Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Founded in the 1970s, Federal Express (FedEx) quickly carved out a niche in the express package business, helped in large part by its aggressive advertising. In the early years FedEx relied on a fast-talking spokesman who anchored the ‘‘Absolutely, Positively Overnight’’ campaign that ran from 1978 to 1983. By the 1990s it was facing increasing competition from rival express firms offering cheaper service. Despite being far younger than United Parcel Service (UPS) and the United States Postal Service, by this time FedEx was able to portray itself in its advertising as a well-established, reliable shipper. The ‘‘Be Absolutely Sure’’ campaign, which broke in January 1998, offered humorous examples of what could occur if someone relied on a cut-rate shipper rather than FedEx. In one spot a 30-something swimming-pool cleaner finally received his acceptance letter to Harvard University, news that, if received 20 years earlier, might have made a profound difference in his life. In another spot toy soldiers in a mock commercial were reduced to wearing dresses because their uniforms did not arrive on time. The ‘‘Be Absolutely Sure’’ campaign ended at the close of 2000. During its three-year run it produced a number of memorable commercials. The spot ‘‘Apology,’’ which was little more than a television test pattern and an abject apology for not having sent the tape of the real commercial by FedEx, was recognized as one of the best commercials of 1999. The toy-solider spot, ‘‘Action Figures,’’ was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2000.

When Fred Smith returned from the Vietnam War in the 1960s, he entered Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The undergraduate Smith wrote a term paper in which he presented the idea that, with the fastemerging service economy of the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, what America needed was a good, reliable package delivery service. His professor gave him a C. This grade, however, did not deter Smith from raising investment capital, and by 1971 he had almost $140 million in operating funds. Bank loans accounted for $90 million of this amount, and Smith had raised another $40 million from investors. The remaining $8 million was loaned by family members. Obviously, Smith had a lot riding on this deal, and with his capital in place he proceeded to launch the largest venture-capital-funded start-up corporation in history:
Federal Express. Smith reportedly chose the name because ‘‘Federal’’ suggested the U.S. government, a connotation that was still largely positive despite the unpopular war in Vietnam. And ‘‘Express’’ was chosen because it recalled the legendary Pony Express of the 1860s. During the 1970s Federal Express—or FedEx, as it came to be called—grew rapidly alongside competitor United Parcel Service (UPS). Both profited from the fact that airlines were getting out of the parcel service and from the bankruptcy of rival REA Express. FedEx also benefited from a 1974 strike by UPS union workers, not to mention a strong record of advertising. Years later, in 1997, writers at Entertainment Weekly voted FedEx’s 1981 ‘‘Fast-Paced World’’ spot the second greatest commercial of all time, behind Energizer’s ‘‘Escape of the Bunny.’’ In the spot, created by Ally & Gargano, actor John Moschitta managed to say 450 words in one minute, or seven words per second, as a way of illustrating FedEx’s speed.
In the mid-1980s FedEx hit on a loser when it introduced the idea of ZapMail, which promised document delivery in two hours. It might have been a success if fax machines had not begun making their appearance, thereby eliminating the need for the service. The company ended up losing $300 million on ZapMail in 1986. It recovered handsomely in the 1990s, however, greatly expanding its international service and again profiting from a UPS strike in 1997. In the following year it created the FDX Corporation as a holding company for Federal Express and its other companies.

Federal Express attained its position by appealing to businesses both big and small. The 1990s saw two opposing trends: the continued growth of large corporations through acquisitions and mergers and the concomitant growth of small business. As corporations became bigger and more impersonal, it seemed that more and more people were leaving salaried employment and setting up new businesses in their homes. At the same time, corporations outsourced more of their work and also allowed many employees to work from their homes. FedEx, like its competitors, benefited both from large corporate business and the growth of small business, which meant that more businesspeople were sending more packages. The growth of telecommunications and a global economy helped spur an increase in international business, and here, too, FedEx was poised to reap a bountiful harvest. During the 1980s it expanded its international service greatly by acquiring companies in Italy, Japan, and other countries, and in 1995 it became the first U.S. express carrier to establish direct service to the People’s Republic of China—perhaps the world’s fastest-growing economic powerhouse. The mid-1990s also saw the creation of Latin American and Caribbean divisions, and in 1997 FedEx established a service hub in Miami to lead the way for greater Latin American expansion. It also set up its first hub in Europe, at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
FedEx illustrated the breadth of its customer base with 1997 ads that showed a wide array of people, separated by gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality, but united in their use of FedEx as a preferred service. According to Dottie Enrico in USA Today, a consumer poll conducted in 1997 found that FedEx’s advertising was most popular with people in the 30 to 49 age group. The poll also showed that the advertising had proven particularly well received by African-American consumers, with 45 percent of black respondents judging the FedEx ads ‘‘very effective.’’
Later executions of the ‘‘Be Absolutely Sure’’ campaign had more specific targets. The 1999 television spots were aimed at companies doing business with Internet companies. A year later the campaign touted FedEx’s new direct routes to China, targeting companies that were shipping to and from China.

In the express-delivery market segment, FedEx’s two largest competitors were UPS and DHL Worldwide, but by the mid-1990s it faced a new and formidable competitor: the United States Postal Service (USPS). The latter was a hybrid: formed as a part of the U.S. government, it became an independent entity in 1970, but it still maintained a monopoly over door-to-door mail delivery in the United States. Its dimensions dwarfed those of any competitor: as the USPS had often noted, it delivered more mail in a week than the combined forces of FedEx and UPS did in a year. Yet as an independent entity, the USPS sought to go after the competition in its advertising to promote its Priority Mail service. There ensued a lengthy battle between FedEx and the Postal Service over ads that compared USPS’s and FedEx’s prices and asserted that it was cheaper to send packages through Priority Mail. FedEx took the Postal Service to court, and in April 1997 a Memphis federal judge, in the first ruling in the case, overturned an appeal by the USPS to throw the suit out of court. The USPS had claimed that, due to the Lanham Act, which protected certain federal agencies from lawsuits, it could not be sued, but the judge ruled that ‘‘by placing its no-holds-barred advertisements on national television, USPS embarked on an excursion into the commercial world unique to a federal entity.’’
Then there was UPS, which was nearly shut down between August 4 and 18, 1997, because of a strike by 185,000 of its employees, members of the Teamsters union. ‘‘When the Teamsters walked out on Atlantabased United Parcel Service,’’ wrote Tim Triplett in Marketing News, ‘‘they delivered an unexpected windfall to the U.S. Postal Service and Memphis-based Federal
Express Corp., among other parcel shipping competitors. But whether UPS’s rivals can hang onto that newfound business remains to be seen.’’ UPS, the world’s leading package delivery service, estimated that it permanently lost 5 percent of its business due to the strike, but it sought to recover its position with an advertising campaign in which it apologized for the strike. Meanwhile, FedEx reported that it delivered an extra 9.5 million packages during the period of the strike.

FedEx began the ‘‘Be Absolutely Sure’’ campaign by airing a TV spot called ‘‘Apology’’ during the Super Bowl in January 1998. It proved to be one of its most notable commercials of the year. The Super Bowl, with more than 100 million viewers, was always a prominent arena in which companies advertised their wares, and many opted for a glitzy approach to build on the hype. Not so with FedEx and BBDO: their spot consisted simply of a test pattern made up of colored bars. A voice-over explained that FedEx’s advertising agency—a fictionalized entity—had mistakenly sent its commercial via a competing package service. Of course it had not arrived, the voice-over explained, and therefore viewers would not see its planned spot, which was to have featured dancing kangaroos and country music superstar Garth Brooks. This tongue-in-cheek approach won the company high praise, particularly from within the advertising industry. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age, often a stern critic of Super Bowl commercials, called it ‘‘Absolutely, positively a breakthrough idea.’’ FedEx followed this spot up with an even more attention-getting spot, whose first airing it also tied to a football event, ABC-TV’s Monday Night Football on September 14. The spot, ‘‘Opportunity Knocks,’’ featured Mort, a figure described in a FedEx press release as ‘‘a swimming pool cleaner in his late 30s.’’ Mort ‘‘receives a letter—20 years too late—from a generic delivery company.’’ In fact the van that delivered Mort’s delayed letter bore the name ‘‘Lucky Shamrock Expediting.’’ ‘‘Had Mort received the letter on time,’’ the press release went on, ‘‘his destiny could have been totally different: ‘You’ve been accepted to Harvard University,’’’ the letter announced. ‘‘ ‘And awarded a scholarship. Please respond by August 1978.’ ’’ The spot then reminded viewers to ‘Be absolutely sure,’ and ship with FedEx.
Another commercial in the first round of executions showed what could happen if a shipper other than FedEx was entrusted with the delivery of the Stanley Cup hockey trophy. Rabid fans who had gathered at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena to celebrate their champion Red Wings watched the team be presented not with the Stanley Cup but with a bag of donkey feed, while thousands of miles away the Cup was displayed to a group of Bolivian peasants in a marketplace.
The ‘‘Be Absolutely Sure’’ campaign continued in 1999, targeting businesses selling over the Internet. In one notable spot a website design team, composed of nerds and a raving madman smashing a computer, made its pitch to three befuddled executives. The message of the spot was simple: pick whoever you want to design your Web page, but stick to FedEx when it comes to shipping your packages.
During the 1999 NCAA Bowl Championship Series in January, FedEx aired more ‘‘Be Absolutely Sure’’ spots. This set of commercials took a less humorous approach. The 30- and 60-second spots were collectively entitled ‘‘Takeoffs’’ and showed FedEx planes taking off for various cities, along with songs that suggested their destinations: ‘‘April in Paris’’; ‘‘Chicago’’; ‘‘18 Miles from Memphis’’; ‘‘Oklahoma’’; and ‘‘Sweet Home Alabama.’’
In 2000 FedEx aired the most popular television commercial of the campaign. The spot, which highlighted the shipper’s direct route to China, was unveiled on New Year’s Eve 1999 during the Liberty Bowl college football game. Called ‘‘Action Figures,’’ it was a parody of a low-budget toy commercial. The G.I. Joe–like dolls, Combat Rangers, were put through their paces: parachuted out of helicopters, plunged into mud. But the soldiers wore women’s clothing and accessories, including pink handbags and blow-dryers. Watching the commercial was a trio of businessmen, one of whom asked why the Combat Rangers were wearing dresses. ‘‘That’s because the commander uniforms didn’t arrive from China on time,’’ he was told as the underlings then blamed one another for not using FedEx as their shipper. The ‘‘Be Absolutely Sure’’ campaign played itself out by the close of 2000. Before it ended, famed television crocodile hunter Steve Irwin made an appearance. In his spot he was bitten by a poisonous snake and reassured the audience that he had some antivenom that had been shipped via Federal Express, only to learn that someone had chosen a different carrier and the serum had not arrived. Irwin collapsed, the screen went blank, and the ‘‘Be Absolutely Sure’’ slogan and FedEx Logo appeared. In January 2001 FedEx retired ‘‘Be Absolutely Sure’’ in favor of a new approach that featured the slogan ‘‘This is a job for FedEx.’’

