Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Thursday, March 13, 2008


The Basketball Club of Seattle, LLC, owners of both the National Basketball Association’s Seattle SuperSonics and the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Seattle Storm, had seen the Sonics through several successful seasons in the 1990s, but the organization wanted to prepare for a future that would doubtless include down years. Increasing fan loyalty, the franchise believed, was the only way to guarantee ticket sales and TV viewership during losing seasons as well as winning seasons. The team’s front office set out to achieve this through a combination of enhanced free TV offerings and marketing. After moving Sonics games from pay-per-view TV to local TV stations preparatory to the 1997–98 season, the team’s executives charged Seattle advertising agency WongDoody with the task of publicizing the new schedule of TV broadcasts in a way that would strengthen the bond between fans and their team. WongDoody, allotted less than $500,000 for the entire campaign, arrived at the concept of sending actual Sonics stars on unannounced visits to the homes of ordinary Seattle residents. The idea gave the campaign its tagline, ‘‘In Your Home,’’ which made direct reference to the newly expanded TV schedule for the team’s games. The depiction of Sonics players interacting with ordinary Seattle residents also served the important purpose of humanizing the stars, which was particularly important given the fan cynicism of the time, a result of negative stereotypes then abounding about overpaid, misbehaving, out-of-touch players. For the first two weeks after its fall 1997 release, the campaign was aired heavily on regional stations during high-profile prime-time programming; it then continued on the local stations with which the team had partnered for the new game-broadcasting arrangement.
‘‘In Your Home’’ was a success, achieving goals of increasing both TV ratings and interest in the team among Seattle residents. It also became one of the most awarded regional campaigns as well as one of the most awarded sports campaigns of its time, winning top honors at almost every major advertising festival. The campaign was extended for the 1998–99 basketball season, though it was updated to show players in public locations like grocery stores and bowling alleys rather than in residents’ homes.

The Seattle SuperSonics entered the NBA in 1967. Like many expansion teams (teams new to a professional sports league), the franchise struggled in its first few years of existence, not posting a winning record until its fifth full season of play. The late 1970s, however, saw the Sonics become one of the league’s best teams; it reached the NBA finals at the end of the 1977–78 season and won the league championship in 1978–79. After experiencing winning seasons in the early 1980s the team slumped in the middle part of the decade. Though the Sonics rallied in the late 1980s, the team did not become a consistent winner again until the 1990s. After bringing in George Karl as head coach in 1992, the Sonics averaged 60 wins a season (out of a total of 82 regular season games) for six seasons in a row. They did not win a championship during this time, but they became one of the most elite franchises in the NBA.
The Sonics, accordingly, had little trouble generating fan loyalty in Seattle. In fact, home games almost always sold out. The team’s front office, however, was looking to the franchise’s future and knew that the Sonics would not always be able to count on a winning record to sell seats and generate revenue. Only fan loyalty could guarantee a healthy franchise.
Nurturing fan loyalty in the NBA of the late 1990s was a more difficult task than in previous eras. The gulf between fans and players had never been so wide; this was a result of the rise of free agency, which empowered players but did not encourage them to be loyal to their teams, and the corresponding phenomenon of exponentially increasing salaries. Occasional but highly publicized scandalous behavior on the part of players—such as Latrell Sprewell of the Golden State Warriors choking his coach, P.J. Carlesimo—further fueled the disconnect between fans and players, and rising ticket prices meant that many of the die-hard NBA fans of the past could no longer see their teams in person. Though a winning team could overcome the widespread fan cynicism of the time, the perception that players were only interested in money and inhabited a distant, impossibly privileged world was common among fans in all NBA markets.

