products as their competitors. But even if you could find something they don’t have, it’s not a sustainable advantage unless you have an exclusive arrangement with the manufacturer.)

You could offer lower pricing. (Tough if you don’t have the volume of Amazon or Office Depot.)

Or you can have better content presented in your own, unique voice. That, you can do!

I have to admit, I’m not even entertaining the idea of buying ski boots on line. (For me, it’s hard enough buying sneakers online.) But if I were, I’d want a retailer that obviously understands the pain ski boots can inflict:

Toenails blackened and torn. Crippling leg cramps. Wasted $90 lift tickets. Ruined vacations. Endless trips back to the ski shop.

Those are the honest-to-goodness repercussions of getting it wrong. That’s the stuff of compelling sales copy. Not bullets from the manufacturer’s spec sheet. But not a single online ski shop capitalizes on those emotional hooks. They’re all just lined up, offering the same brands at the same prices with the same pitch.

That’s not retailing. That’s virtual warehousing.

Early in my career I wrote copy for the Norm Thompson catalog. Before J. Peterman ever became famous Norm Thompson had a unique voice that resonated with its mature, upscale audience. We wrote long, intelligent copy that told a story and filled in the blanks between technical specs and outstanding photography.

When the product called for a technical approach, we’d get technical… I remember writing a full page spread on the optics of Serengetti Driver sunglasses.

For other products we’d turn on the charm and use prose that harkened back to more romantic times.

Helpful.

Heroic.

Practical.

Luxurious.

Comfortable.

These weren’t just adjectives thrown in to boost our word count. They were themes on which we built compelling, product-driven stories. The narratives explained why the product felt so luxurious. Where the innovation came from. How a feature worked. And most importantly, what it all meant to the Norm Thompson customer.

It was the voice of the brand, and guess what? It worked. The conversion rates and sales-to-page ratios of the Norm Thompson catalog were among the highest in the industry.

It’s tough to find anything remotely close in the on-line world. And unfortunately, Norm Thompson hasn’t maintained that unique voice in the e-commerce arena. (If you know of any brilliantly different online retailers, like Patagonia, please let me know. I’d love to add a positive case study.)

Ski boots don’t exactly fit into the category of top on-line sellers. They aren’t impulse items that you need on a weekly basis. They’re heavy to ship. And returns on ski boots must be astronomical.

But on-line retailers could cut down on those returns simply by explaining the single most important thing:

Fit.

Most boots don’t even come close to fitting my feet, so no technical feature is as important as fit. And yet no website that I’ve found provides the simple problem-solving content that says: If you have a D width foot, try this make and model. If you have a high instep, try these. If you have a narrow foot, try these.

It’s not rocket science. It’s just simple salesmanship . The kind you’d get if you walk into any decent ski shop.

And I guess that’s what I’d like to see more of on line. Better salesmanship. At least for the product categories that require more than just a quick glance at the price. Like ski boots.

And one other thing… If you choose to sell like everyone else, at least make your site convenient to use, and functional from a usability standpoint. I visited one online shop that didn’t even have a working search function. I typed in “Soloman Ski Boots” and got dozens of Soloman products, but not one ski boot. I’ll never go back. Online shoppers often know exactly what they want. Might as well make it easy for them to find it.

4 Class A Offices. Class C Websites.

Moved into a swanky new office building last week. (Great views of Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top, Three Sisters and the Phoenix Inn parking lot.)

BNBranding new office building

The Alexander Drake Building, Downtown Bend, OR

As I was unpacking boxes, lifting heavy furniture and contemplating the feng shui, it occurred to me that office makeovers are much easier than website makeovers.

Professional service firms spend a lot of time and money on their office space. And rightly so. For companies with no tangible product to sell, it’s a crucial component of the brand.

For instance, when it comes to selecting an ad agency, office space always figures into the equation. The workspace is a tangible display of the agency’s creativity and “out-of-the-box” thinking. Or lack thereof.