As FedEx noted in its press release, the ‘‘Opportunity Knocks’’ spot was in line with memorable Federal Express ads throughout the years. Among those campaigns was ‘‘Absolutely, Positively Overnight,’’ which included the famous fast-talker spot; the campaign, which ran from 1978 to 1983, had won advertising’s EFFIE Award. Then there was ‘‘It’s Not Just a Package, It’s Your Business’’ from 1987 to 1988; ‘‘Our Most Important Package Is Yours,’’ which aired from 1991 to 1994; and the short-lived ‘‘Absolutely, Positively Anytime’’ (1995).
Despite his sad story, Mort the pool cleaner—along with ‘‘Apology’’ and the entire ‘‘Be Absolutely Sure’’ campaign—won praise from the advertising industry. Adweek listed ‘‘Opportunity Knocks’’ among its ‘‘Best Spots’’ in the October 1998 issue. Advertising Age included ‘‘Apology’’ in its list of best spots in 1998, calling it an example of ‘‘zigging while everyone else zagged’’—that is, pursuing a strategy that set the company apart. Though some in the industry had suggested that the spot might seem like an advertising inside joke, Advertising Age held that it ‘‘stood out amongst all the other overhyped TV ads . . . and cut through the clutter like the sound of one hand clapping.’’ The most acclaimed spot of the entire campaign was ‘‘Action Figures,’’ which, along with four other commercials, was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2000.

Monday, October 27, 2008


In October 1998 Euromarket Design, Inc. launched an advertising campaign for Crate & Barrel, its chain of housewares and furniture stores.With an estimated budget of $3.5 million, Chicago-based ad agency McConnaughy Stein Schmidt Brown (MSSB) created a visually striking print campaign that appeared in national publications and regional magazines. While most of Crate & Barrel’s previous advertising had focused on selling individual products, the new campaign attempted to burnish Crate & Barrel’s overall brand image and distinguish the company from its various rivals. Although the market for housewares was growing—as consumers’ real wages rose, new home construction surged, and aging baby boomers spent more on redecorating—Crate & Barrel faced increased competition from other housewares retailers, ranging from other upscale stores such as Williams-Sonoma Inc.’s Pottery Barn to the mass merchandiser Target, owned by the Dayton Hudson Corp.

Crate & Barrel did not abandon specific products completely in its effort to promote its new image. Instead, the 1998 print ads paired shots of individual offerings with scenes of nature or buildings. The copy for the ads was somewhat lengthy and relied on a subdued wittiness to convey the campaign’s message—that Crate & Barrel offered timeless products that imbued one’s life with simplicity. For instance, one of the five ads queried, ‘‘What does one of our tables have in common with an afternoon in the country? Or one of our chairs with a lakeside sunset?’’ The copy continued, ‘‘Well, all warmly embrace the concept of simplicity: Clearly a plus in an age when three-fourths of the world’s surface is covered with water, but four-fifths is wired for cable.’’ An elegant, classic table was portrayed next to a scene of a wooden bridge expanding out over the ocean to the horizon line. The company’s logo was discreetly placed in the corner of the piece. Other ads depicted a Crate & Barrel chair (along with a deserted shoreline), a goblet (with a snowcovered pastoral scene), plates (with a country chapel), and stockings stuffed with presents (with another snowy landscape). While some of the print executions were clearly holiday oriented, they nevertheless attempted to impart the campaign’s overall theme, that Crate & Barrel was ‘‘not just a local housewares shop,’’ as Heidi Musachio, an account supervisor at MSSB, told Adweek. Like most other retailers, Crate & Barrel’s peak business was during the holiday season. Accordingly, the campaign ran through December 1998 and then ended. Although the company’s sales figures rose during the duration of the campaign and the ads received plaudits from the advertising community, Crate & Barrel shifted its advertising account to the recently formed Chicago ad shop Tucker Tapia and returned to more product-focused spots.

Crate & Barrel’s humble origins gave no indication of its future status as a housewares and furniture ‘‘powerhouse,’’ as the Chicago Tribune described the company.

Founded in 1962 by Gordon and Carole Segal, the first Crate & Barrel store was housed in an abandoned elevator factory in Chicago and stocked with specialty housewares items. Because they could not afford expensive merchandise fixtures, the Segals displayed their wares on packing crates and barrels, thereby hitting upon the catchy name for their venture. ‘‘I knew plenty of young people like us with good taste and no money,’’ Gordon Segal told HFN: The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network. ‘‘Who was catering to them?’’ As the company expanded and opened new stores, Crate & Barrel won the allegiance of the baby boomer generation—who increasingly earned more money to complement their ‘‘good taste’’—with its distinctive and well-made products.

In the early 1990s Crate & Barrel broadened its offerings to include furniture. In fact, by 1995 furniture accounted for one-third of the company’s sales. After its 1994 revenues topped $272 million, Crate & Barrel opened a Manhattan store in 1995 with a splashy campaign. By 1996 Crate & Barrel had grown to 62 retail outlets in 15 U.S. markets and did a brisk catalog business as well. Segal teamed up with German mail-order giant Otto Versand in 1998 to help fuel expansion of the privately held company. At the time the 1998 Crate & Barrel print campaign debuted, Segal boasted to the Chicago Tribune that ‘‘we’ve never had business better.’’

Crate & Barrel’s success was due in part to the financial well-being of its core customers, those consumers aged 35 to 60. According to Gifts and Decorative Accessories, the bullish U.S. economy had created ‘‘new pockets of affluence,’’ in which ‘‘5 percent of the population [was] made up of households with incomes of more than $100,000.’’ Leading the pack were baby boomers, who had sown their wild oats in the 1960s and 1970s and had settled down into middle age and family life by the 1990s. As a result, as the Chicago Tribune noted, these consumers chose ‘‘to spend their cash on decorating, remodeling, and expanding their homes.’’ In 1997 ‘‘boomer-led families making more than $70,000 a year spent almost $100 billion on home-related products,’’ the Los Angeles Times reported. Crate & Barrel’s furniture sold especially well among baby boomers, who were more apt than their younger counterparts to devote thousands of dollars to new furniture. The company recognized that it would need to attract these mature consumers with its 1998 print campaign.

To reach this audience, Crate & Barrel incorporated themes that resonated with the group. After the rampant consumerism that had characterized much of the 1980s, the affluent classes of the 1990s largely eschewed this worldview and at least paid lip service to the notion of simplicity—of living with less and thereby living more fully. Moreover, as baby boomers aged, they grew nostalgic for the past. Crate & Barrel incorporated both of these sentiments into its 1998 print campaign. One of the ads, which depicted an oversized chair with classic lines and minimal detailing as well as an empty wooden bench facing the seemingly infinite span of the sea, proclaimed that ‘‘things were simpler ‘then.’ Or so we often hear. But if things were simpler ‘then’ does that mean they have to be more complicated now? Not by a long shot. At Crate & Barrel we’ve got a veritable store full of classic designs that prove ‘then’ doesn’t own simple. It merely has a time share.’’ The message was clear. Not only were Crate & Barrel’s products themselves attractively and stylishly straightforward, but they could also seamlessly connect consumers to a less complicated past. As Segal told HFN, ‘‘We’re selling concepts and lifestyles, not items.’’

Baby boomers were not the only consumer group interested in housewares, however. ‘‘American consumers’ passion for the home spans to the young,’’ noted Gifts & Decorative Accessories. First-time home buyers and newlyweds were crucial customer groups for Crate & Barrel as well. In an effort to draw in the soon-to-be-married (and those who wished to lavish gifts upon them), the company had become one of the first non-department stores to offer a gift registry. By 1997, 17 percent of its sales were derived from this tremendously popular service. One of the 1998 print pieces spoke directly to this group. The spot, which featured Crate & Barrel dishes and a photo of a humble-looking church, declared that ‘‘the average person spends 26 years finding the right partner. 13 months finding the right church. 8 months finding the right caterer. And 6 months finding the right honeymoon spot. Which just may explain why the average person ends up with the wrong plates.’’ According to Jim Schmidt, MSSB’s creative director for the campaign, the ad’s use of tongue-incheek humor and visually arresting images was intended to appeal to younger consumers, an important demographic group for the retailer. While older consumers, who were at the apex of their careers and thus their earning capacities, had more disposable income, younger consumers—who were often embarking on their first housewares purchases—were crucial to Crate & Barrel’s long-term success. Brand allegiances were formed early in life and lasted for a long time, and the company that could garner a following among the young would have a significant competitive advantage.

Crate & Barrel faced considerable competition. According to the Arizona Republic, ‘‘The retailing landscape [was] packed with companies trying to cash in on the home craze.’’ On the one hand, Crate & Barrel was challenged by other upscale housewares stores, especially Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware Inc. On the other hand, massmerchant retailers had begun to offer inexpensive imitations of the items found in more expensive stores. Target proved a particularly potent adversary for Crate & Barrel in this segment. Moreover, as a furniture seller, Crate & Barrel competed against more traditional furniture retailers. ‘‘Everybody is your competition nowadays,’’ Segal told the Wall Street Journal. ‘‘The whole marketplace is more dynamic and aggressive.’’

In the realm of specialty stores, Pottery Barn primarily appealed to a younger, hipper customer. With its slightly less expensive products and dim store interiors, Pottery Barn attracted consumers with what Forbes termed its ‘‘relaxed contemporary’’ merchandise. The Swedish company Ikea AB, a chain of rapidly expanding furniture and housewares stores, drew an even younger core audience, often including college students and others furnishing their first apartments. At the other end of the demographic spectrum was Restoration Hardware, which, according to Business Week, ‘‘cannily play[ed] off childhood memories of nesting baby boomers.’’ Founded in 1979 by Stephen Gordon after he had been unable to find authentic-looking fixtures for a remodeling project, the chain evolved into far more than the average neighborhood hardware store. Pricey furniture shared the floor with mirrors, lamps, and a number of knickknacks such as old-style toys. Each store had a hardware section, but Restoration Hardware’s focus was predominantly on its housewares and furniture.

Gordon’s brainchild was also engaged in rapid expansion. At the close of 1998, 65 stores were in operation, often in close proximity to Crate & Barrel’s venues. ‘‘Their customer is our customer,’’ Bette Kahn, a Crate & Barrel representative, told Business Week.