‘‘In Your Home’’ targeted exactly these formerly die-hard but now disenchanted NBA fans, many of whom could not afford to attend games in person. While such people tended to be more aware of the problems with the NBA than casual fans, they were also more likely to become enthusiastic about their team and the league if the right conditions were in place. These fans were typically males between the ages of 25 and 54.
The Sonics’ larger strategy of bringing such fans back into the fold included, crucially, a change in policy regarding the local TV broadcasting of the team’s games. In previous years, games had been broadcast primarily on pay-pay-view television—a situation that did not encourage those disenchanted with high ticket prices to tune in or feel loyalty toward the team—and ratings had been in decline for years. The 1997–98 season saw Sonics management address this issue to fans’ benefit, reaching a new agreement with the three major local networks in Seattle that called for a substantially increased network-TV schedule. Of the 82 regular-season Sonics games in the 1997–98 season, 56 would be televised on local network stations. Fans whose loyalty had been tested by changes in the NBA would now be granted comprehensive access to the team, free of charge.
WongDoody thus had a concrete basis upon which to build the message that the Sonics were an integral part of the Seattle community. The idea of the Sonics being ‘‘In Your Home’’ arose directly from the new broadcasting arrangement, taking the premise to a logical extreme: players were shown arriving at the homes of ordinary Seattle residents. Not only did this concept provide a natural way of publicizing the new 56-game TV schedule, but by also showing individual players interacting with ordinary people, it suggested that the gap between players and fans was not as distinct as many fans feared.

After the monumental success of ‘‘In Your Home,’’ which ran during the 1997–98 season, ad agency WongDoody’s client, the Seattle SuperSonics, had no interest in changing marketing tactics for the 1998–99 season. This presented WongDoody with a new creative challenge. The initial year’s spots had made such a splash partly because of the novelty of seeing Sonics stars showing up unannounced at people’s homes. Having achieved such notoriety, however, the campaign could not possibly catch viewers off-guard through simply extending this concept. WongDoody thus opted to satisfy its client’s demands for more of the same by showing Sonics players in other ordinary places: Gary Payton was shown shopping for groceries, Vin Baker was pictured bowling, and Olden Polynice was shown doing his laundry at a Laundromat. The campaign was well regarded, but it achieved nowhere near the acclaim of its predecessor. Rarely had a follow-up to a hugely acclaimed advertising campaign done so.

Though no NBA team produced a campaign as highly regarded as ‘‘In Your Home’’ during the 1990s or early 2000s, the Sonics were not the first franchise to build its marketing on the idea of humanizing its star players. A successful campaign touting the Indiana Pacers, for instance, began during the 1994–95 season. Attempting to leverage success on the court—the Pacers had posted their first promising season in recent memory only a year earlier, in 1993–94 –into ticket sales and enduring fan loyalty, the franchise decided to focus on player personalities. One TV spot introduced the ‘‘many faces of Dale Davis,’’ an impassive Pacers forward who, the punch line went, showed one face to the camera despite the multiple scenarios posited in the voice-over. Another spot showed guard Reggie Miller addressing his abrasive on-the-court demeanor by arguing that he was misunderstood. Over the next two years full-season ticket sales for Pacers games grew by 25 percent, half-season sales grew by 69 percent, and 10-game ticket packages rose by 181 percent.
The Orlando Magic attempted to generate increased ticket sales via different means in a 2000–01 marketing campaign, and in the process the team’s executives found a way to measure the success of emerging advertising platforms. After acquiring exciting players, including one of the league’s star forwards, Grant Hill, as well as young players Tracy McGrady and Mike Miller, the team expected a bump in ticket sales. The franchise’s front office attempted to generate further interest in the 2000–01 season by advertising a contest offering fans a chance to play one-on-one with Hill. Advertisements ran online and on radio and television, and those who entered the contest received a brochure promoting season-ticket sales. Half of the season-ticket brochures were sent via E-mail and half via regular mail. Season-ticket sales well outpaced those in previous years, and the Magic found that 16 percent of fans who received E-mailed brochures bought season tickets, compared with 1.5 percent of those who received print brochures.