Clients love doing business with people in cool offices. They want to go somewhere that feels different, better, or more energized than their own office. It’s an escape from their normal, day-to-day reality. Take a tour of Weiden & Kennedy’s Portland headquarters and you’ll see what I mean.

For architects the office is an everyday opportunity to show off their work. It’s exhibit A in the firm portfolio.

For attorneys it’s about showing off their ivy league law degrees and proving, somehow, that they’re worth $350 an hour.

Harry Beckwith, in “What Clients Love,” tells how State Farm Insurance chose a firm to handle a huge payroll and benefits contract. They looked at all the proposals, narrowed the field, sat through presentations and listened to pitches from several very capable companies.

Then they dropped in, unexpectedly. They walked through the offices, said a quick hello to their contacts, and chose the firm that “felt the best” based on that one visit.

The details matter… Location. Colors. Layout. Even the coffee you serve says something about your brand. Is your company percolating along on Folger’s, or is it serving up a hot shot of espresso with a perfect crema on top?

When was the last time you freshened things up around your office? Sometimes a good, old-fashioned spring cleaning is just what your people need to get reenergized… Rearrange the furniture. Paint some walls. Change up the artwork. Shuffle offices around. Freak people out!

And what about your website? Many professional service firms with Class A office space still have old, Class C websites. If so, you need a website makeover. Because these days, your site might be more more important than your space.

Ask yourself this: Is there a disconnect between what people see on your site and what they experience at your office? Be honest. If there is, you should read this post on conversion branding. Then call me.

Many small companies that are genuinely warm and inviting in person maintain websites that are far too chilly and corporate. They’re trying so hard to look big and important they overlook their own brand personality.

And vice-versa. Banks, utilities and public agencies work hard to make themselves sound friendly and personable online, then disappoint everyone when it comes to actual human interaction. The customer service can’t live up to the brand promise.

Ideally, you want to align the look, feel and functionality of your website with the brand personality, culture and operation of your company.

Easier said than done.

You can’t just re-write the copy of the “about us” section and call it good web makeover. You have to go back to an honest assessment of your brand… To your core values and your main messages that always seem to get relegated to internal documents and forgettable, corporate mission statements.

That should be the inspiration for your website redesign, as well as your office revamp. Not the latest advances in widget technology or a new line of Herman Miller office chairs.

It’s the message, stupid!

Getting the message right and communicating it quickly and clearly is the single most important goal for your website makeover. Far more important than impressing people with technology. (Unless you’re in the technology business.)

So before you sign a lease on a new office space or launch a website initiative, go back to your brand book for inspiration.

If you don’t have one, call me.

How to do a great branding ad — Subaru scores with skier-focused print.

Winter Storm Slams Into Washington.
Travel Advisory For The Entire Mid Atlantic.
Historic Storm Hits Atlantic Coast.
Subaru of America loves headlines like that. Every time a big storm brings traffic to a standstill, the Subaru brand shines.

Subaru brand performs on snowy roads and in ads

The Subaru brand performs on snowy roads and in ads.

You seldom see an all-wheel-drive Outback wagon or a Forrester stuck in a snowbank. And you won’t see the company taking government bailout money.

While the big three automakers were buried in losses, Subaru was cruising right along.
Overall, U.S. sales were up 15% in 2009. In July, they posted a record sales month, up 34 percent from the previous year. In 2008, despite the lowest incentives in the industry, Subaru gained market share.

Not bad for a niche brand with a limited vehicle line up and a miniscule media presence. Subaru’s entire advertising budget is less than what some automakers spend on a single vehicle.

Which brings me back to those dreaded winter storm warnings and an ad I recently spotted in Ski Magazine:

“Snowstorm Advisory. More of a calling than a warning.” Subaru.
No photo of the car. Just a dramatic, black and white photo of a lonely road in a blizzard. It’s taken in the first-person perspective, as if I’m sitting in the front seat.
That ad doesn’t just speak to me. It sings.

Hats off to the creative team at Carmichael Lynch. And a round of applause for the client at Subaru who actually stood up against the industry convention and agreed to leave the car out altogether.

