The NFL’s 3 Secrets To A Virtually Scandal-Proof Reputation

The seem­ing­ly scan­dal-immune brand has sev­er­al keys to stok­ing loy­al­ty that some­times defies log­ic.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

No mat­ter how many hor­ri­ble head­lines emerge from the NFL – cheat­ing, vio­lence, abuse, racism, and brain dam­age among them – the league itself comes out unscathed, time and time again, like a ver­i­ta­ble Teflon Don of pro­fes­sion­al sports. What’s their secret?

The Nation­al Foot­ball League and its teams not only sur­vive scan­dals, they thrive despite them.

NFL spon­sor­ship grew last year, report­ed­ly up 7.8 per­cent to $1.2 bil­lion. The NFL’s female fan base also grew despite numer­ous domes­tic abuse sto­ry­lines.

Even some of the most scan­dal-plagued teams – think: the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins, New York Jets and New Eng­land Patri­ots – rank above aver­age in terms of spon­sor­ship rev­enue, accord­ing to the IEG. On top of that, brand engage­ment and cus­tomer loy­al­ty research con­sul­tan­cy Brand Keys recent­ly ranked the Deflate­gate-plagued Patri­ots #1 in terms of fan loy­al­ty.

[The NFL has] had their fair share of chal­lenges and con­tro­ver­sies and sto­ries that might have been dev­as­tat­ing to most busi­ness­es, but they seem to have come out not just OK, but actu­al­ly thriv­ing,” said Vas­silis Dalakas, pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Cal State San Mar­cos and who sup­ports the Green Bay Pack­ers. “It seems the NFL is able to han­dle all of that and over­come it quite well.”

There are many rea­sons for this, includ­ing the sheer num­ber of par­ties involved, which means, to a degree, blame is spread out among play­ers, teams, the league and the media.

But it’s also because many of these scan­dals – Plaxi­co Bur­ress shoot­ing him­self in the leg at a night­club or Adri­an Peter­son beat­ing his son, for exam­ple – aren’t tech­ni­cal­ly foot­ball-relat­ed and fans care about foot­ball, said Bian­ca Lee, founder of White Rose Mar­ket­ing Solu­tions and a Pitts­burgh Steel­ers fan who is con­tem­plat­ing switch­ing alle­giance to the Jets. What’s more, foot­ball play­ers have a short­er tenure than oth­er ath­letes, so their prob­lems often retire when they do, she said.

And, sim­ply put, sports fans are not known for being par­tic­u­lar­ly ratio­nal – espe­cial­ly when their favorite team is involved, or a hat­ed rival.

I’ve done lots of research on sports fan­dom and one thing con­sis­tent is that the more iden­ti­fied the fan is – the more diehard they are – the less objec­tive that fan is,” Dalakas said. “The glass­es a diehard fan wears always look at the world in a way that is favor­able to the team they are root­ing for and unfa­vor­able to their rivals.”

While experts agree the NFL isn’t scan­dal proof per se – and a big enough issue could in fact even­tu­al­ly severe­ly dam­age its rep­u­ta­tion – the league is in an envi­able posi­tion with an extreme­ly for­giv­ing fan base.

So what has the NFL and its indi­vid­ual teams fig­ured out about fan rela­tions that mar­keters should know?

There are three pil­lars to the NFL’s suc­cess.

Pillar 1: Passion

The NFL has a prod­uct its fans can’t live with­out – so much so that it’s real­ly the only thing con­sumers are still will­ing to watch on live TV.

The NFL is one of most suc­cess­ful TV fran­chis­es in the his­to­ry of TV, which means con­sumers still want to watch, which means adver­tis­ers still want to pay for it, which means TV sta­tions still want to car­ry it,” said Bruce Clark, mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor at the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness at North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, who says he fol­lows the Patri­ots because he lives in Boston, but wouldn’t describe him­self as a fan.

As the say­ing goes, love is blind.

This means con­sumers are more than will­ing to over­look, ignore, down­play, for­give, and explain away trans­gres­sions that might oth­er­wise tar­nish their beloved team and pas­time.

Dalakas says the clos­est par­al­lel to a brand with a com­pa­ra­ble cult fol­low­ing is Apple, which clear­ly boasts its own pas­sion­ate fan base.

Thank­ful­ly for them, they have not had that kind of con­tro­ver­sy, but if they did, fans would be will­ing to over­look those trans­gres­sions because they love the prod­uct so much,” Dalakas said.

Eden Gillott Bowe, pres­i­dent of cri­sis and rep­u­ta­tion man­age­ment firm Gillott Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, who says she is from LA, where they have a rep­u­ta­tion for root­ing for who­ev­er is win­ning, also places Apple in the same “untouch­able” cat­e­go­ry as the NFL.

The pub­lic is so enthralled by cheer­ing their foot­ball teams and buy­ing their new iPhones that they’re hap­py to look the oth­er way despite cheat­ing, domes­tic abuse, and child labor,” she said. “Essen­tial­ly, build up enough of a cult-like fol­low­ing and peo­ple will turn a blind eye to a lot of wrong­do­ing.”

Con­sumers have a tremen­dous abil­i­ty to not notice the things they don’t want to see, Clark agreed.