Although Kmart Corp. had made headway into a more upscale market with its line of Martha Stewart Everyday housewares, Target was the clear leader among the giant retailers in drawing more affluent customers, those who might otherwise frequent Crate & Barrel. According to Fortune, Target’s average customer was a college-educated woman with an income above $50,000. The more than 850 Target stores had seen a 26 percent increase in sales between 1997 and 1998, and the company’s stock had risen a stunning 527 percent since 1995. Target’s success stemmed from its persistence in ‘‘always looking to have the latest things,’’ a retail analyst told Fortune. As HFN explained, ‘‘Instead of trying to copy a department store, Target’s MO has been to emulate a Pottery Barn or a Crate & Barrel, and to translate those colors and trends to the masses.’’ Designer Michael Graves offered a line of futuristic housewares exclusively at Target, which expanded the home section of its superstores to highlight such offerings. The chain also began to carry elite brands, such as the cookware line Calphalon, which once would have been considered too upmarket for Target. As part of its ongoing branding efforts, Target inaugurated the ‘‘Grab Your Own Style’’ campaign in 1998, which stressed the company’s more sophisticated image. The campaign kicked off with a 16-page insert in Bon Appetit, a food and cooking magazine that catered to older and more affluent readers. With its focus on the coordinated home decorating ideas available at Target, ‘‘Grab Your Own Style,’’ like Crate & Barrel’s 1998 print campaign, touted notions of simplicity and fashion more than individual products.

Crate & Barrel strove to forge a distinct brand image for itself with its 1998 print effort. ‘‘The goal of the campaign was to reaffirm in people’s minds that when you buy something from Crate & Barrel it is classic and timeless,’’ MSSB’s Schmidt explained. While Pottery Barn imbued its stores with a more funky aura and Restoration Hardware banked on a warm nostalgia, Crate & Barrel’s 1998 print ads stressed elegant simplicity.

Of course, to impress this message upon consumers, the ads had to be noticed. Schmidt emphasized that the executions were intended to stand out from the page in order to capture the reader’s attention. Half black-andwhite and half color, the spots were indeed striking. For instance, one piece depicted a single goblet, which was photographed to reveal every simple detail, every line, and every reflection of light from its surface. This artful presentation made it seem much more than a glass; it became an image, representing the essence of the Crate & Barrel brand.

By posing the goblet next to the scene of a snowy landscape, Crate & Barrel further refined the aura of simplicity. The ad copy humorously reinforced this notion by undercutting any sense of pretentiousness that might be conveyed by the photo: ‘‘It’s the time of year when we raise a glass to our family and to our friends. To our pasts and to our futures. It’s the time of the year when we raise a glass to our dreams and to our hopes. In short, it’s the time of the year when there’s a lot of pressure on a glass.’’ Segal explained the principle underlying Crate & Barrel’s advertising (as well as its store presentation) to HSN: ‘‘To be a good retailer, you’ve got to have that theatrical ego-centricity. You’re setting an atmosphere and the architecture.’’ Crate & Barrel ran the pieces in publications that were read by the upscale, home-oriented audience it sought. These included Martha Stewart’s Living and Metropolitan Home, as well as the Sunday magazines of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.

The timing of the 1998 print campaign was also carefully calculated. Unlike some other industries, housewares retailers did a substantial portion of their business during the holidays, when consumers purchased new items either for their own entertaining or to give as presents. The campaign therefore debuted in October and ran through this peak period. In addition to the goblet piece, Crate & Barrel employed the holiday theme in an ad that portrayed three stockings stuffed with wrapped packages. Above another snowy scene, the copy expressed every parent’s Christmas reality: ‘‘5:05am: Can we go downstairs now? 5:10am: Can we go downstairs now? . . . 5:34am: Can we go downstairs now?’’ The spots featuring the company’s tables and chairs stayed away from holiday motifs, however, since furniture sales tended to be less seasonally sensitive.

By all accounts Crate & Barrel’s 1998 print campaign achieved impressive results. According to MSSB’s Schmidt, the company’s sales during the holiday shopping season rose between 5 and 10 percent. The ads were also praised by advertising critics. In addition to being recognized at several Chicago awards shows, the campaign was ranked among the year’s best by Communications Arts. Nonetheless, because of the business cycle in the housewares industry, Crate & Barrel ended the campaign at the close of the holiday season. In April 1999 Crate & Barrel switched ad agencies, settling on Tucker Tapia. Its new campaign, launched that month, returned to the more product-focused style of earlier Crate & Barrel ads. The theme of this effort was the Crate & Barrel ‘‘cocktail,’’ in which large pieces of furniture were paired with small housewares. In one, for example, a sofa was shown on end balanced on a martini glass. The company also anticipated returning to television advertising in the fall of 1999 after a two-year hiatus.


A pioneer of online stock trading, E*Trade Financial Corp., spending heavily on advertising that used irreverent humor, established itself in the minds of consumers during the 1990s. As long as the stock market and economy were booming, this marketing approach proved quite successful. That all came to an end in the early 2000s as the economy stalled, the dot-com bubble burst, and the stock market collapsed. People who dabbled in the market with their online accounts grew cautious. Faced with a severe erosion in business, E*Trade retrenched, bringing in new leadership that slashed the advertising budget and diversified the company’s product offerings. When the stock market rebounded in 2003, E*Trade initiated a change in marketing strategy, hiring Minneapolis-based Martin/Williams Advertising to handle the advertising account. The agency developed the ‘‘Why Wouldn’t You’’ campaign, which began in February 2004.
The new campaign featured a pair of television spots that repositioned the E*Trade brand while specifically promoting the company’s mutual fund and mortgage products. Print elements, direct marketing, and in-store promotional pieces also played a part in the effort, which was slated to spend $90 million over the course of the year.
Only weeks after the ‘‘Why Wouldn’t You’’ campaign began, however, E*Trade changed marketing heads. Although Martin/Williams soon lost the account, the campaign it created succeeded in helping E*Trade to add some 372,000 new accounts, significantly grow its mutual fund and mortgage business, and increase its overall assets by 35 percent over the previous year.

E*Trade essentially invented online trading in 1991. As the economy soared in the second half of the 1990s and Internet ventures became the darlings of Wall Street, it enjoyed phenomenal growth. E*Trade spent heavily on advertising, about $140 million a year at one point. Like another newcomer in the brokerage business, Ameritrade, E*Trade used irreverent humor to establish its brand and appeal to a younger demographic, suggesting that stock trading was like playing a game while mocking traditional stock brokers, portrayed as stodgy and being interested only in customers who had already made their fortunes. The culmination of these free-spending days for E*Trade was a 2000 Super Bowl television spot that featured a chimpanzee and the text ‘‘Well, we just wasted 2 million bucks. What are you going to do with your money?’’
Soon the dot-com bubble burst, and E*Trade was hurt like all the other Internet companies. And because the economy collapsed as well and the stock market tanked, people no longer saw stock trading as a game. Even consumers who harbored no desire to play day trader were hurt, as their 401(k) accounts and mutual funds suffered major losses. E*Trade lost almost half its customer base and in response slashed its ad budgets. Moreover, there was little money to be made in stock transactions themselves, prompting old-line firms to get out of the business. In early 2003, following a corporate shakeup, a new CEO was installed and E*Trade looked to revamp its business model. To mitigate the risk of becoming a niche player in the volatile online stock trading niche, E*Trade looked to diversify—an effort that was actually under way—moving into such areas as institutional trading, market making (acting as middleman in stock transactions), mutual funds, banking, lending, mortgages, and stock plan administration services. Along with adopting a more conservative, product-centered strategy, E*Trade also decided to reconsider its advertising. E*Trade’s advertising account, now estimated to be worth $35 to $45 million a year, was put up for review with five agencies participating. IncumbentGoodby, Silverstein& Partners, responsible for the Super Bowl chimp spot, opted not to participate. In October 2003 Martin/Williams emerged the winner. The new agency was charged with the task of repositioning the E*Trade brand as a safe haven for serious money. At the same time, E*Trade wanted to take advantage of an upswing in the stock market and promote its trading division. While humor would remain a key element in the E*Trade approach, the company looked to avoid the pure zaniness of past advertisements.

Martin/Williams’s first task was to determine the target customer for what would become the ‘‘Why Wouldn’t You’’ campaign. The agency zeroed in on self-directed investors, the kind of people who mistrusted the traditional financial companies, perceiving them to be controlling and unapproachable. Although Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and the like were now preaching ‘‘partnership,’’ the consumers that E*Trade targeted were somewhat skeptical of this pitch, especially in light of recent Wall Street scandals in which some of these very same firms had knowingly sold marginal stocks to smaller clients while saving the prime issues for themselves and favored customers. Starting with the selfdirected investor, Martin/Williams narrowed this target audience into what it saw as three focused subsegments, which research indicated was responsible for more than 60 percent of all brokerage accounts, online banking, and mutual fund investing. At least on the brokerage side, E*Trade and its online rivals were also ‘‘targeting a warier and more tech savvy customer than the newcomers who helped set the heady tone for the online broker industry in the 1990s,’’ according to Kate Fitzgerald writing in American Demographics, eschewing ‘‘the soccer-mom day trader making a killing in her kitchen during the late 1990s’’ in favor of ‘‘the most active and experienced traders who generate the most profits.’’

E*Trade’s most direct competitor was Ameritrade Holding Corp., which had pursued a similar irreverent, free-spending marketing approach during the 1990s. Ameritrade continued to promote its brokerage services through humorous television spots. Shortly after Martin/ Williams won the E*Trade account, Ameritrade launched its ‘‘Good Idea. Bad Idea’’ campaign to tout its flat pricing approach and other benefits. In one spot a man getting in a New York taxi said, ‘‘One flat rate, right? L.A. please.’’ ‘‘Flat rate pricing,’’ explained a voice-over. ‘‘Bad idea for taxis. Good idea for online trading.’’ Another competitor in this sector was Fidelity Investments, which at the time was promoting its ‘‘active trade services.’’ Taking a more emotional approach, this campaign featured a TV spot in which a man appeared to be a high-powered investor or fund manager executing offers from his well-apportioned office only to have it revealed, once the door was opened, that he was at home. Other online trading rivals included Charles Schwab & Company and TD Waterhouse Investor Services, Inc.
In its new businesses, E*Trade faced competition from numerous angles, as a wide swath of companies were positioning themselves as one-stop shopping centers of financial services. It was not just firms like Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup subsidiary Salomon Smith Barney that E*Trade had to contend with in this arena. There were also a multitude of insurance companies, banks, and even mutual fund companies, such as giants Fidelity Group and the Vanguard Group, which also provided stiff competition.