The concept of showing real Sonics stars showing up unannounced at the homes of real Seattle residents accomplished the campaign’s two primary goals at once: it humorously dramatized the news of the Sonics’ increased TV presence, and it demonstrated that Sonics players, far from being prima donnas, were ordinary people when they were away from the court. To emphasize ‘‘real’’ behavior, the spots were unscripted, and the ordinary people whose residences the Sonics players visited were not given advance warning. This resulted in a narrative situation reminiscent of the well-known ‘‘Publishers Clearing House’’ commercials, in which the surprise of the individuals featured in the spots formed a major part of the story. The players’ interactions with their hosts developed over time as they engaged in numerous and varied ‘‘ordinary’’ activities with the families and groups that they visited.
For instance, Sonics guard Gary Payton was shown entering the common room of a nursing home, to the delight and applause of residents. He was then pictured reacting to comments such as ‘‘I always thought you were awfully thin,’’ learning how to knit, and taking a lead role in a heated game of Monopoly. Guard Nate McMillan, meanwhile, arrived unannounced at a suburban Tupperware party populated exclusively by middleaged women; after the expected interval of surprised exclamations, he settled into the sofa and participated in the party. McMillan innocently wisecracked his way through the lead Tupperware promoter’s spiel before being caught off-guard by a post-party question, ‘‘And you play quarterback, right?’’ Forward/center Sam Perkins showed up at the home of a family of five, whose three young boys immediately began monopolizing his attention. Perkins roughhoused with them around their backyard basketball goal, played video games with the smallest son sitting in his lap, and engaged in a pillow fight with them just before bedtime. Each of the commercials opened with text reading, ‘‘The Sonics are coming to your home.’’ At the end of the player-fan interactions, on-screen text stated, ‘‘See them in your home,’’ and then text appeared reading, ‘‘56 games on free TV.’’
WongDoody was allotted a relatively small budget of just under $500,000, though this was a workable amount of money given that regionally placed TV spots cost only a fraction of national placements on the same programs. WongDoody still sought to get the most possible mileage out of its budget by opening the campaign on prominent prime-time shows. The campaign broke during ABC’s Monday Night Football, and for the first two weeks after its launch it ran in heavy rotation on such high-profile programs as Seinfeld and Friends, in addition to cable destinations popular with the male target, such as ESPN and Fox Sports Net. Additionally, WongDoody media planners negotiated airtime with the local networks that would be airing the Sonics games. The agency likewise informed the news teams of the three leading local TV networks, all of which ran stories on the campaign. Print elements played a lesser role in the campaign. An initial three-page spread in regional editions of Sports Illustrated magazine’s NBA preview issue helped publicize the new TV schedule, and small-space newspaper ads carrying the ‘‘In Your Home’’ theme ran adjacent to prime-time TV listings.

Research conducted at the end of the 1997–98 season indicated a 51 percent jump in viewership over the previous year’s pay-per-view numbers and judged community involvement with the Sonics to have substantially increased, especially compared with other NBA teams. Season-ticket renewals reached an all-time high. Harry Hutt, senior vice president of marketing for rival NBA team the Portland Trailblazers, called the ‘‘In Your Home’’ campaign ‘‘a brilliant example of what the right kind of campaign can do,’’ a judgment that was echoed by his own team’s adoption of a similar marketing concept a few years later.
‘‘In Your Home’’ became one of the most acclaimed professional-sports campaigns of its time as well as one of the most acclaimed regional campaigns. It won the GRANDY, the top award bestowed at the ANDY Awards, in 1998, as well as both the Grand Prize (top prize among all campaigns) and the prize for best lowbudget campaign at the 1998 London International Advertising Awards. It won four Clios that year, a Gold Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival, and a Gold EFFIE. USA Today placed the campaign among its top ads of the year, and Adweek included it in its ‘‘Best Ads of the ‘90s’’ list.
The overwhelming success of the campaign posed only one difficulty for the Sonics and WongDoody: the challenge of following up such a successful campaign the next year. After some debate, ‘‘In Your Home’’ was extended with a twist. Rather than showing Sonics players arriving unannounced at people’s homes, the 1998–99 campaign placed the players in everyday locations, such as bowling alleys, grocery stores, and Laundromats.

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