Blog | Devon Dawson 10.16.17

Outcast, Iconoclasts, Mavericks: How the National Basketball Association Found Its Brand in Outlier Culture

Most sports branding comes off as insecure. Various professional leagues jockey for eyeballs and topicality as though fans are choosing which sports they love based on Twitter trends and Instagram hearts. The NFL and MLB continually reposition themselves, iterating on traditional themes that dovetail perfectly with whatever has the public’s attention. (Earlier this year, baseball let everyone know that the boys were back, when just a few seasons ago it advertised that it had matured since the steroid era.) It’s all part of the ongoing fight to determine which sport can dominate American sports culture. Who is the mainest of the mainstreams?

The NBA is different. The NBA DGAF.

For as long as it has been a national sport, the NBA has embraced its outcast distinction, populating and cultivating loyal fans who welcome other outsiders into the basketball club. Its observed brand mission – unchanged since the modern association was born out of two lesser leagues joining forces – has always been stronger together.

The league praises dissimilarity, distinguishing it from other leagues.

It’s urban and young. It’s technologically and socially progressive. It’s fashionable and hip, while also nerdy and data-driven. It’s truly international, but most of its stars are black Americans. In short, the NBA embraces its outlier status, and that mission informs the league’s marketing strategy.

In short, the NBA embraces its outlier status and that mission informs the league’s marketing strategy.

The players’ league

At the forefront of the NBA’s strategy is the steadfast belief that it is a players’ league. While this descriptor is used by critics who dismiss the league as too flashy or celebrity-driven, the NBA recognizes that its success is only as buoyant as its stars. It continually emboldens its athletes to be ambassadors for the game while still being themselves. The open relationship the league has fostered between fans and players is part of its charm––its athletes have proven to be funny, irreverent, thoughtful, moody, and above all, human. The NBA’s marketing consequently is a celebration of its unique personalities, proving the league is a human mosaic as opposed to some monolithic corporate entity.

Embracing a mission that’s bigger than traditional marketing has been a decades-long approach.

In the 1980s, often considered the golden age by hoop wonks, the NBA leapt into everyday conversation when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird games became must-watch television. In these two players, the NBA had superstar rivals of diametrically opposite personas. Magic was charismatic and electric, as much a politician and entertainer as he was an athlete, while Bird was reserved and mercurial, a blue-collar player who wanted his game to speak for itself.

Outside of their prodigious talent for the game, Magic and Bird had something else in common: the NBA never tried to shape them to fit some established, American marketability. Instead, the league highlighted their unconventionalities, and even supported the now iconic marketing campaign that promoted their differences: the Hollywood lifestyle of one versus the rural roots of the other. Both were complete and complex individuals, allowed to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Magic and Bird are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s no better embodiment of player-driven marketing than Michael Jordan. When Jordan’s personal brand took off, the NBA embraced his ascension, essentially making Jordan the incarnate of NBA greatness. Nike’s Jumpman logo is arguably more recognized worldwide than the NBA logo. Can you imagine Apple allowing Jony Ive’s personal brand to supersede the company’s brand?

Nike’s Jumpman logo is arguably more recognized worldwide than the NBA logo.

Jordan’s fame continues to be the model by which the league markets itself. Steph Curry. Russell Westbrook. Chris Paul. Kevin Durant. And of course, LeBron. All household names. Each superstar a dynamic personality that supplies the NBA image with humanity. Quirky athletes, (like the sublime Manu Ginobili or James Harden, who is known for his beard as well as his play, are revered for their originality.

NBA athletes are vibrant people, genuine and highly visible to the public without the branded shields of pads or hats. From tattoos, to hairstyles, to piercings, to wild shoe designs, the NBA is its players.

The NBA’s outlier-positive mission drives its conduct policy, too, guaranteeing essential player rights like free speech and artistic expression. And these rights aren’t taken for granted or hidden by the league’s marketing team. The NBA has a proven track record of publicly supporting its athletes – who often wade into important yet controversial social conversations – with a will to stand by principles greater than a corporate PR strategy. Again, the NBA’s marketing reflects this mission. Last year’s playoff commercials highlighted themes of humility. Has any other league earned the authenticity to promote those messages?

A laissez-faire content strategy

There are other ways the NBA’s brand mission has informed its marketing. From an operational standpoint, the NBA has embraced the continuing digital revolution with open arms, while making the unofficial decision be lax in its enforcement of its content rights, giving fans the opportunity to curate, distribute, and indirectly become a part of the league’s online marketing engine. The strategy is clear: the more the game feels like it belongs to fans, the more involved they’ll be on a day-to-day basis.

The strategy is clear: the more the game feels like it belongs to fans, the more involved they’ll be on a day-to-day basis.

Boy, has it worked. The NBA has nurtured a subculture of superfans, affectionately called Basketball Hipsters by those in community, who launch content marketing campaigns (blogs, videos, podcasts, analytical rundowns, memes, etc.) in honor of their favorite players and teams.

Moreover, none of this fan-generated content is served cease-and-desist requests despite using NBA-owned media. In fact, the opposite happens, as NBATV will often broadcast and react to fan-made content in between games or on its various chat shows.

The content is great, too. A simple YouTube search of MLB pulls a litany of baseball’s boring TV spots, whereas an NBA query comes back with (literally) thousands of fan-made testimonials to the league, many with six-figure-plus viewings––tiny commercials with loving commentary, custom soundtracks and passionate debate. Most brands would kill for this type of advocate engagement, yet the NBA is one of the few leagues that has built an ecosystem and belief structure where it happens organically. Remember: stronger together.

Most brands would kill for this type of advocate engagement, yet the NBA is one of the few leagues that has built an ecosystem and belief structure where it happens organically.

Analytics + plugins = hoop geek utopia

The NBA has also pioneered the way advanced analytics are leveraged by players and teams, and how fans can organize and interact with those stats. The league was one of the first major sports to launch an open-data API, giving Basketball Hipsters the opportunity to construct their own in-depth analysis on fan-owned websites and social media.

The NFL only recently launched a public analytics platform, while MLB’s is clunky and unnavigable.

Similarly, the NBA allows their League Pass app to integrate with video-capture browser plugins, such as Streamable. This means when a fan watches an amazing play, they can immediately generate a custom hi-def highlight of the moment and share it with their community on any platform they prefer.

The league’s willingness to embrace a more connected future has helped make the sport more global, and has allowed NBA games to be one of the few remaining moments where live television is preferred to DVR binge-watching. The NBA’s second screen marketing techniques and strategies to increase in-game online interactions make live moments more valuable because they’re experienced with a larger digital community.

What’s in it for you?

One of the questions a marketer arrives at when examining the NBA is, “What can my brand learn from the NBA’s success?” You don’t need internationally-recognized superstars or a continually growing base of rabid advocates to tell your brand story (though it helps). Instead, there are some simple things you can do to model their success.

Ask yourself the following questions to develop a strong sense of what your brands stands for so that you can empower that ethos and let it drive your decision-making:

  • What is our brand’s mission and how can it influence our marketing strategy?
  •  What makes our brand unique and how does that message become embedded in operations and marketing communications?
  • How do we enable our brand advocates to evolve that story?
  • How do we fearlessly integrate cutting-edge technology into everything we do?  

The NBA is different. How can you be, too?

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