In keeping with its changing business model, E*Trade looked to evolve its marketing message and brand positioning. Because the targeted self-directed consumer exhibited an antipathy for old-guard financial firms, which the consumer saw as primarily interested in feathering their own nests, E*Trade wanted to portray itself as a sort of consumer advocate, one that was looking out for the little guys and offering them trustworthy ways to build wealth.
In addition to promoting its online trading service to take advantage of the rebounding stock market, the new E*Trade campaign also looked to target new services, like mutual funds and mortgages. Many customers, viewing their E*Trade accounts as ‘‘play’’ money, dabbled in the stock market without much worry. They generally put their ‘‘safe’’ money, however, in mutual funds. One of the tasks of the marketers was to assure these customers that E*Trade, despite its history of wacky television commercials, was a reliable harbor for their money. It was an opportune time to enter the field, given that the mutual fund industry faced allegations that it engaged in illegal trading and overcharging customers. In keeping with the consumer advocacy approach, E*Trade made the marketers’ job easier by a change in fund structuring, in particular the 12b-1 fees that many mutual funds charged customers to cover the cost of promoting the funds. E*Trade became the first in the industry to rebate half of those and other service fees to its mutual fund customers. In the mortgage area E*Trade also gave the marketers something to work with by streamlining the way a mortgage was arranged and by launching the Mortgage on the Move program, allowing customers to move to a different market but keep their low mortgage rate. Again the company depicted itself as a consumer advocate.
As important as it was to position the brand, to maintain that E*Trade was looking out for the little guy, E*Trade still had to find a way to close the deal, to make potential customers take action. The strategy of the new ads was to get people to question their behavior and to present them with a tangible benefit, urging them to take advantage of it. In essence the benefit was a nobrainer, and E*Trade asked people, ‘‘So why on earth wouldn’t you?’’ The phrase ‘‘Why on earth wouldn’t you?’’ became the theme and encapsulation of the new campaign.
As the ‘‘Why Wouldn’t You’’ campaign broke in February 2004, E*Trade announced that it planned to double its advertising budget in 2004 to $90 million. The first two television spots pursued the new theme and reintroduced the brand while specifically promoting some of E*Trade’s new products. The first spot, titled ‘‘Purse,’’ pitched the company’s mutual funds by playing up its fee rebate program. In it a man was seen running with a purse through a crowded city street. The commercial then cut to a woman who appeared to be chasing him, presumably because he had stolen her purse. She got on a bus, and in an unexpected twist, the commercial showed the man catching up to her to return the purse. In a further surprise the woman opened the purse to find that it contained more money than when she had lost it. A voice-over by actor Kevin Bacon then asked, ‘‘If you could own the same mutual funds and get cash back every year, why on earth wouldn’t you?’’ A second spot, titled ‘‘New Neighbors,’’ promoted E*Trade’s Mortgage on the Move program. In it a suburban couple watched their new neighbors move in. Out of the car and moving van emerged a host of horrors, including crying babies, armed skinhead adolescents, screaming adults, barking dogs, dirt bikes, alligators, and killer bees. In this spot Bacon intoned, ‘‘When it’s time to move, E-Trade’s new mortgage on the move goes with you. If you could move and keep your low mortgage rate, why on earth wouldn’t you?’’
The new E*Trade television commercials aired on a variety of national cable channels. They also aired on network television during the NCAA basketball tournament in March. In addition to these spots (which were the primary focus of the ‘‘Why Wouldn’t You’’ campaign), other elements included a companion print campaign that ran in national newspapers and magazines, some direct marketing, in-store promotional pieces for E*Trade’s walk-in branches, and an Internet component that included Web banners.

E*Trade’s chief marketing officer resigned two months after the ‘‘Why Wouldn’t You’’ campaign broke and was replaced in June 2004 by Nicholas Utton, who soon put the account up for review once again. Martin/Williams was part of Omnicom Group, and Utton was portrayed in the press as an ‘‘Interpublic Group loyalist.’’ While head of marketing at JP Morgan Chase and MasterCard International, he had forged a successful relationship with Interpublic shops McCann Erickson, Foote Cone & Belding, and the Martin Agency. It was not surprising, therefore, when E*Trade and Martin/Williams severed their relationship in July 2004. By all accounts it was an amicable parting. Martin/Williams spokesman Steve Rudolph explained to the press, ‘‘It’s a business of relationships,’’ while in a released statement, president Steve Collins noted, ‘‘With a change in marketing leadership often comes changes in agencies and we wish E*Trade the best as they move forward.’’
Although Martin/Williams did not have the chance to roll out additional phases, the ‘‘Why Wouldn’t You’’ campaign succeeded in improving E*Trade’s overall business as well as benefiting the firm’s mutual fund and mortgage products. According to the agency E*Trade added nearly 372,000 new accounts in the six months after the campaign began. E*Trade also experienced a 35 percent increase in overall assets compared to the previous year. Moreover these assets were spread across a wider range of products. The campaign’s mutual fund component, according to Martin/Williams, succeeded in attracting a higher-value customer, resulting in a 22 percent increase in E*Trade’s mutual fund business. Likewise E*Trade’s mortgage operation enjoyed a 33 percent increase in direct mortgage originations, although the company also benefited from a refinance boom caused by low interest rates. The campaign garnered no advertising awards, but it accomplished the goals laid out by the client. It was only a change in management at E*Trade that was responsible for Martin/Williams losing the account.


In early 2000 the high stock prices of America’s technology industry were reaching their zenith. E*TRADE Financial Corp., along with other brokerage firms, such as Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., and TD Ameritrade Holding Corp., allowed stock traders to monitor and trade stock online. The flippant buy-sell behavior of day traders—along with the overvaluation of technology companies—was greatly responsible for the stock market’s drastic collapse in mid-2000. Although E*TRADE was considered a dot-com, meaning it was a business that existed primarily online, its financial services included ATM retail banking, institutional brokerages, and asset management. E*TRADE released its ‘‘Monkey Trilogy’’ campaign to suggest that it was not just another halfbaked dot-com but a formidable brokerage that could compete with established firms such as Charles Schwab and Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc.
The campaign consisted of three commercials created by the ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. The first spot, ‘‘Monkey,’’ aired during the 2000 Super Bowl. At that time the technology sector was still flourishing. Of the game’s 36 spots, 17 were purchased by dot-coms. ‘‘Monkey’’ featured two disheveled men clapping while a chimpanzee danced to the Mexican folk song ‘‘La Cucaracha’’ in a garage. The spot concluded with the copy ‘‘Well, we just wasted two million bucks. What are you doing with your money?’’ At the 2001 Super Bowl, after the technology industry had imploded, E*TRADE aired ‘‘Monkey II.’’ The spot featured the same chimpanzee walking through a ghost town consisting of failed dot-com companies. The final Super Bowl commercial, in 2002, featured an E*TRADE executive firing the chimpanzee for creating an over-the-top E*TRADE commercial complete with dancing showgirls and big-band music.
Many advertising critics considered the ‘‘Monkey Trilogy’’ an insightful commentary on the rise and fall of America’s technology industry. The first commercial garnered a Gold Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. In 2000 Shoot magazine ranked ‘‘Monkey’’ above all other Super Bowl spots with its ‘‘Top Spot of the Week’’ rating. Audiences polled by Adweek also rated ‘‘Monkey’’ as the most memorable commercial out of all the 17 dot-com spots.

Trade Plus first surfaced in 1982 as an electronic brokerage firm for companies such as Charles Schwab. Ten years later Trade Plus created E*TRADE, an online service available only to stockbrokers. When www.etrade. com launched in 1996, E*TRADE’s services also became
available to the general public. Soon afterward the firm hired Christos Cotsakos as CEO, and the new executive took the firm public. The technology boom in the late 1990s fueled the popularity of purchasing and selling stocks online, which boosted E*TRADE’s sales; in addition, the company’s own stock price flourished. In 1999 Goodby, Silverstein & Partners pitched its services to E*TRADE’s Cotsakos, who quickly undermined the ad agency’s concepts. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’ cochairman Rich Silverstein explained the experience in Campaign, an advertising-industry magazine. ‘‘The first meeting with him was like boot camp,’’ he said. ‘‘It was really, really awful. Someone in our team—and I won’t say who—came out saying they would never work for the man. He was challenging us to go to war with him, to see what we were made of. You don’t usually get attacked in the first interview—usually it’s a love fest. But he would ask you a question and you’d answer and he’d say, ‘Wrong! Next!’ ’’ Despite an unfavorable start, however, E*TRADE awarded its ad account to the agency. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners soon released the ‘‘It’s Time for E*TRADE’’ campaign, which collected a Gold EFFIE from the American Marketing Association in 2000.
Rich Silverstein explained the demands that Cotsakos placed on the agency leading up to the 2000 Super Bowl. ‘‘Christos always wanted to [advertising during] the Super Bowl,’’ Silverstein continued in Campaign. ‘‘And he beat us up for six months. ‘What’s the Super Bowl commercial? What’s the Super Bowl commercial?’ It was unbelievable.
Yeah, it was more pressure than anyone needs.’’ The agency believed that other dot-com ads were funny but that few connected their humor back to the brand. As a result, even though audiences enjoyed the commercials, they could not recall what was actually being advertised. The observation prompted Goodby, Silverstein & Partners to comment on its competitor’s wasted advertising money and then contrast the wastage with E*TRADE’s prudence.

The original ‘‘Monkey’’ spot targeted the free-spending consumers who were still enjoying the technology boom at the beginning of 2000. One year later America’s economic landscape had changed. Internet-based companies that could afford a $2 million Super Bowl spot in 2000, such as, were no longer in existence. The economic slump of 2001 and 2002 changed the ‘‘Monkey’’ campaign’s target. The second and third ‘‘Monkey Trilogy’’ commercials targeted America’s growing jobless population that had once worked for dot-coms. It also targeted the suddenly sheepish investors that were recoiling from the damaged stock market. ‘‘E*TRADE always wants to be timely and on top of things,’’ Dave Gray, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners group creative director and art director, explained to Shoot. ‘‘So, basically, [Monkey II] was just an observation of the condition of the market now&a lot of [dot-coms] are now out of business. The fact that there were only three [dot-com] companies advertising on the [2001] Super Bowl made it perfect timing.’’
With an estimated 135 million viewers during the 2000 Super Bowl and 131 million during the 2001 Super Bowl, the campaign reached one of America’s largest audiences. Talking to Shoot magazine, Paul Cappelli, the president of the advertising service the Ad Store, New York, lightheartedly described the Super Bowl audience as ‘‘a bunch of morons sitting around a TV, watching a football game and drinking beer.’’ Cappelli also explained that this target expected Super Bowl commercials to be funny. When the commercials were not, audiences sometimes felt confused.
The three ‘‘Monkey Trilogy’’ spots parodied other dot-com commercials. According to advertising analysts, using parody was a cost-effective method of reaching large audiences. Parody poked fun at something the target market already understood; it avoided the risk of creating an entirely new joke. ‘‘Advertising is one of our most popular forms of entertainment. So making jokes about ads can be a fun, ‘in’ thing to do,’’ the marketing and advertising consultant Michael Markowitz explained to USA Today.

On December 31, 1999, Merrill Lynch, one of the world’s largest financial-services companies, released a $150 million campaign to herald its new online services under the tagline ‘‘Be Bullish.’’ Although Merrill Lynch dwarfed competitors such as Charles Schwab, Ameritrade, and E*TRADE, the Merrill Lynch brokerage division had been criticized for its late delivery of an online trading service. Television spots for ‘‘Be Bullish’’ aired on cable channels such as CNN and USA. The campaign’s premier television spot, which resembled a largebudget action movie, featured commandos rappelling from helicopters that were hovering above Manhattan. The helicopter squadron subsequently airlifted the 7,000-pound bull statue that was commonly associated with the New York Stock Exchange and Merrill Lynch’s logo. ‘‘We’re bringing the bull back,’’ James Gorman, chief marketing officer at Merrill Lynch, said to USA Today, referring both to the company’s logo and to an aggressive attitude within the stock market.
Charles Schwab reigned as America’s largest online brokerage firm in 2000. Charles Schwab’s ‘‘Smarter Investors’’ surfaced during the 2000 Super Bowl with three spots created by the ad agency BBDO New York. Until the Super Bowl ‘‘Smarter Investors’’ had only featured high-profile athletes such as tennis star Anna Kournikova and football player Shannon Sharpe. Hoping to stand out from the athletic climate of the Super Bowl, one Charles Schwab Super Bowl spot titled ‘‘Ringo’’ featured former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr explaining the stock market to younger musicians. ‘‘Using a non-sports personality, such as Ringo Starr, helps demonstrate the depth and breadth of this campaign,’’ Ted Sann, cochief executive officer and chief creative officer of BBDO, said in a press release published in the PR Newswire news service.