It takes guts to run a full page ad in a national magazine without showing the product. And I’m sure the dealers gripe about it, and say “it’s just a branding ad.”

But it works. It speaks volumes about the brand, and it touches a highly relevant emotional chord with anyone who has ever driven through a blizzard to be first on the chairlift.

Besides, with a limited budget there are plenty of practical reasons to leave out the product shot:

1. There’s no debate over which model to feature.
2. You don’t risk alienating anyone… Just let them imagine whatever Subaru model they like. For a younger, California skier it could be a WRX. For a Birkenstock-wearing telemark skier, it’s a Forrester.

By NOT showing the model, they actually sell every Subaru in the line up.
Damn right it’s a branding ad! You should be so lucky.

The Subaru ad reflects a genuine, empathetic understanding of the core audience.

Kevin Mayer, Subaru’s Director of Marketing, says his brand is as much about customers as it is about products.

Subaru caters to outdoorsy people of comfortable means who opt for function over fashion every time. It’s a well-targeted niche market of skiers, hikers and kayakers who need all-wheel-drive for navigating unpredictable roads. (Not surprisingly, most Subarus are sold in the Northwest and the Northeast, where there’s a lot of skiing, kayaking and hiking.)

But more importantly, “Subaru owners are experience seekers – they want to live bigger, more engaged lives,” Mayer, said. “To them, the car is the enabler of that bigger life. A conscious alternative to the mainstream.”

It’s obvious that the ski magazine ad came directly from that sort of crystal-clear consumer insight and brand strategy.

“We went back to the customer and started thinking again about their values and how our values are alike. We dialed in our strategies back to core,” Mayer said in a 2008 MediaPost.com article.

To me, the message is loud and clear… crummy, snowy roads can’t stop me from doing what I love.

In this ad, it’s benefits over features, all the way to the bank.

Karl Greenberg, editor of Mediapost said, “Subaru has the kind of brand equity and staunch loyalty you usually find in luxury marques, which means they can keep their message on product and brand, not on deals or features.”

Rather than running a headline that touts the features of a Subaru (ie the “symmetrical all-wheel-drive system) the ski magazine ad conveys the benefits of that system:
It sells the idea of all wheel drive.

While everyone else is stuck at home, Subaru owners are out enjoying life. Having fun. Missing nothing. It’s a message of empowerment wrapped in a warm, wintery blanket.
That’s what long term brand advertising is all about… connecting with specific groups of people in a relevant, emotional manner, time after time, after time. Until people start feeing like part of club.

Clearly the top executives at Subaru get it. They know their market. They’re clear on company values. And they’ve designed products that align perfectly with the brand, the message and the medium.

You couldn’t place that Subaru ad in The New Yorker or Parade Magazine, even during a snow storm. It would be out of context and off target. And when you see it in context of ski magazine, it doesn’t come across as hype. It’s as authentic as they come.

But no brand is perfect, and Subaru has had its share of flops. For instance, they ran full page ads featuring the Motor Trend Car Of The Year trophy.

Unfortunately, Subaru drivers don’t care about automotive awards. In fact, they buy Forresters almost because of the derogatory comments from industry insiders.

Subaru Forester brand for outdoor enthusiasts

The usual, stock photo of A 1998 Forrester

Subaru once tried to build a sports car. The SVX was a classic branding faux paus… In the mind of the consumer, Subaru means only one thing: Functionality. No amount of advertising could change that. So it wasn’t a sports car, and it didn’t look like a Subaru. What the hell was it?

It didn’t’ stand a chance.

Subaru CEO Ikuo Mori recently admitted that the “up market migration” with the B9 Tribeca hasn’t worked.

Too big and too flashy for that family of cars. Jim Treece from Automotive news said, “There is nothing especially wrong with the B9 Tribeca, except that it has utterly nothing to do with Subaru’s brand.”

Despite its occasional slip-ups, Subaru enjoys tremendously high brand loyalty. Rally enthusiasts swear by them and people sell their neighbors on Subaru based on their own brand stories.

And the common theme: The cars are relentlessly practical. Especially in a snow storm.