It’s 2:03 a.m. and 5,000 sweaty, rabid, Texas A&M football fans at Kyle Field have just unleashed a collective scream that would make you think they’ve just won the BCS national championship. The funny thing is, these kids aren’t here to cheer on their team. They’re here to cheer on the filming of our commercial. See the video here: Midnight Yell
Make no mistake about it, these are not consumers. These are fans. Fans of the Aggies. Fans of college football. And fans of our program, College GameDay on ESPN. From the Making of College GameDay Campaign TV show on ESPNU
The question is, how did we work them into this state? Was it happenstance, or was it a carefully orchestrated effort on our part to play into the motivations of the fan?
And if the latter, are there learnings that can be applied not just to other sports shows, but to brands across any category? In short, is it possible to turn people from “consumers” of a product to “fans” of a brand?
To answer that, we have to go back to the source. Because you can’t understand the behavior of the fan until you understand the anatomy of the fan.
Over the years at WDCW we’ve worked on a number of assignments where fan support was not only valuable, but essential to a brand’s survival. These include adidas, ESPN, Michael Jordan Cologne, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Harlem Globetrotters, the Seattle SuperSonics, Teva Sports Sandals, Yamaha WaveRunners, Cobra Golf and Clif Bar.
While the brands themselves and the business challenges they faced were unique, there were clear commonalities among the various fan bases and the way they thought about themselves, their teams and the media that covered them. By analyzing and deconstructing these beliefs and behaviors, marketers can imbue a brand with triggers that will motivate fandom.
The first thing to understand is that fandom is not rational. There is nothing logical or even reasonable about cheering for a group of men or women simply because of the shirt they’re wearing. If there were, I’d be screaming wildly for anyone I noticed in a denim button-down. Given the irrational nature of fandom, it only makes sense then that to get through to this individual, your message must be emotional rather than logical. And yet, because most marketers are so hyper-concerned that consumers understand their communication, they undervalue the importance of whether the piece actually affects them. They over-explain, dumb down and speak to the brain instead of the heart.
If you really want to win a fan’s heart, embrace the absurdity of the situation. Let them know you applaud their conviction, their warped priorities and their occasional meltdowns. We’ve gone to great lengths to demonstrate that ESPN is not merely a purveyor of sport, but a crazed fan. One of our most successful campaigns over the last 19 years was based around a character called, “The Rick.” He’s a sports fan in his early thirties who still lives at home, treats useless sports items like priceless memorabilia and always introduces himself by saying, “My name is Rick but everyone calls me, ‘The Rick’.” The reason The Rick was such a hit with viewers, hosts and professional athletes is that every sports fan could see a little piece of themself in him and a lot of someone else they grew up with. Remember, a character doesn’t have to be aspirational to be effective. He or she just has to exemplify that emotional commitment to the product.
Another thing that’s inherently tied to fandom is immediacy. Fans have always wanted instant updates on scores. Now, they also expect to get injury reports, trade rumors, tweets and general scuttlebutt in real time.
If a brand appears to be on top of the latest news, it reinforces the perception that it’s equally caught up in the excitement, which, as I mentioned, creates that heart-to-heart connection with the fan. It also allows the brand to communicate with fans at the point when emotions are highest. I’m no psychologist, but I’m willing to bet that just as it is with soldiers on the battlefield, with sports teams, this heightened emotional state is where true bonds are made. When Manny Ramirez was traded from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, we placed one hundred single red socks in various laundromat dryers around Southern California. Each had a tag on it that said, “Lose a sock, Boston? ESPN welcomes Manny to the Dodgers.” By just taking some photos of the socks in dryers and posting them online, we began a viral movement that spread all the way back to Boston by the next morning, where the headline on Boston.com read, “ESPN Punks Red Sox.”
The expression “God is in the details” is never more relevant than it is in sports. Each game is comprised of a million little subtleties, from snap counts to hand signals. This extends into the bleachers and beyond, whether it’s the smell of the hot dogs or the way the crowd signs “Sweet Caroline” after the top of the seventh inning. Which is why it’s important to remember in your attempt to capture the bigness of the moment, not to lose sight of the little things that make it so special.
Add to this the fact that fandom is inherently competitive. You second-guess the manager. You bemoan a bad call or a bad coaching decision. But most of all, you want to demonstrate that you know more than another fan, whether that fan is friend or adversary. And details are your ammunition — batting averages, field-goal percentage, trade rumors, the names of future prospects, and the understanding of rituals, traditions and expressions. Fans always want more and more proprietary information about their favorite teams and players. When a marketer displays an understanding of these subtleties, they communicate an understanding of the fan as an individual.
Finally, more than anything else, the sports fan wants to play a role. This is nothing new. For ages there have been football stadiums where the crowd is affectionately referred to as the 12th Man, the Cameron Crazies or the Black Hole. Add to this the Jumbotron imploring everyone to “Make some noise!”, sports talk-radio programs around the world, and the proliferation of fantasy sports and it’s obvious fandom is not merely about watching, but about participating.
Thanks to the Internet, fans don’t have to wait till game day to express their opinions, share their passions or challenge other fans. Not only that, they can personalize and promote our ad campaigns in ways we never could have imagined even five years ago. The key is to not merely take advantage of these opportunities as they arise, but to bake them into your marketing plan from the outset.
Which brings us back to why the voices of 5,000 rabid Texas A&M fans are currently ringing in my ears. You see, in addition to the eight commercials/viral videos we created for GameDay, this year, we decided to create a Facebook app and allow fans to vote for whichever Division 1 school they wanted to see us feature in our advertising. The GameDay crew would then travel to the school that got the most votes, where we’d shoot an additional spot. We got roughly a million people to vote online, mentions on most every participating school’s website and blogs, a good deal of celebrity involvement and coverage on a number of television networks and radio stations. (Particularly in Texas and Nebraska — the schools that fought tooth and nail till the end.) We also got the opportunity to bring 5,000 people onto our set. People who turned our commercial shoot into a news event and who will go on to tweet, blog and brag about their involvement. All because we simply left space for the fan to affect our communications rather than simply enjoy them.
In the same way that lessons we learn in a classroom can be applied to life, the stuff that motivates sports fans can be used to stir and evangelize other consumers. Just remember to feed into their passions, dial up the emotional content, stay current and leave room for the folks who buy your product to affect and personalize your communications. If you do, you’ll generate enough fans to be able to do “The Wave” in a major football stadium. Which, ironically, might not be a bad idea for our next ESPN effort.