The first ‘‘Monkey Trilogy’’ commercial cost an estimated $2 million. The 30-second spot ‘‘Monkey’’ began in front of a suburban-looking garage. Inside it one older man sitting on an ice chest was beside another man in a lawn chair. Next to them was an overturned bucket supporting a boom box. A chimpanzee dressed in an E*TRADE T-shirt pressed play on the boom box, which played the Mexican song ‘‘La Cucaracha.’’ The ape began dancing; and the two men struggled to clap in time with the song. At the spot’s conclusion copy read, ‘‘Well, we just wasted two million bucks. What are you doing with your money?’’
The spot was originally conceived by Goodby, Silverstein & Partner’s creative director Dave Gray and associate creative director Gerry Graf. Bryan Buckley of the production company Bicoastal/International Hungry Man directed the spot. Buckley explained his first impression of the commercial to Shoot ‘‘Gerry and Dave called me and said, ‘OK, there’s two guys clapping, and a monkey standing on a street corner, and it just goes on for thirty seconds,’ and I’m thinking, ‘This spot sounds terrible,’ ’’ Buckley mused. After he heard the spot’s punch line, however, Buckley said, ‘‘I just laughed out loud because you just never expected that.’’ Buckley explained that two of the spot’s main challenges were choosing the right actors and selecting a filming location. Instead of using a street corner Buckley chose an unassuming garage for the location. One of the men cast in the spot was not even an actor, but the father of an actor with whom Buckley had worked previously.
Buckley then directed the 2001 E*TRADE commercial titled ‘‘Monkey II,’’ which also used the chimpanzee from ‘‘Monkey.’’ Instead of parodying wasted dot-com advertising, ‘‘Monkey II’’ commented on the bankruptcy that had plagued dot-coms since mid-2000. Only three dot-com companies, E*TRADE,, and, aired commercials in the 2001 Super Bowl; a drastic difference from the 17 companies featured in 2000’s game. ‘‘Monkey II’’ began with the chimpanzee riding his horse through a ghost town of fictional startup companies such as and The vanity plates of an abandoned Porsche Boxster read ‘‘DOT COMER.’’ After a wrecking ball smashed through the ‘‘’’ building, the sock-puppet dog that had starred in the previous year’s commercial landed at the chimpanzee’s feet. ‘‘Monkey II’’ was not entirely humorous. For the conclusion, tears began running down the chimpanzee’s cheek, and the copy ‘‘Invest wisely’’ appeared with E*TRADE’s logo. The final spot, ‘‘Monkey Musical,’’ aired during the 2002 Super Bowl. Although the spot continued E*TRADE’s previous wasted-money theme, it received less acclaim from the advertising industry. The spot began with a chimpanzee bedecked in a shiny green suit before an ensemble of Las Vegas showgirls. After a 30-second musical act the white copy ‘‘Tomorrow morning’’ appeared on a black background. The chimpanzee was shown sitting in the office of E*TRADE’s CEO, Christos Cotsakos. The disapproving executive held a newspaper with the headline ‘‘Monkey Flops’’ and berated the chimpanzee for advertising with a musical. He fired the chimp but set him up with a new job manning space flights for NASA.

The first two ‘‘Monkey Trilogy’’ spots collected some of advertising’s most coveted awards. In 2000 ‘‘Monkey’’ won a Gold Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival (in the investment, insurance, and propertydevelopment category). The same spot collected an ANDY Award in the financial products and services category of the International ANDY Awards, given out annually by the Advertising Club of New York. In the banking and financial category of the Clio Awards, it won a silver in 2001. ‘‘Monkey II’’ also collected an ANDY Award in the television category in 2002. It was short-listed in the investment, insurance, and propertydevelopment category at Cannes.
From 2000 until 2002 Goodby, Silverstein & Partners created other E*TRADE advertisements that coincided with ‘‘Monkey Trilogy.’’ The combined effort safeguarded E*TRADE against the very thing ‘‘Monkey’’ accused other dot-coms of doing: wasting money. E*TRADE weathered the stock-market recession between 2000 and 2002 better than Merrill Lynch or Charles Schwab. Both posted a sales loss of 37 percent between 2000 and 2002. Even though it was grossly outsized by both Schwab ($4.4 billion in 2002 sales) and Merrill Lynch ($28.3 billion in 2002 sales), E*TRADE only decreased 13 percent during the same three-year-period. Sales for E*TRADE were $1.9 billion in 2002, a 13 percent decrease from the $2.2 billion posted in 2000.


Beginning with its 1979 cable-television launch, ESPN, Inc. (then officially known as Entertainment and Sports Programming Network), strove to build a brand that was synonymous with sports. After progressively acquiring broadcasting rights to college basketball and football and then, one after another, to each of the major professional sports leagues, ESPN became the dominant sports network on television as well as a cable-industry model for success. Indeed, the proliferation of specifically targeted cable channels in the 1990s and 2000s owed a great deal to ESPN’s example of successfully targeting sports-obsessed men. At the same time, the wide selection of channels that became available to most consumers made it ever more imperative that networks offer a clear brand image. In late 2002 ESPN unveiled its first overall branding campaign, ‘‘Without Sports.’’
Created by the New York office of ad agency Wieden+Kennedy (W+K), the ‘‘Without Sports’’ television spots ran during ESPN’s own programming. The campaign attempted to reinforce the network’s brand image as the sports-fan’s lifeblood while simultaneously transcending the core audience of 18- to 34-year-old men to make the point that nearly everyone was, at bottom, a sports fan. Offering honest and at times humorous depictions of the intense ways in which sports and everyday life were inextricably linked, each commercial asked viewers to consider a particular element of human life that would be lost if sports did not exist. In the campaign’s first season, for instance, a spot called ‘‘Coach’’ showed a wide cross-section of sports fans who, in the throes of complete emotional involvement with televised games, continually offered advice to the players. The commercial ended with the onscreen type, ‘‘Without sports, there’d be no one to coach.’’ A spot in the campaign’s second season showed a father and son playing basketball and postulated, ‘‘Without sports, how would we close the gap?’’
‘‘Without Sports’’ won a Gold Lion at the 2003 International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France, and ESPN research indicated that the campaign helped increase ratings as well as brand recognition in its first several years on the air. ESPN remained the premier cable network in the eyes of cable operators, viewers, and marketers during the campaign’s multiyear run.

Started by entrepreneur Bill Rasmussen with funding from Getty Oil, ESPN made its television debut on September 7, 1979, at a time when fewer than 14 percent of American households had cable and the big-three broadcast networks could count on 90 percent of the country’s television audience. Cable as a medium did not yet have a clear identity, and existing cable networks, such as HBO and WTBS, offered programming aimed at general audiences. More than just the first all-sports network, ESPN was the first network to target a specific segment of the American viewing public: namely, sports fans, the overwhelming majority of whom were men. In its early years ESPN filled its programming schedule with a range of non-mainstream sports broadcasts, ranging from college baseball to tractor pulls to Australian Rules Football, and was further defined, in the public imagination, by the groundbreaking sportsnews and highlights show SportsCenter, which ran nightly for one hour. The network was also instrumental in the popularization of college basketball; throughout the early 1980s ESPN attracted its largest audiences during its annual coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and initiated the tournament-time phenomenon that came to be known as ‘‘March Madness.’’ ESPN increased its profile further by acquiring broadcasting rights to college football games in 1984, but the network’s watershed moment came with its first NFL football programming deal, in 1987; its subsequent Sunday Night Football broadcasts routinely topped the cable ratings. After cementing additional deals with Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and eventually the National Basketball Association, ESPN could legitimately claim to be ‘‘the ultimate destination for sports fans and the advertisers chasing them,’’ as Mediaweek’s Keith Dunnavant put it.
ESPN’s success proved, in the words of the network’s first president, Chet Simmons, ‘‘that you could survive and prosper with a relatively small audience as long as you succeeded in targeting the right audience,’’ and a wide range of niche networks followed in ESPN’s wake, transforming television for both viewers and marketers. ESPN itself spawned six additional television networks as well as a successful magazine, the premier website of its kind, and numerous related ventures both in the United States and abroad. In the increasingly competitive cable-TV marketplace, the necessity for network branding became more apparent. Seeking to reinforce and extend its image as the premier source for sports on TV, ESPN enlisted ad agency Wieden+Kennedy’s New York office to prepare the network’s first-ever overall branding campaign in late 2002.

ESPN had built its brand on the simple idea of appealing to men via 24-hour sports coverage. Among all men, 18-to 34-year-olds formed ESPN’s core audience, a segment of the population that was both intensely coveted by marketers and notoriously difficult to reach. The network had further found, according to company executive Artie Bulgrin, that ‘‘if you target a demo like men 18 to 34, you aren’t likely to alienate teens and you aren’t likely to [alienate] the older viewers.’’ This strategy had made ESPN the most effective network in reaching men, according to Jason Kanefsky of the media-consulting firm Media Planning Group. He explained, ‘‘ESPN delivers the double whammy of being able to attract a broad range of men with franchises like the NBA and NFL while also reaching the younger demos with hockey or the X Games.’’
The ‘‘Without Sports’’ commercials, which ran during the network’s own programming, were designed to show this base of sports fans that ESPN was, according to Wieden+Kennedy art director Kim Schoen, ‘‘the world’s biggest sports fan.’’ At the same time, Schoen told Creativity, ESPN wanted to transcend the values of its traditional target audience ‘‘to make the point that sports are part of everybody’s life in some way or another. Even if you don’t think you’re a sports fan, you probably are.’’ The spots therefore focused on moments demonstrating essential connections between sports and ordinary life and asked viewers to consider various ways in which their lives would be less rich without sports. COMPETITION During this time cable and satellite subscribers routinely had access to literally hundreds of television channels; therefore, it became increasingly necessary for networks to define their brands for consumers. Several prominent network-branding campaigns ran at the same time as ‘‘Without Sports.’’
The Turner Broadcasting System’s TBS Superstation, historically associated with rebroadcasts of movies and live broadcasts of Atlanta Braves baseball games, had recently shifted its focus to syndicated reruns of comedy series, including Sex and the City, Seinfeld, and Everybody Loves Raymond. The network thus tapped the ad agency Publicis USA of New York to craft a 2004 campaign repositioning it as a comedy-focused outlet. Publicis used an absurdist setup suggesting that TBS was an authority on comedy; the spots showed ordinary people contacting TBS representatives at a call center to ask whether situations they had witnessed were funny or not. The TBS representatives walked the callers through a set of questions in order to derive an estimate of the situation’s comic value. The spots ran with the tagline ‘‘TBS. Very funny.’’
The USA Network was likewise attempting, during this time, to craft a new image. The network enlisted 72andSunny, an agency based in Los Angeles, to dramatize USA’s distinctiveness, and the agency came up with a series of promotions, including a 2004 spot using characters from two of the network’s programs. Called ‘‘Dueling Disorders,’’ the commercial featured Tony Shalhoub, the actor who played the obsessive-compulsive, eponymous hero of Monk, and Anthony Michael Hall, who played a psychic on the show The Dead Zone. In the commercial the two heroes encountered one another and were mutually repelled by their respective oddities.
The Fox Entertainment Group’s Fox Sports Networks meanwhile hired San Francisco–based agency TBWA\Chiat\Day in 2001 to advertise the network’s coverage of Major League Baseball and National Hockey League games and to craft the network’s brand image. Fox Sports, which supplied content to roughly 20 regional networks, also developed spots focusing on its regional sports coverage.

