How the NFL Takes Loyalty and Brand Advocacy to a New Level With Fan Engagement

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Jaime Weston, Senior Vice President of Marketing at NFL, provides an insight into the importance of fan engagement, and shares some of their innovative initiatives.

jaimeweston.jpgDuring the past month we’ve put a spotlight on a very unique aspect of customer experience, fan engagement within the sports industry, to coincide with some of the exciting events coming up over the summer.

After our podcasts with Juliet Slot, Commercial Director at Ascot Racecourses, and Heather Bowler, Senior Vice President Communications at the Women’s Tennis Association & Gabriela Duch, Senior Manager, Player Relations at the WTA, for the final part of our series focusing on fan engagement within sports, we spoke to Jaime Weston, Senior Vice President of Marketing at NFL.

She explains how passion within sports takes loyalty and brand advocacy to a whole new level, what the challenges and rewards are when optimising fan engagement strategies, and she shares fantastic examples of how NFL have utilised digital marketing to connect to the younger generations and a time they went above and beyond to deliver a memorable experience to a family of very deserving fans.

Hi Jaime, first of all, could you briefly describe what your role as Senior Vice President of Marketing at NFL entails? How have you developed the company's wider marketing and customer experience strategy since you've taken on the role?

As Senior Vice President of Marketing, my amazing team and I work every day to bring our fans closer to the game and teams they love as well as developing connection points for people to develop their fandom. We drive the league's long-term brand, marketing and creative strategy. We get to work on everything from our TV-advertising, including our Super Bowl commercials, to new logo and uniform designs for our teams, down to making sure the visual experience at each Super Bowl city tells a story from the minute you get off the plane.

My additional responsibilities include interfacing with all 32 NFL teams, as well as various other stakeholders including sponsors, licensees and broadcast partners to protect and grow the NFL's brand, while still delivering value back to them.

In the last six months we have restructured the Fan Strategy discipline to ensure that the league is focused on putting the fan at the centre of everything we do. Our world is changing, which means so is our fan base. Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers in the US and Generation Z is right behind them. More than half of children under five are multi-cultural. We want to make sure the next generation of fans is as passionate about the NFL and football as our avid fans are today.

Additionally, our team recently helped to redefine the core NFL values – respect, responsibility to team, integrity and resiliency. This was a piece of work that was done in collaboration with a handful of folks across the organisation, including current and former players and coaches from across the league. We also have a clearly defined brand essence, which comes down to three words: intense, meaningful and unifying. These words, while not consumer-facing, are the core of our brand and was developed working directly with our fans.

What are the fundamental differences in your approach to marketing within sports compared to that of other industries you've worked in, such as entertainment, retail and publishing?

Managing a sports brand is much more rigorous than brands in other industries because we rely on our partners to convey our brand. We don't control every aspect of our brand like others do. Our broadcast partners represent the NFL brand, as do our sponsors, licensees, media and our players. It's important to ensure everyone has a solid understanding of our brand foundation and vision, so they can help convey that to our fans.

People who come to work in sports from other industries are able to draw on their array of experience and provide additional insights that allow us all to think differently and push the brand in ways we wouldn't necessarily consider. I'm going into my 13th season working for the NFL, I really get excited when a new employee joins from outside the sports-landscape because I know they will bring fresh thinking to the table.

You also can't neglect our fans' passion for the NFL! When I worked in retail, yes, you can see a consumer's passion for an apparel brand, but sports take passion and loyalty to a whole new level. Being authentic is key, our fans are passionate and loyal to us and we must reciprocate.

SEE ALSO: Building Brand Loyalty Through Rewards and Engagement

What are the key steps to successful fan engagement? How do you engage with them to deliver an outstanding customer experience?

It’s about developing the products, offerings and events for the right customer and delivering it in a voice that is relevant to them, and where they are. We are lucky because the NFL has fans from age five to 85. Not many brands have a customer with them for life.

