Six Things Any Marketer Can Learn from Sports Marketing

The worst team in any given professional league is still marketing better than most companies are.

Sports are back! I think? There are cardboard cutouts of people in the stands, entire teams are going down with COVID-19, and players are opting out of seasons,’s back?

About a month ago, when it definitely wasn’t back, I was talking with WillowTree Chief Marketing Services Officer Mike Colombo about sports marketing on the Agency on Record podcast. Neither one of us are that big into sports, but we’re always impressed with marketing efforts in that field. The worst team in any given professional league is still marketing better than most companies are. Over the course of that meandering conversation, we landed on a few principles that any marketer can take away from sports marketing, and I thought I’d organize them into something more, I don’t know, skimmable maybe.

1. Always Be Surfacing Stories

You can have the best product out there, but if you’re not telling stories around it, few of your customers will care. And sports is the best at crafting stories atop their product. You’d think that all sports really needs is a “best versus best” storyline, but that’s a rare game. Most are mediocre versus mediocre. Relatively, anyway. They also have to make a game played between Chicago and New York interesting for Los Angeles. So what do they do? They find stories to tell about the game. Maybe it’s around a player, a history, a streak, an achievement, something off-field. Anything to make the game matter more than just being a game.

And that’s what marketers everywhere should be doing. Whether it’s a customer testimonial, a new angle on the market, the advent of a new technology, marketers need to continually find ways to make their products relevant and interesting to their audience.

2. Balance Your Brands

Marketers often falter at supporting just two brands on the market without confusion and watering down those brands, and yet sports seems to effortlessly balance hundreds of league brands, team brands, and individual player brands cohesively.

In the corporate world, if you have more than one brand (say, a corporate brand and various product brands), not having a strong brand hierarchy and strategy can easily weaken those brands, muddle any messages to the market, and cause budgets to be misspent. To avoid that, marketers should look at how many brands their organization needs or can support, and then create a disciplined design, product, and marketing strategy around them.

3. Increase the Quality of Your Product

All great marketing goes back to a great product. If the product isn’t great, marketing can’t do anything legitimate with it. And professional sports makes sure it’s marketing the best product possible. First, from a performance standpoint. These are the best of the best athletes competing against the best of the best athletes. You can’t get better than that. Second, from an integrity standpoint. Leagues are deadly serious on enforcing a level playing field (or at least the appearance of one). You can see this most clearly when they fail. Cheating scandals hurt the product.

Don’t make a product that your customers will doubt, either from a performance or an integrity standpoint. That includes any crack in the experience that can cause dissatisfaction to creep in.

4. Elevate What You Mean by Engagement

In sports, if people aren’t wearing your logo on their body, you’ve failed at engaging them. That means marketers need to develop a brand and applications of it that are visually appealing. But it also means creating opportunities around that brand that your customers can directly participate in. For sports, it isn’t just watching a game, it’s playing pickup ball, it’s betting, it’s fantasy leagues, it’s opportunities to get together with friends for parties.

Marketers need to find a way for their audience to both identify with and interact with the brand. And this identification phenomenon isn’t intrinsically a sports one. You can see with various product “wars” over the decades from Mac vs. Windows to Coke vs. Pepsi. Get your customers to identify with your product and then give them ways to indulge that identification.

5. Create the Highest Fidelity Content

With sports, one could make the case that the product itself is content enough. But sports marketers don’t make that mistake. They create Oscar-worthy documentaries, sportscasts the are exquisitely assembled through high-end talent and technology, merchandise that people will wait in lines for, commercials that are best-in-every-class.

Marketers often rely on their products to be “content enough,” or they cut corners on ancillary content or settle for just the fact of having ancillary content. Instead, marketers should not just be investing in content, they should be investing to make that content the best in the industry, the same way an organization will invest in its product to make it the best in the industry. Lame content will always ruin a great product.

6. Invest in Superstars

You’d think team sports would avoid the “I” that’s not in team, but superstars elevate the brand. People will watch Tom Brady even if they root for a team 16 states over. Michael Jordan carried the NBA on his back for most of his career. Marketers can tap into those benefits, as well, with the experts in their organizations. Even if your potential customers aren’t buying from you yet, they could be listening to your experts. And that’s a path to customers. But you have to market those experts as hard as you market your product.

Conclusion: Make Fans

Those are the main principles we came up with. There were some lesser lessons around cause marketing and public relations, but in the end, these six principles all add up to the idea that marketers in every industry should be making fans.

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