Wieden+Kennedy’s New York office, ESPN’s primary agency since the mid-1990s, won the network’s branding account with a spring 2002 pitch centering on a made-up game called Shelfball, which resembled baseball and involved a ball, a bookshelf, and an ornate compendium of rules. Supposedly invented by bored W+K staffers as early as 1999, Shelfball and the inexplicable intensity its players brought to the game served as one of the key concepts underlying the ‘‘Without Sports’’ idea. W+K’s Kevin Proudfoot, a copywriter and creative director on the campaign, said that ‘‘Without Sports’’ was meant to capture ‘‘instances where sports and our lives intersect.’’ Six spots revolving around the playing of office Shelfball aired in the initial months after the campaign’s December 2002 launch, highlighting the contrast between the sport’s foolishness and the players’ complete seriousness in the heat of competition. The spots were comical, but they also conveyed the campaign’s central idea of the almost mystical power that sports exerted on human life. The tagline for each of the Shelfball spots was ‘‘Without sports, a shelf would just be a shelf.’’
Other initial ‘‘Without Sports’’ spots were less reliant on humor and more sincere in addressing, as Advertising Age’s Bob Garfield phrased it, ‘‘the mystery of sports.’’ The campaign’s first-year flagship commercial, ‘‘Coach,’’ showed, Garfield said, ‘‘fans from all walks of life, of all ethnicities and both major sexes, gripped in the pleasure-pain of a close game in progress, beseeching players to do the right thing.’’ The action was punctuated by the tagline ‘‘Without sports, there’d be no one to coach.’’ Another spot, reminiscent of a music video, featured hip-hop star Nelly rapping about sneakers while dressed, like his backup singers, in professional sports apparel. The commercial closed with the tagline ‘‘Without sports, there’d be nothing to wear.’’ In 2004 the campaign continued to depict true-tolife scenes illustrating the powerful ways in which sports and life were intertwined. ‘‘Makeshift’’ showed children energetically playing a variety of pickup sports games using improvised playing areas and equipment, like a laundry basket for a hoop and a pizza box for home plate. A series of three spots featured the Watersmeet High School Nimrods, an actual basketball team from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in an attempt to show, as Proudfoot said, ‘‘how sports plays a role in bringing communities together.’’ Another 2004 spot, ‘‘Foul Me,’’ focused on how sports helped bring family members together, featuring a dad and his son playing basketball and using the tagline ‘‘Without sports, how would we close the gap?’’ For the 2005 NCAA basketball tournament ESPN focused on the idea of ‘‘Cinderella stories,’’ those instances when long-shot teams overcame the odds to win emotional tournament victories. Using ESPN parent company Disney’s classic cartoon Cinderella, W+K altered footage to show a sneakerwearing Cinderella riding in a basketball-shaped carriage, in conjunction with the tagline ‘‘Without sports, Cinderella wouldn’t wear sneakers.’’

‘‘Without Sports’’ generated favorable attention within the advertising industry and the press from its inception, and it won a Gold Lion at the 2003 Cannes International Advertising Festival. As of February 2004 ESPN could claim a ratings increase of 14 percent over the previous year and an increase of 41 percent over 2002, the year that closed with the airing of the first spots of the campaign. According to a January 2004 brand-relevance survey conducted by the network, 33 percent more people, as compared with results from the previous year, attested that they identified with the ESPN brand. As Lee Ann Daly, senior vice president of marketing at ESPN, told Advertising Age, ‘‘I don’t think there’s any question the campaign had something to do with it.’’ As of 2005, according to Beta Research (a marketingresearch firm), cable operators, viewers, and advertisers all ranked ESPN as the number one network in a variety of categories relative to perceived value, satisfaction, brand image, and marketing potential.


ESPN was launched in 1979 in Bristol, Connecticut, as the first cable television channel devoted exclusively to sports, although it had limited access to sports programming. One way to fill airtime was to run a daily sportshighlight show. Called SportsCenter, this program could offer much greater depth than the traditional five minutes reserved on the local news. It proved highly popular with viewers. In 1993 ESPN hired ad agency Wieden+Kennedy to promote the SportsCenter brand. What resulted was the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign, which would become one of the most popular and longest-running campaigns on television.
The campaign’s television spots were humorous, topical vignettes that featured ESPN anchors, top athletes, mascots, and other celebrities. One of the most popular spots of the entire campaign parodied the fears of Y2K (also known as the millennium bug, which, it was believed, would cause many computers to crash when their clocks attempted to change the year from 1999 to 2000) by showing an ESPN Y2K test gone bizarrely awry. Chaos ensued in the darkened studios: sirens blared, and star athletes were out of control. The spot closed with crazed anchor Charlie Steiner holding a lantern, a tie wrapped around his head, and his face painted. ‘‘Follow me,’’ he screamed, ‘‘Follow me to freedom!’’ The phrase became so associated with Steiner that in 2002, when he was invited to lead the crowd in the singing of ‘‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’’ at Wrigley Field, he closed by exclaiming, ‘‘Follow me to freedom.’’ The ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign was popular with ESPN’s audience as well as critics, as reflected by its longevity. The campaign also won numerous awards, including the 1997 Best of Show (TV category) at the American Advertising Federation’s ADDY Awards, the 1996 Ad Age Best of Show, and the 1997 Broadcast Best of Show at the American Advertising Awards. In 1999 TV Guide listed the campaign among the 50 greatest commercials of all time, and in 2002 the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing inducted the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign into its Hall of Fame.

In 1979 Bill Rasmussen founded the first cable channel devoted entirely to the coverage of sports events and news. ESPN, or the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, was headquartered on a remote tract of land in Bristol, Connecticut. Before ESPN and SportsCenter, which debuted with the network, sports news was ‘‘confined to the five minute ghetto on the eleven o’clock news,’’ John Walsh, ESPN senior vice president, told the Boston Globe. ESPN expanded quickly, fueled in part by the evolution of sporting events into a pop-culture phenomenon. Athletes like Michael Jordan were no longer merely viewed as competitors; they were powerful celebrities in their own right. By 1998 ESPN reached 73 million homes, and, according to the Boston Globe, it was ‘‘hailed as cable’s most financially successful experiment.’’
No longer just a single sports-broadcasting channel, ESPN had become a sports empire. The network grew to include numerous ventures that capitalized on the reputation and success of the original cable channel:
ESPN2, a second sports cable channel that targeted a younger audience; ESPN International; ESPNews, a channel devoted exclusively to 24-hour sports news;
ESPN SportsZone, a sports information and news site on the World Wide Web; and ESPN Magazine, a sports magazine intended to challenge Sports Illustrated. In addition, the network planned to expand further to include a chain of restaurants, ESPN Grill, and merchandise stores. By 1997 ESPN was worth an estimated $8 billion.
As ESPN’s good fortunes grew, so did those of SportsCenter, which had become the network’s most popular and best-known show. ‘‘It represents the network in its entirety,’’ Tom Clendenin, ESPN’s director of advertising, said of the program. ‘‘It represents ESPN as a franchise.’’ SportsCenter’s anchors, including Chris Berman, Dan Patrick, and Keith Olbermann (who later left to host a news show at MSNBC), became celebrities virtually as popular as the athletes they covered. While ESPN and SportsCenter became more polished and creative, ESPN’s promotions, according to Advertising Age’s Creativity, ‘‘reflected that of a pretty conservative, straightforward cable programmer.’’
This would change in 1993, however, when ESPN hired WiedenþKennedy, the same advertising agency that had turned the Nike logo into a universally recognized symbol. Together, Wieden+Kennedy and ESPN shifted the network’s marketing strategy. They ‘‘wanted people to fall in love with ESPN the brand, and not just the programs,’’ said Wieden+Kennedy’s Larry Frey. Judy Fearing, ESPN’s senior vice president of marketing, elaborated in Advertising Age’s Creativity: ‘‘Wieden [was] . . . very involved in developing a personality for ESPN so that you don’t just look at us and think highlights, you see an identity and an attitude.’’ Before the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ ads WiedenþKennedy produced several well-received campaigns, including ‘‘Kooky College Tunes,’’ in which lounge singer Robert Goulet serenaded NCAA basketball teams. The ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign, however, represented the culmination of Wieden+Kennedy’s efforts to craft a memorable image for both SportsCenter and ESPN.

