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Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Marketing the NFL – Super Bowl XLIX

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on February 2, 2015

Super BowlLast night we got to watch the NFL (National Football League) digging fast and furiously out of the multiple holes of concussions and domestic violence that have plagued them. It was almost believable that they have seen the error in their ways, if not for the loud moaning about their deflated balls that preceded the marketing extravaganza.

Very few causes or not-for-profit organizations market themselves effectively. It’s not a lack of passion or commitment, it’s a lack of understanding that no one cares about you unless you make them care. The only way to make people care is to make yourself and your cause relevant to them and to convince people of your worth. Few not-for-profits are as good at marketing themselves as the NFL, but sometimes we can’t see that skill unless they mess up and we get to watch themselves dig themselves out of a hole because it puts those skills in the spotlight.

Today I’m going to talk about how the NFL is using marketing and messaging to change their image and reconnect with the public, a connection which provides them with billions in non-taxable income every year. We can learn from their expertise while hopefully avoiding their mistakes.

First the background. The NFL is a not-for-profit, meaning they are not subject to most forms of taxation.  That means the $9.5 billion the NFL alone takes in every year is exempt from federal taxes, not counting individual clubs. Not-for-profit organizations are formed to benefit society, to fulfill a charitable mission. (yeah, I’m kind of confused how football does that as well) As anyone who has founded or works for a not-for-profit knows, the public expects a certain level of ethical and moral conduct from our charitable organizations.

Where the NFL has run into serious problems lately is around the issues of domestic violence and concussions. They downplayed the culture of violence until the one-two punch when Ray Rice knocked out his girlfriend and Adrian Peterson was put on the spot for hitting his 4-year old son with a switch finally forced them into a major rebranding effort.  The concussion issue has also been getting an increasing amount of press, with Darnell Dockett finally calling the press on their role in perpetuating the problem.

During the Super Bowl, the NFL  handled the issues of concussions and domestic violence in two very different ways. Passively and aggressively. Both approaches can be used effectively.

Concussions. When Cliff Avril was pulled from the game for a possible concussion the ‘we really care’ damage control machine kicked into gear. The first (male) commentator explained in a serious and paternalistic tone that concussions are treated very seriously, a non-NFL neurologist would be giving a second opinion, the player would likely not return to the field, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t really pay much attention to that until the second commentator, a woman (not one of the main commentators, who naturally are men), confirmed that the concussion was being treated very seriously.  At that point I realized what they were doing.  Damage control.  Translation of the message: both mom and dad agree that the NFL is being responsible when it comes to concussions. A soft or passive approach to the issue – not admitting guilt, not suggesting they change the game in any way, but a reassurance that they care and are on top of the issue. (Which I think is insufficient, but that’s personal opinion and we’re focusing on marketing techniques today.)

Learning Moment: When something goes wrong, address the issue immediately. Don’t try to hide from it. Don’t hope it makes the problem goes away. Don’t try to deflect or minimize the problem. Send out a voice of authority that your public will listen to and respect. Preventing problems should always be the first action, as should owning up to problems when they occur, but if you are cleaning up a mess after the fact, get out there and be seen.

Domestic violence. On this front the NFL went full out. Kudos to the NFL for their ‘No More’ public service announcement about domestic violence, based on a real 911 call. Very well done.  I did wonder about the timing. Just between the first half finishing and the half-time show starting when it was only commentators spouting off? I would think that would be the lowest viewing portion of the entire show as everyone rushes to the bathroom, grabs another beer, and replenishes their plate. Were they hoping to slip the message past us, kind of like being forced to apologize without meaning it? Regardless, a large percentage of the 184 million American viewers probably did see the video, which also has 5m views on YouTube. And nice touch adding the pink tie to one of the main commentators, very subtle, if a bit outdated way of establishing camaraderie with the other team, in this case, women.

A number of sponsors clearly got the ‘real men don’t hurt women’ memo as well. A large number of ads were celebrating men who are good dads, a large shift from the usual car ads. Best of game in my view was ‘My Bold Dad’ by Toyota, especially with the twist at the end. There was also at least one ad that was truly about changing perception, the Always ad “Like A Girl”.

Learning moment: Use video effectively to spread the message in a variety of ways. Showing how real men act. Reminding us not to crush our daughter’s spirit. It all ties into the issue of domestic violence by highlighting strategies that support the change we want to see.

Sadly, water safety fumbled on the 9 yard line with the well-meaning Nationwide ad that made it clear that children drown in bathtubs. My mouth was hanging open that child drowning had even made it onto a Super Bowl ad, but the public hated being reminded of children dying and it was crucified on Twitter.

Learning moment: Positive messaging sells more than fear-based messaging, especially if you are reaching out when people are celebrating.

The coup de grace was Katy Perry and Missy Elliott at the fabled half-time show belting out songs like ‘Roar’ and ‘Get Ur Freak On’. No subtlety there. ‘We love women! We celebrate women! We especially love strong women!’ The NFL did still have the jitters. They brought Lenny Kravitz on to sing a duet to Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’, presumably to soften the effect. Apparently sexual preference is still a bit scary, but hey, Super Bowl XLIX was still a big step forward for the testosterone-fueled organization so let’s give them credit.

Learning Moment: When a movement gains steam, once the boulder gets moving down the hill, even entrenched organizations like the NFL will get on board with the right messages once they understand they have no choice. You don’t have to create an entire movement, you just need to get it to the top of the hill, give it a solid push, and then celebrate and support anyone who is helping you.

Ending with my personal take on their efforts, I still don’t think the NFL gets it. In fact I think they are deeply conflicted. They are in damage control because they’ve been backed against the wall, but that doesn’t mean they like it. They told us loud and clear before the Super Bowl how they really feel. Their balls have been deflated.  I can’t help but interpret this to mean that they see these issues as undermining not just the great sport of football, but of men. I still think they are missing the point entirely. A sport has a responsibility to take all reasonable precautions regarding the health and safety of it’s players, and violence against women is flat out wrong.  We’re not asking you to further deflate anything, including your egos, but the old ways aren’t working anymore, it’s time to change.

My message to the NFL top brass? If you want to know about real women, ditch the Victoria’s Secret ad and try watching Missy Elliott’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ in a different context, an incredible social marketing video designed to get more women out their owning their bodies and their power.  Don’t be afraid guys. We women don’t want to emasculate you. We love you. But, we do expect to be recognized and respected.

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Learning Moment: Change is hard, but those who refuse to change become extinct. Manage the change. Adapt the change. Make the change.

Finally, the machine of the NFL aside, it was a fantastic game to watch. Congratulations to both the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks for playing an outstanding and well-matched game with a down-to-the-line finish and some superb athleticism and strategy. It was truly a pleasure to watch and a great evening for families and friends to enjoy together. That is the true meaning of sport.

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