Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hat Trick to Move Away from "Mainstream" May Just Net A Pro Soccer Team a Powerful Brand

While I am not a soccer fan, I am a HUGE fan of what Kansas City's Major League Soccer (MLS) team is doing off the field.

First, its $200 million, dedicated soccer stadium (above) opens in June. Throughout it's existence, the team played in Arrowhead Stadium, a football venue that seats nearly 80,000. When you draw about 10,000 a night, that's a lot of empty red seats showing up on SportsCenter. Then, it moved to Community America Ballpark, a much smaller stadium. Better than Arrowhead but it was designed for semi-pro baseball not soccer.

Every brand needs its own home. Sharing spaces - and images for sure - can conspire to dilute brands. It's because every brand needs to be in total control of its brand. Look what happened when Mercedes jumped in bed with Chrysler and AOL hooked up with Time Warner. They were costly affairs for all parties involved.

In Europe, soccer is king and they routinely fill 100,000-seat stadiums. Domestically, it has never enjoyed that level of popularity. New niche-specific digs aside, how else can a team in the Midwest in a sport like professional soccer compete in mainstream America?

Don't be mainstream.

This speaks to a second brilliant brand move: Changing the name from "Wizards" to "Sporting KC." The former always felt Harlem Globetrotters-esque to me. It's also not unique; there's the Washington Wizards of the NBA for one. Those things aside, "Wizards" was a traditional, middle-of-the-road American sports name in the vein of Tigers, Kings and The Magic.

Professional soccer will have a difficult time ever being as mainstream as football, basketball and baseball in America. Al Ries in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding wrote that two brands separate from the pack and dominate a category. Like Coke and Pepsi, Google and Yahoo! and FedEx and UPS to name a few.

"Sporting KC" is a brand name that has a "club" feel to it much like Manchester United, Chelsea FC and Real Madrid, and Toronto FC, DC United and Columbus Crew in the MLS. It's new logo is actually an emblem, something you'd associate with a club. Okay, "Wizards" too sounded like it belonged in a club. A magic club.

Creating a brand that creates a "club" appeals to those that see themselves as part of something exclusive, special. Like people who drive Jeeps. We - yes, I'm in that club - believe only a select few belong behind the wheel of one. There's even a mantra: "It's a Jeep thing. You wouldn't understand." In reality, there's no secret handshake. A valid drivers license gets you in. But in the mind, where brands reside, it's the exclusive domain of a select, unique, passionate few.

The brand trifecta was achieved in something it didn't do: Not selling out when it came to selling naming rights. I was privy to a 2009 national study on the effectiveness of advertising. Sponsorship, which includes naming rights, was one of the most ineffective means of driving brand awareness. More importantly, consumers don't see the value in it. Calling it Lincoln Financial Field isn't going to motivate Philadelphia Eagles' fans to invest with the namesake.

So, how did it christen it's brand-spanking new, soccer-specific complex?

"Livestrong Sporting Park."

Not my first choice. I prefer "Sporting KC Park," born from my belief that you must be relentlessly consistent and laser-focused in reinforcing your unique value. That's because every moment is a moment of truth for your brand.

Sponsorships involving naming rights also are risky because you acquiesce control of your image. Does anyone remember Paige Arena? That was the original name of Mizzou Arena before a school scandal forced the billionaire Laurie family strip away their daughter's name. What happens if Lance Armstrong is ever found guilty of doping?

However, naming the venue after a charitable organization instead of corporate America is anything but conventional. As is doing so for free. In fact, Sporting KC will donate a portion of its revenue - up to $7.5 million over six years - to the cancer-fighting foundation. It's a stellar example of walking-the-walk, the true definition of branding, not labeling like Bank of America Stadium or the Home Depot Center.

Altruism aside, the timing of yesterday's naming rights announcement was the equivalent of a free kick into an empty net for Sporting KC. Our most popular sport, American football, is on the verge of lockout. Over money. A brilliant PR move.

Success will be measured, ultimately, at the gate, in merchandise sales and advertising revenue, and on the field. But attitude usually dictates behavior. By focusing on repositioning its brand in the mind, and doing so in a way to appeal to its niche rather than the masses, Sporting KC might just be on its way to rewriting the record books on how to build a sports brand.

The lesson for all brands? Those that separate themselves by image, aesthetics and space usually are the ones that stand out and stand apart.

These are my GUTS feelings.

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