As published in MediaPost's MarketingDaily.
NFL, heads up. Your fans are ready for some better football.
The Monday Night debacle in Seattle, with bum calls by replacement officials that yielded a victory for the Seattle Seahawks over Green Bay, is the latest in a series of gaffes that illustrate how the League is taking its incredible fan loyalty for granted. Although the National Football League seems to have -- as ESPN’s Steve Young put it recently -- “unlimited demand,” enough can be enough. Think it would never happen? Recall the baseball strike of '94 and the decade needed to regain followers' trust.
Continue on the current path of boneheaded marketing moves, Commissioner Goodell, and the Leagues' popularity -- and fan base -- could plummet.
The mistakes made in recent years are many, but from a marketing point of view, the brand-tarnishing errors that stand out most are as follows.
Inconsistent brand messaging
The League increased punishments for dangerous hits to the head with the rationale that doing so would protect players from injury. But the penalties and fines doled out were so inconsistent that they became a constant distraction.
What's more, the League appeared to be talking out of both sides of its mouth, since the fine-inducing violent hits were still being featured in highlight reels and video games with nary a comment. As a result, the more likely driver of the League's decision to institute stiffer rules became obvious: to protect themselves from lawsuits by former players suffering from post-concussion syndrome. That's inconsistent brand messaging at its worst.
Brand dilution by overexposure
They brought us Thursday Night Football every week on the NFL Network. Yay!
NFL Network is not available in many markets, requires an additional fee for access, and programs terrible match-ups…but Yay! More football!
Disingenuous PR message
Then there was the New Orleans Saints Bounty Gate. “Player safety cannot be compromised! The integrity of the game is in jeopardy!” cried the League. So they dropped the hammer on the Saints, punishing the entire fan base after the fact. Yet at the same time, the NFL locked out its experienced officials and turned over player safety and the integrity of the game to a bunch of underqualified, overwhelmed, Division 3 wannabees.
All this leads to the inevitable conclusion that NFL executives are ignoring brand-building rule No. 1: a brand is not just a tagline or a campaign; it lives and has a reputation that’s based on what it does every day. And right now, the NFL brand is doing things that are arrogant and that show disregard for its fans. It's putting an inferior product on the field. No matter how deep a well of loyalty they've built over the years, that's just not a sustainable business practice. The sky isn't falling at NFL Headquarters yet. But ratings are inconsistent.
Commissioner Goodell, better not take your fans for granted if you want to get the football lovefest back on track.
There are plenty of examples where strong brands or successful franchises squandered their customers' loyalty. Remember "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" It was the No. 1 show of the 1999-2000 TV season, until ABC put it on 5 nights a week and watched the ratings plummet. Their reliance on the show's popularity led the network to fall quickly from its spot as the nation's most-watched network. They have never recovered. (Let's hope Tuesday Night Football on Spike TV is not in the works.)
On the other hand, some brands survive missteps and come back even stronger. Toyota's safety problems a few years ago endangered the very core of its brand. But the company quickly and transparently addressed the issues and won back its fans. Even beloved Apple has taken heat lately for the inferior mapping app on the new iPhone 5. Does anyone doubt they will get it done right, and soon?
The NFL needs to admit it was wrong. Paying the officials fairly and getting them back on the field is a step in the right direction. But they should also make some real gestures to put things right with the fans. Offer a nice discount on apparel and merchandise for the rest of the season. Or give everyone who plays in their fantasy leagues or uses their mobile app a chance to win Super Bowl tickets.
They could even embrace transparency and create a fan advisory board to consult on issues like these in the future. Because America loves football. Just not the brand of football we've been treated to of late.