The campaign’s message, delivered with a deadpan humor that was reminiscent of the style of the SportsCenter anchors, was that ESPN was the hub of all sporting events. The amusing vignettes starring athletes, SportsCenter anchors, celebrities, coaches, and referees made clear the premise that ESPN was the world of sports. In this way the campaign reached out to any viewer with a passing interest in news of the day’s sports. But men between the ages of 18 and 34 were consistently both ESPN’s and SportsCenter’s core audience, and it was this group the network particularly wanted to target with the advertisements.
A combination of topicality and humor was the preferred method for reaching out to the core group. In its satirical style the campaign alluded to many of the same issues that sports fans followed on SportsCenter. Commercials were based on events such as the gutting of the Florida Marlins after their championship season of 1997, the penny-pinching practices of team owners, and boxer Mike Tyson’s carnivorous tendencies. For instance, one spot featured the ‘‘trade’’ of the SportsCenter anchor Charley Steiner to Melrose Place in exchange for one of the good-looking actors from the soap-opera drama. Another spot, ‘‘Marlins Trade,’’ featured batboys cut by the champion baseball team and hired as camera operators for SportsCenter. A spot called ‘‘KidsCenter’’ spoofed the match in which Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
The campaign also spoofed athletes’ personas, exaggerating their personality traits by placing them in incongruous situations. In one popular spot Grant Hill, a basketball player for the Detroit Pistons and a noted nice guy, played the piano, in uniform, in the lobby of the ESPN building in much the same manner as a pianist in a hotel bar. The slickness of the commercials, coupled with their implicit message that the viewer was in on a terrific inside joke, was intended to appeal directly to ESPN’s target audience.
The campaign’s claim that ESPN was the dominant voice in sports reflected a certain reality. SportsCenter was far and away the most watched sports show on television, and ESPN landed several lucrative contracts to broadcast NFL and major-league baseball games. But ESPN faced emerging competition in the sports cable industry, often from channels that deliberately imitated the snappy tone and informal feel of SportsCenter. CNN-SI, launched after the merger of Time Warner (the owner of Sports Illustrated) and CNN, posed a threat because of its huge talent pool of CNN journalists and Sports Illustrated print reporters. But CNN-SI reached only 10 million homes and ultimately fell by the wayside. Fox Sports Network also looked hungrily at ESPN’s revenues and popularity, but it lacked ESPN’s strong sense of identity. SportsCenter faced more potent competition from local cable sports channels like Comcast in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which hosted SportsNite, a 30-minute program devoted exclusively to hometown teams. But when it came to covering sports on a national basis, SportsCenter simply had no peer.
‘‘When you think about it, [everybody does] what they’re doing—highlights, scores, and the controversial athlete soundbite of the day,’’ declared an analyst to the Boston Globe. ‘‘They’ve distinguished themselves largely because of their attitude.’’ The intangible attitude that distinguished SportsCenter from its cable-channel competitors was precisely what the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign strove to convey. But the commercials also tried not to diminish ESPN’s reputation as the single most authoritative source of sports information. In the view of ESPN its competition was not limited solely to other sports cable channels. It considered any program on any television network that went against SportsCenter as a competitor. Even programs such as The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman were challengers. ESPN’s Clendenin encapsulated his network’s philosophy when he said, ‘‘SportsCenter is more than a sports show. It’s an entertainment show.’’

In 1995 Alan Broce, who was then ESPN’s director of advertising, met with Wieden+Kennedy and elaborated the network’s goals for the SportsCenter campaign. Hank Perlman, an avid SportsCenter fan and a copywriter for the agency, provided much of the early inspiration for the campaign. At a brainstorming session he hit upon a unique idea. ‘‘We were blown away by the silliness of this little industrial-park town which sports fans think is the place where it all happens,’’ Perlman told Entertainment Weekly. ‘‘So we decided, why not make Bristol the center of the sports universe?’’ Perlman went on to write most of the first 80 spots in the campaign. By 1997 the campaign had yielded more than l20 spots, yet they never appeared to lose their freshness or to become fragmented. According to Advertising Age, the strength of the campaign was that each spot stood for the spirit of the whole. The relatively low budget (the first 70 spots cost in total less than a million dollars to produce) provided Wieden+Kennedy with the flexibility to continually mine current events for creative advertising ideas. Two of the most popular spots released in 1997, ‘‘KidsCenter’’ and ‘‘Broadcast News,’’ received a great deal of attention. In ‘‘KidsCenter’’ Evander Holyfield, the heavyweight boxing champion, was overseeing a daycare center for the children of ESPN employees. Linda Cohn, one of the SportsCenter anchors, described the unique ‘‘skills’’ these children learned. Holyfield watched over the children as they boxed and admonished them ‘‘not to bite,’’ a sardonic reference to the match in which Mike Tyson bit off a portion of Holyfield’s ear. Holyfield continued his instruction as he warned the children, ‘‘Don’t go out without your gloves on.’’ Dutifully, the children left with boxing gloves. In ‘‘Broadcast News,’’ a spoof of the movie of the same name, a relay race of athletes frantically rushed to get a tape on the air. The spot ended with Drew Bledsoe, the star quarterback for the New England Patriots football team, trampling the University of South Carolina basketball team’s mascot. Although the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign was primarily designed for television, the network released a series of print ads that appeared in sports magazines and in general-interest publications such as Rolling Stone, Spin, and Entertainment Weekly. Advertising Age reported that Wieden+Kennedy overcame the difficulties in ‘‘translating the humor from a TV campaign to a print campaign.’’ The agency used still images to convey the campaign’s fictional documentary style. For example, the television spot featuring Hill playing the piano in his basketball uniform was transformed in print to a single photo. The copy provided additional humor by noting that he was able to play only a couple of times a week during the basketball season.
Most of Wieden+Kennedy’s efforts in the SportsCenter campaign were devoted to television. The commercials were aired on both ESPN and network television programs, primarily during prime-time sporting events such as NBA and NFL games. According to Advertising Age’s Creativity, the overall strategy behind the network spots was ‘‘not only to increase use of regular viewers but to attract the occasional stray fan as well.’’ In addition to snaring new viewers and convincing others to watch the network more often, the campaign was run on network television to increase the brand’s visibility. ‘‘The goal was to make SportsCenter a talked-about brand,’’ ESPN’s Fearing told Entertainment Weekly.
The ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign remained fresh and popular as the new century dawned. The television spots continued to maintain their humorous sensibility, and top athletes were eager to participate for the twice-yearly commercial shoots, willingly accepting their $1,000 fee, paid to the charity of their choice. The most significant change was the way the spots were unveiled to the public. In 2000 the latest batch of spots was first released as content on the ESPN website, With only a limited amount of promotion, the initial spot posted on the first day was downloaded about 64,000 times. These four spots featured hockey player Ken Daneyko, basketball player Jerry Stackhouse, and comedian Carrot Top, who supposedly joined the SportsCenter staff in a bid to keep up with Monday Night Football ’s hiring of comedian Dennis Miller.
In July 2002 SportsCenter aired its 25,000th installment, and to help commemorate the occasion Wieden+Kennedy produced new television spots in the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign. They featured Hilltopper, the Western Kentucky University fuzzy pink mascot, logging in past tapes of the show in the subbasement of the ESPN headquarters, as well as Los Angeles Clippers basketball player Elton Brand.
Instead of the usual array of star athletes, in 2004 the campaign focused on the winner of the national spellingbee championship, covered by ESPN earlier in the year. The young champ, David Tidmarsh, was challenged by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt to spell ‘‘Pujols,’’ the last name of the Saint Louis Cardinals’ star player. There appeared to be no letup to the campaign. In fact, in 2006 ESPN found yet more ways to deliver the television spots to its viewers. They were available on demand at, delivered on DVDs, and in 2006 became downloadable as videos for use on MP3 players.

The ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign generated nearly constant attention from the media. Tom Shales, TV critic for the Washington Post, included the spots in his list of ‘‘the 35 things to be thankful for in television.’’ He wrote that ‘‘the promos make you want to watch the show even if you hate sports and hate promos.’’
Entertainment Weekly raved that the spots ‘‘have delivered some of the freshest entertainment on the tube.’’ The campaign collected numerous industry awards, including
Best of Show (TV) at the 1997 American Advertising Federation’s ADDY Awards, the 1996 Ad Age Best of Show, and the 1997 Broadcast Best of Show at the American Advertising Awards. In 1999 TV Guide ranked the campaign number 22 on its list of the 50 greatest commercials of all time. The Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing inducted the campaign into its Hall of Fame in 2002. Trade magazines such as Shoot, Adweek, and Advertising Age regularly ran articles lauding the innovation of the campaign. ESPN considered the buzz to be a sign of success. ‘‘Anytime you develop an advertising campaign that is talked about, you know that you’ve hit a home run,’’ Fearing told the Sacramento Bee.
The SportsCenter campaign also succeeded in galvanizing public attention and moving the show into the realm of entertainment in the public consciousness. Photos of SportsCenter anchors Patrick and Olbermann were splashed across the same page in TV Guide as those of Entertainment Tonight cohost-turned-pop-singer John Tesh. The spots so captivated people’s imagination that strangers on the street shouted out lines from specific SportsCenter promos when they caught sight of Patrick and Berman. Fearing again summed up ESPN’s delight to Entertainment Weekly when she said, ‘‘Now SportsCenter is part of pop culture.’’
ESPN monitored the response through a telephone survey of hundreds of viewers. The results indicated that the campaign had indeed broken through. Ratings figures rose as more viewers tuned into the show, but even more importantly, viewers increasingly recognized the ESPN brand. ‘‘The consequence has been continuous ratings growth, unprecedented brand recall . . . and a positive buzz among sports elite,’’ an ESPN executive told Advertising Age. Indeed, athletes as popular as Tiger Woods and Dennis Rodman called ESPN to request a spot in the commercials. But perhaps the best indication of the success of the ‘‘This Is SportsCenter’’ campaign was the spate of copycat spots inspired by the campaign. Companies such as the Weather Channel featured spots with the same documentary style and offbeat humor of the SportsCenter campaign. Fearing told USA Today in 2000 that she hoped the campaign ran forever, noting, ‘‘As long as there’s athletes and pop culture to tap into, we’ll keep doing it.’’ Several years later the campaign was running strong with no end in sight.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


ESPN began in the late 1970s as the first 24-hour cable channel devoted exclusively to sports news and the airing of such minor sports as Australian Rules football and tractor pulls. By the 1990s, however, it was a powerhouse ready to extend its brand in every direction, including internationally. On the domestic side, a radio network was launched in 1992; a second cable channel, ESPN2, made its debut in 1993; and a website was introduced in 1995. Then in the fall of 1996 ESPN launched its third cable channel, ESPNews, a 24-hour sports-news service. ESPN hired ad agency Ground Zero to develop a new television and print campaign to promote the channel. The result was an effort titled ‘‘The Rick.’’ The Rick was a fictional obsessive sports fan who rarely left a bedroom bedecked with all manner of memorabilia. Based on a composite of real-life fans, The Rick embodied the dedication of ESPNews to the minutiae of the sports world. In the television spots the character often showed off his collection of sports memorabilia, including sports figurines, which he insisted were vital artifacts and not mere dolls.
Although it was difficult to say how much of a role ‘‘The Rick’’ played, ESPNews outlived its main competition, CNN-SI, which failed to achieve high enough ratings and was taken off the air. The Rick himself, while not especially well received by critics, was popular with ESPN’s core audience. The character was brought back to promote the ESPN website as well as the ESPY Awards, a sports-award show organized by and aired on ESPN.