If you love foot­ball, you real­ly don’t want to notice that foot­ball might cause per­ma­nent brain dam­age to the play­ers. If you love foot­ball, you may not want to notice that the game has tremen­dous incen­tives for vio­lence,” Clark said. “So peo­ple have a tremen­dous abil­i­ty to not want to believe bad things about the things they like. They love the NFL, so they kind of just don’t pay atten­tion to things that are bad because they love it so much.”

This means strong brands that are well-loved can also get away with more than those with less pas­sion­ate con­sumers, Clark said. He point­ed to Ama­zon, which made head­lines recent­ly about how it treats its employ­ees.

But the thing is, peo­ple love Ama­zon, so it’s ‘Don’t show me anoth­er bad arti­cle about Ama­zon,’” Clark said. “‘If I start to think about it, maybe I wouldn’t be able to shop there any­more.’ I think they feel the same way about the NFL.”

For his part, Geoff Cook, part­ner at brand­ing agency Base Design and who says his blood runs green for the Philadel­phia Eagles, point­ed to Face­book and its incred­i­ble pop­u­lar­i­ty that he says “encour­ages us to over­look the com­pa­ny’s sell­ing of our per­son­al infor­ma­tion for prof­it.”

Pillar 2: Community

The NFL knows there is tru­ly no ‘I’ in team and has come to rep­re­sent a fam­i­ly in a way for its devot­ed fans and that, Dalakas not­ed, is so impor­tant that even at the end of the most heart­break­ing of sea­sons when fans say they’re done with a giv­en team, they always inevitably come back. Most brands, how­ev­er, don’t have that lux­u­ry.

In oth­er words, while a diehard fan of the Seat­tle Sea­hawks might have been exas­per­at­ed as a result of prod­uct per­for­mance last year, he or she is far more like­ly to stick with the brand in ques­tion going into the new sea­son than if, say, a cell phone provider or cable com­pa­ny was­n’t meet­ing his or her expec­ta­tions, Dalakas said.

Brands, too, should strive to cul­ti­vate sim­i­lar com­mu­ni­ties in which con­sumers feel like fans.

I think with social, there’s a huge, huge oppor­tu­ni­ty for brands to do that – to make you and me a part of the team,” Clark said. “The way I talk about a sports team with ‘we’ – I should feel the same way about my hotel, my air­line and my bank. The les­son every brand can learn is how to make con­sumers feel they are part of this and that we are part of their iden­ti­ty.”

Fos­ter­ing a loy­al com­mu­ni­ty is the key to a brand’s suc­cess, Cook said.

The NFL has to its cred­it devel­oped a fanat­i­cal­ly devot­ed set of fans. They then encour­age them to inter­act with the brand in myr­i­ad ways, from attend­ing a game and watch­ing a game with friends to par­tic­i­pat­ing in Fan­ta­sy Foot­ball or even play­ing the game itself,” Cook said. “If today’s brand is increas­ing­ly about expe­ri­ence, it can be argued that the NFL is the most suc­cess­ful brand of our time.”

Pillar 3: Tradition

From kick­off in the first game of the sea­son to hoist­ing the Lom­bar­di tro­phy at the end of the Super Bowl, the NFL sea­son is rife with tra­di­tion. Indi­vid­ual teams, too, have their own tra­di­tions, from the Sea­hawks’ rais­ing the 12 Flag, to the Pack­ers’ Lam­beau Leap, and the Steel­ers’ Ter­ri­ble Tow­els.

Brands, too, should strive to cre­ate their own unmiss­able tra­di­tions, Clark said.

Those kinds of traditions…are very pow­er­ful and one of the oth­er things sports can engen­der is mul­ti-gen­er­a­tion brand loy­al­ty,” Clark said. “If you grew up in a fam­i­ly and your par­ents are Pack­ers fans, in all like­li­hood, you are, too, and you think of fam­i­ly con­nec­tions and the things you grew up with and the things you shared.”

This means brands that cre­ate their own tra­di­tions have a com­pa­ra­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty to inspire loy­al­ty for gen­er­a­tions.

Take, for exam­ple, the Macy’s Thanks­giv­ing Day Parade. This is an exam­ple of a brand that has cre­at­ed a tra­di­tion con­sumers watch each year, Clark said. Ama­zon has also cre­at­ed buzz around Cyber Mon­day and Prime Day as recur­ring dates to buy presents and/or get deals, he added.

Like the NFL sea­son, these brand­ed tra­di­tions are also reli­able, which yield even more cul­tur­al engage­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties on a pre­dictable sched­ule.

In addi­tion, Apple’s much-buzzed-out iPhone announce­ments have, in recent years, come in the first week of Sep­tem­ber, which could be its own poten­tial brand tra­di­tion in the mak­ing, Clark said.

There’s also a cer­tain spec­ta­cle in indi­vid­ual games, as well as through­out the course of the sea­son. Again, brands, like the NFL, should strive to cre­ate spec­ta­cles that con­sumers want to be a part of, Clark said.

Look at Apple Stores. They are expe­ri­ences. They are cathe­drals of tech­nol­o­gy,” Clark said. “It’s a spec­ta­cle.”

What is your brand doing to score points with con­sumers and ensure your rep­u­ta­tion is scan­dal proof?

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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