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Can the NFL teach VARs a marketing lesson?

A senior league marketing executive shares three lessons from the gridiron that can apply to IT

Lisa Baird, the senior vice-president of marketing for the National Football League (NFL), is a unique individual. She has worked for two iconic organizations in marketing: IBM and the NFL.

You would think that marketing the NFL, perhaps the biggest sports league in the world with more than 222 million people tuning in every Sunday, would be easy. But it’s not.

According to Baird, growing the next generation of fans in a time when broadcast TV viewership is eroding and media consumption habits are changing is more of threat than Tom Brady going deep to Randy Moss is for a rookie cornerback.

“It is difficult to overcome your own success and take business risks. Good performance is the enemy of a great performance because new ideas fail to get traction,” she said at the recently concluded Velocity Channel Marketing conference, sponsored by Cisco in Miami.

The impact of the digital world is not only a challenge for the NFL, but for IT solution providers as well, Baird said.

A company such as the NFL or IBM has to be very careful of its brand reputation. The bad behaviour of star NFL players such as Michael Vick who is awaiting sentencing for organizing a dog fighting ring, Adam “Pacman” Jones who has been suspended by the league for one year, and Tank Johnson who has been arrested for gun possession, assault and resisting arrest is a challenge for the league.

To Baird’s credit she addressed these issues, saying the NFL will have zero tolerance for misbehaviour. “You cannot ignore threats or put your head in the sand,” she said of the recent spell of player scandals.

The league went deeper, beyond suspensions and fines. The NFL looked into fan reaction and online player discussion was more negative. Baird, along with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, believes this can affect the NFL long term even though it is confined to a few players.

Baird added that the negative response was also impacting the reputation of the good players. “They were painted them and the teams in a bad way,” she said. “The white hot glare of 24/7/365 media attention gives us no place to hide and we must protect the brand reputation.”

Baird also put together a cause marketing drive to show the other side of the NFL using ads with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselback and his two daughters. The goal of the campaign was to change the opinion people had of NFL players and to show there are good guys in the NFL.

Managing this type of complexity is something the NFL and solution providers share, Baird said. Players and executives are spokespeople for your brand, but so are the fans and end users.

Baird gave three pieces of advice for solution provider to properly market themselves in a digital world:

1. Formulate for success
Come up with a plan and then test it repeatedly. After testing, Baird advises to go full bore and not to be afraid.

Today’s children are not growing up with the TV as the central media hub. Instead, they are playing video games, using YouTube, communicating with MySpace and sports blogging.

AC Neilsen found that the NFL is one of the top blogging topics in the world with 53 million adults who have created their own content.

“You do not want to be left out of that conversation,” Baird said.

The marketing strategy she conceived was to cede control of the message to the participant and not be a dictator.

One of the first initiatives was the campaign that gave fans a chance to create their own Super Bowl ad. A Buffalo Bills fan won. The campaign was enormously successful as was rated the 12th most popular Super Bowl ad despite being placed near the end of the game.

“We are going to give the fan a seat at the table,” she said.

2. Influence the influencer
Her second point is to influence the people and partners around your business. “That is part of how you market.

From the league’s research Baird found that there is a growing importance of peer-to-peer communications. “Consumers trust other consumers more than enterprise,” she said.

There is also a new demographic that is multicultural to deal with. Plus, scandals such as Enron have made it a challenge for marketers because the trust level has virtually disappeared.

3. Evolve your content
Present online content in a compelling way.

The NFL targeted elementary schools to try and capture kids’ attention. They have produced a second life portal called NFL Rush Zone, which they launched yesterday, which is made for just children.

More than 8.2 million people visit virtual world today and that number is expected to jump to 20 million by 2011, Baird said.