A new era in televised sports began on September 7, 1979, when ESPN, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, went on the air. Backed by $10 million in start-up money from Getty Oil, the network was the brainchild of William F. Rasmussen, a broadcaster whose original idea was to televise school sports in Connecticut. ESPN’s employees initially numbered about 75, and the network was available in some 1.4 million American homes.
The first program telecast, and to this day the centerpiece of ESPN programming, was SportsCenter, the network’s daily wrap-up of sports news. Its success enabled ESPN to begin broadcasting around the clock on September 1, 1980. With few live events to cover, the network relied on a hodgepodge of monster-truck shows, tractor pulls, Australian Rules football, and business programming to keep viewers entertained. Although advertiser interest remained tepid, on May 31, 1981, ESPN reached the 10-million subscriber plateau, an important milestone for a start-up network.
The next three years were a period of exponential growth for ESPN. By August 1983 the network had 28.5 million subscribers and had surpassed Turner Broadcasting’s WTBS to become the largest cable network in America. The next year ESPN acquired its first major sports programming, college football. ‘‘That was the first property we had that the networks wanted,’’ said Steve Bornstein, the chief executive officer of ESPN. Also in 1984, ABC Video Enterprises bought ESPN from Texaco, which had taken over Getty Oil. ESPN concluded the year with its first profitable quarter and became available in all 50 U.S. states.
In 1985 Capital Cities Inc. bought ABC and acquired ESPN for $237.5 million. In July of that year the ticker known as Sports Update, which offered scores and news flashes on the half hour, made its debut as 28/ 58. Continuing to pursue football, the big game of sports programming, ESPN in 1987 inked a first-of-its-kind cable deal with the National Football League (NFL), allowing it to televise 13 games per season. Later that year ESPN became the first cable network to reach 50 percent of American homes with television, some 43.7 million households. ESPN International was launched in 1988, and within 10 years it was sending American sports worldwide, with broadcasts in 14 languages. Major league baseball joined the ESPN roster in 1989.
In 1991, in its 12th year, ESPN went to an all-sports format, dropping the morning program Nation’s Business Today in favor of rebroadcasts of SportsCenter. On January 1, 1992, the ESPN Radio Network was introduced, offering 16 hours a week of sports news, commentary, and information. Reflecting a trend toward round-the-clock coverage of sports news, the ESPN Phone Update was introduced in 1993. The 900-number service offered scores, news, and information 24 hours a day. In October 1993 ESPN expanded its family of television networks domestically for the first time when ESPN2, or ‘‘the Deuce’’ as it was known, became available to some 10 million households. The new network offered programming similar to that of ESPN but with a more youthful orientation and a commitment to covering alternative, or ‘‘extreme,’’ sports.
In 1995 ‘‘ESPNet SportsZone’’ (later ‘‘ESPN SportsZone’’) was launched on the World Wide Web. This sports resource quickly emerged as one of the mostvisited content sites on the Internet, setting a record for usage by registering a high point of 21.6 million hits in one day a year after it was introduced. Also in 1995 ESPN India went on the air, becoming ESPN’s 16th network outside the United States. Commentary was provided in English and Hindi. By this time ESPN programming could be heard in 14 languages worldwide. In the United States ESPN could now boast of reaching 70 percent of homes with television, the first U.S. cable network to achieve this level of penetration. Total subscribers had reached 67.1 million.
Impressed by the network’s development and the potential for further growth, the Walt Disney Company in 1996 bought ESPN, thus forging a partnership between Disney-owned ABC and the cable network. In the autumn of 1996 ESPNews—the 24-hour all-sports news network—was launched. Five charter advertisers quickly signed on: Coors Brewing Co., General Motors Corp., Levi Strauss & Co., McDonald’s Corp., and Procter & Gamble Co. Several of the companies already advertised heavily on ESPN and ESPN2. ESPNews hired 11 new anchors for the network, adopting a format of consecutive 30-minute programs throughout the day. It replayed ESPN’s showpiece SportsCenter program each night and featured ESPN commentators such as Peter Gammons on baseball and Chris Mortenson on the NFL. ESPN2 was used to help expose ESPNews to a wider audience by carrying the service between periods in its hockey coverage and at halftime during college basketball games.
At the end of the 1990s the ESPN family of networks, publications (including ESPN the Magazine, a biweekly publication that first appeared in March 1998), and services seemed poised for continued growth. Estimates of the value of ESPN and ESPN2 ranged as high as $5 billion, or about one-quarter of the $19 billion Disney had paid for the entire ABC-Capital Cities empire. By 1999 ESPN, the ‘‘mother network,’’ was reaching 73 million, or almost 75 percent, of all homes with television in the United States as well as more than 90 million worldwide. This impressive level of market penetration allowed ESPN to aggressively crosspromote its other networks, including the infant ESPNews.

‘‘The Rick’’ targeted one of advertising’s most coveted demographic groups: young men. These viewers were increasingly tuning out mainstream network television fare in favor of specialized programming geared to their interests, such as that found on ESPN and ESPNews. ‘‘Male viewers are continuing to be difficult to target in prime time,’’ observed Larry Goodman, president of news sales for Turner Broadcasting. ‘‘For concentrated male viewership, in general, you have to look at cable.’’
Fortunately for sports news networks such as
ESPNews, this male demographic group had few places to turn to in the market. ‘‘There’s such a shortage of male viewers in broadcast network prime time that any branded network specializing in the 25–54 demo is always going to be valuable,’’ said Goodman.

Although it was the first 24-hour all-sports news network, ESPNews was soon joined by a formidable competitor, CNN-SI, a joint venture of CNN, the Cable News Network, and Sports Illustrated magazine. A third major player in cable sports programming, Fox Sports Net, emerged in the late 1990s as a challenger to ESPNews sister network ESPN.
The networks shared many characteristics, but for the purpose of capturing the interest of viewers, they tended to emphasize their differences. Jim Walton, CNN senior vice president in charge of CNN-SI, saw the ‘‘hard news’’ cachet implicit in the CNN brand as the principal point of differentiation. In an interview soon after CNN-SI’s launch, he was quick to point out that the satellite system PrimeStar had placed the network in two different areas of its service: news and sports. Nevertheless, Walton was not sure that the point was getting across to consumers. As he said in comparing his product with ESPNews, ‘‘I see us as different, but I don’t know if consumers perceive us differently.’’ All three of the networks exerted considerable promotional muscle in their efforts to win the allegiance of sports-obsessed consumers. CNN-SI relied on Sports Illustrated as a built-in weekly promotional vehicle. ESPN and Fox aggressively advertised their services and programming with on-air and off-network promos. By the end of the 1990s all three of the networks remained viable, despite the suspicion in some quarters that the sports segment had become saturated. While no ratings data were available for CNN-SI and ESPNews, the networks reportedly boasted cable subscribers of 1 million and 1.5 million, respectively, minuscule numbers by cable standards but worth fighting over in the eyes of programmers and marketing officials.

ESPNews conceived of its fictional spokescharacter in the ‘‘Rick’’ advertisements as ‘‘the most knowledgeable sports fan in the history of the universe.’’ He was an obsessive collector of everything related to sports, from a mouth guard belonging to hockey star Eric Lindros to a jar of pickle juice that Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan had used to prevent blisters on his fingers. As an exaggerated representation of the hard-core sports aficionado, the character was designed to reflect the target audience of ESPNews.
Television spots for the ‘‘Rick’’ campaign were directed by Christopher Guest of bicoastal Moxie Pictures. A veteran comic actor and director, Guest was best known for his work on NBC’s Saturday Night Live in the mid-1980s. He also cowrote and costarred in the 1983 cult comedy hit This Is Spinal Tap. The creative team at ad agency Ground Zero consisted of creative directors Court Crandall and Kirk Souder, art director Guy Shelmerdine, copywriter Steve O’Brien, and agency producer Patricia Phelan. To play the part of The Rick, Crandall recruited a college friend, Boston-born Mike O’Malley, a rising actor with a number of credits on his resume, including a stint as a host of the Nickelodeon game show Guts.
The campaign was the brainchild of copywriter O’Brien. Relying on memories of his youth growing up in New England, he based the character depicted in the ‘‘Rick’’ commercials on his brother Pat and a group of sports-obsessed friends who, like ESPNews, prided themselves on always knowing the latest scores and all manner of minutiae. As a model for the character’s cluttered bedroom, O’Brien envisioned his brother’s old bedroom, its shelves crammed full of sports memorabilia. ‘‘We blew it out to the next level,’’ O’Brien said, commenting on the real-life basis for the obsessive character. ‘‘We imagined a kid who is really, really into sports and kept growing in that knowledge and adding to his room until he had this awesome collection of sports-related items.’’ A sports fan in his own right, O’Brien also drew on himself for inspiration. At one point he brought some of his sports figurines into the Ground Zero offices and conducted fanciful ‘‘interviews’’ with them, as if he were a television broadcaster. In one of the ‘‘Rick’’ spots the spokescharacter did the same thing.
The other spots in the ‘‘Rick’’ campaign followed a similar pattern. In one the character proudly displayed a basketball net obtained for $15 from the grounds crew at North Carolina State University. In another he again trotted out his collection of sports figurines, this time to defend them as vital artifacts, ‘‘not toys, not dolls.’’ In a third spot he played with a set of racing cars, defending his sports hobbies while dismissing other pastimes, such as reading Franz Kafka, whose story The Metamorphosis he erroneously described as concerning a man who turned into a cocker spaniel.
In 1998 The Rick was enlisted to promote, replacing a character called Net Boy who was not popular enough to retain after a website of the same name lodged a legal challenge. But The Rick’s popularity also played a role. According to ESPN ad director Alex Kaminsky, quoted in Brandweek, ‘‘our audience related so well to ‘The Rick,’ that we really thought it was time to put him back into prime time.’’ The new spots included The Rick demonstrating the versatility of ‘‘Rickwear,’’ an Astroturf jacket that could double as a practice putting green. In another execution The Rick tried to convince ESPN to partner on a joint venture, ‘‘the official website of The Rick.’’ In 2004 ESPN brought back The Rick once again, this time to promote the ESPN sports-awards program the ESPYs. Wearing his usual Boston sports garb, The Rick offered to trade used nasal strips worn by NFL players for tickets to the ESPYs.

‘‘The Rick’’ was recognized with a number of advertisingindustry awards, a sign that it had accomplished the goal of breaking through the clutter of sports commercials. For the spot ‘‘Slot Cars—Scenarios,’’ Ground Zero in 1998 won the 32nd annual Belding Award for the top low-budget commercial from the Advertising Club of Los Angeles. In 1999 Ground Zero was awarded the Belding Bowl for an ESPNews package made up of two TV spots, ‘‘Colors’’ and ‘‘Big Heads—Little Bodies,’’ and a print ad entitled ‘‘The Rick, Rosin.’’
Not all reviewers reacted favorably to the campaign, however. Some did not find the spots to be funny and even thought that they were a bit unsavory. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, ad critic Denise Gellene observed, ‘‘In these spots, aimed at sports fans and cable programmers alike, The Rick comes off as a genuine sportsaholic. But his obsession lacks the zany quality of sports fanatics depicted in ads for other ESPN services. It seems The Rick needs to get a life—or at least a shower.’’ Despite the critics, The Rick was popular with ESPN’s target audience, and the campaign played its part in successfully launching ESPNews. CNN-SI, in the meantime, failed to catch on and was ultimately dropped. When ESPN tapped The Rick to promote the ESPYs, ESPN received some of the best ratings it had experienced in several years for the program. ‘‘The Rick’’ campaign also helped to advance the acting career of O’Malley. He starred in the disastrous sitcom The Mike O’Malley Show, which was cancelled after two episodes in 1999, but found sitcom success as the star of the CBS sitcom Yes, Dear, which debuted in 2000. O’Malley also landed roles in such films as Pushing Tin and 28 Days.