With that, it’s very important that we recognise that our fan’s relationship with us changes and morphs throughout their lives. So it is important that we intimately understand our fans as they progress through each life stage and deliver what is relevant to them.|

And what are the additional challenges when connecting with such a passionate audience? How are you tackling these?

With passion, comes pride. Our fans care about our game and "their team" greatly, so we are constantly able to get feedback from them on things that affect them.

Our research team has allowed us to really develop a personal dialogue with both our casual fans and our most avid ones. We talk to them about everything under the sun, from their experience in our stadiums on game-day to providing feedback on our commercials to perceptions around new team logo and uniform designs.

The biggest challenge is pushing innovation around the game and all of its offerings, while respecting the tradition and heritage that our game was built upon.

As Senior Vice President of Marketing, how do you turn people who are already loyal to NFL into true brand advocates? And how do you utilise their advocacy to further your marketing efforts?

It's about delivering to what they demand from us. Our avid fans are interested in the NFL 365 days a year. The minute the Super Bowl is over, they are waiting for the Scouting Combine, the Draft, Training Camp. It's important for us to deliver a stellar brand experience out of season as we do while in season. Our fans want more, they crave more, it's up to us to serve them well.

Our female fans make up 48 percent of our fan base. And we have some amazing female fan ambassadors that love to talk about football and fashion. Alyssa Milano and Erin Heatherton express their NFL-fandom in unique and stylish ways year-round, so we have naturally pegged them to be in our upcoming women's apparel campaign. They have genuine conversations with our fans both about fashion and football.

With a global move to digital, can you give an example of an innovative way you've utilised digital marketing within your role and what the results were?

SEE ALSO: How Retailer Argos Changed Their Contact Strategy to Make Customer Service Digital

This spring we launched our Youth Football campaign in a much different and broader way than in years past. Our insights from previous campaigns led us to aging-up our target audience and gearing the creative to speak to both teen girls and boys. Our guiding key insight was simple: Football helps you reach your full potential.

Playing Youth Football isn't always about starting a path to the NFL, the values, character and skills you can learn by playing football are ones that benefit you for life. Leadership, teamwork, sportsmanship, trust, effort, resilience, integrity – these are the football values. We wanted to deliver the message in an inspirational and personal way. In the campaign kids tell us first hand, their plans for life, and football is the thruway to getting there. Using the line: I got plans to play football, we feature teen boys and girls that play both NFL Flag Football and Heads Up Football – our tackle programme through USA Football.

Everything is housed under and while this first phase is our push of the message using TV and Facebook, we will be transitioning the campaign to a pull, allowing kids to tell us what their plans are through social media, using #playfootball on Instagram, Vine and Pinterest. Once the football season kicks off in September, we will transition yet again from kids sharing their plans with us to showing us what they got – giving them a place to share some of their best football moves in a viral way.

Finally, can you tell us about a time where you and/or NFL have gone above and beyond to deliver a truly memorable customer experience to an individual?

The NFL is at its best when we can touch our fans in a real and personal way, especially around the Super Bowl, which is one of the toughest tickets in sports to get. Our "Together We Make Football" winners over the last two years all had incredible stories and received an experience of a lifetime of winning a trip to the Super Bowl. As a mom, the story that really impacted me was the Roberts family. It was amazing to give something special to a family that gives so much to others.

Chris Roberts, head football coach for the Crossings Christian School, and his wife Sarah took in a senior football player, Christian Osterhout, after both his mother and father tragically passed away. Sarah submitted their story to "Together We Make Football" and we sent NFL Films cameramen to capture their story.

While filming, Deion Sanders came out and surprised the school and family at a school assembly that the family were contest finalists! We flew the family to New York City to be on the NBC Today show. Deion Sanders later would come into their kitchen and announce the entire family was winners and all going to the Super Bowl!

Football was more than a game to the Roberts, it is family and we, the NFL, were able to give this family an amazing experience - V.I.P. treatment at the Super Bowl. An unforgettable experience they will never forget.