Tim McDermott, CMO of the Philadelphia Eagles makes a compelling case that marketing a sports team is not all that different from marketing other products like consumer packaged goods. After spending over an hour with him on the phone, I not only came to see his point but also realized that he’s a marketer who really understands how to build a successful brand. (By the way, I met Tim through The CMO Club.)
Having spent a number of years marketing sports teams (both hockey & football) Tim also did a stint at Comcast and earned an MBA from Harvard along the way. Here are the highlights of my conversation with Tim broken into two parts that I think you’ll find most enlightening even if you aren’t an Eagles fan!
Neisser: is there anything keeping you up at night?
McDermott: Insuring that we are providing value for season ticket holders. We need to continue to find ways to add value to being a season ticket holder. Find ways to invest with our fan base, and continue to market why it’s a great experience. Why it’s fun to come to the games. Why it’s great to watch us on TV or to be part of purchasing our merchandise…
Neisser: And that’s an interesting place to start, in that there are things that you can control as the marketer and then there’s what happens on the field.
McDermott: I think there are a lot of similarities between marketing sports property and marketing for other companies. Whether it be the jean companies or the entertainment companies. The reality is we’re probably doing the same things that the marketers are of other retail oriented companies. We’ve got “widgets” to sell in the form of tickets. And we go through the exercise of segmentation, targeting, and positioning our products and our brand the same way that other marketers do. We build brands. We engage in all the different forms of marketing, and advertising as other companies do. So we’re doing everything from market research to CRM implementations, to automated emails; to managing social digital campaigns to direct marketing, to direct response. You name it and I think we do it.
Neisser: So what are the key differences in marketing a sports team?
McDermott: Everyday my product can fluctuate–it can change. And as much as I want to or want our fans to have an undefeated Super Bowl season, I can’t control that. Whereas when you walk in to the McDonald’s or when you purchase Tide, it can be consistent. And that is certainly a challenge to the sports marketer is that you have to able to accept the fact that it is inconsistent. You have to accept the fact that at the end of the day, you can’t control your product. And yet still be able to create demand for your product and create engagement, and create interest in your product.
Neisser: What about your fans?
McDermott: Then the one thing that we do have going for us, which some of those other types of companies don’t, is the tremendous amount of passion that our consumer has for our product. And you see that displayed in a lot of different ways. You should see the letters that we get and the emails that we get. People write stories, poems, music about our product, and they’re willing to sit down and spend time with you, for free of course, to tell you all about how they feel about your product. And to wear your logo on merchandise and they’re walking around with your product. When I step back I know I’m very fortunate because we have such a passionate consumer base. There are many companies out there who would love to be able to have consumers who are as passionate as ours.
Neisser: A losing season must be a sort of torture test of brand loyalty.
McDermott: There’s obviously some level of correlation between winning and off the field success. How much that correlation is, and how much the causation is between the two, is probably open for debate. And probably depends on a lot of different variables, from the city that you’re in to the kind of the winning tradition or how much success your team has had over an extended period time. To the sort of marketing and brand engagements that you do, all the way up to how people perceive your ownership group. I think if you look at the best sports brands though, all of the ones that have crossed that threshold, where independent of wins and losses, they create a brand that fans want to be associated with. And even in times that aren’t so good on the field, or on the ice or on the court, fans are still showing up. And they’ve created a connection with that fan base. They’ve made being a fan of that team something that does cross the threshold of just wins and losses. So that is something that all sports marketers are trying to do, is build that equity so that when the rainy day occurs people don’t leave. The fans don’t depart.
Neisser: What can the team do off the field to build loyalty?
McDermott: One of the biggest things we can do as team marketers is to create transparency and real trust with our consumer base. I think you can create trust through creating that transparency; and so having ways and methods on processes in place to listen to your fan base, to engage your fan base; to talk with them, but also provide them an avenue to share what’s on their minds. That’s something that we’ve been very successful with.
Neisser: Can you give me a specific example?
McDermott: We’ve created a season ticket holder advisory board. We’ve got a 35-person board that we started a year ago. The board membership runs two years. And it’s not just a glorified focus group. The people that have signed up to be part of this board, signed up to be solutions providers. They are very passionate about the Eagles. At the same time they would tell us what we’re doing right. They will tell us what we’re doing wrong. And they provide or I should say the quid pro quo is, they as being part of a sports membership they also have to provide us or help us come up with solutions to the problem. Don’t just tell us what we’re doing wrong, but be an extension of our marketing department, and help us create the solution. So we’ve been very successful with doing that. And I think it’s truly a concept of listening, and engaging, and developing trust with them.
Neisser: What measures do you have in place from a brand health standpoint?
McDermott: We look at TV ratings, website traffic, overall traffic on Facebook and Twitter accounts among other metrics. Merchandise sales is generally another sign of brand health. And of course, season tickets and how well you’re doing with ticket sales. If you’re sold out as in our case, then it’s a matter of monitoring your wait list and seeing if your wait list is growing. And then there are more scientific research based brand tracking studies. We do our own brand tracking study every year to see how we’re performing. And then are third party brand trackers, ESPN Sports Poll is an annual brand tracking study. And some others that are out there as well.
Neisser: And how is your brand doing?
McDermott: Our brand is doing well. Going back to early 2006, we were the fastest growing brand in sports according to a poll by Forbes. You can see some correlation there between how we were performing on the field as well. We had gone to a Super Bowl in January 2005. We lost in the Super Bowl to the Patriots in 2004-5 season. So there was some correlation obviously between on field success and off the field success. Overall today if you look at our website traffic, if you look at merchandise sales, if you look at the TV ratings, all of them are doing extremely well. In the 2010 season, we set TV ratings records. We set website merchandise sales records. 2010 was a very strong season for us. Last year, we saw a little bit of a dip. Again we were an eight and eight football team last year. We didn’t live up to some of the expectations. But when you look at most of the metrics, we performed well. We’re an extremely a strong brand, and you can see that even in a not so great on the field year, that our brand has been built in such a way that it can withstand a not so great year.
Be sure to read part 2 of this interview.