“Don’t market like everyone else does”

September 20, 2012

Marketing, Public relations

A lot of pro sports organizations discourage their players from using Twitter. Sporting KC highlights its players that tweet and encourages fans to join the conversation.


Last year, I’m driving home from work listening to sports talk radio like I always do. Between the Lines. Kevin Kietzman. KC folks will know the show. Anyway, Sporting KC had just come home to play its first game in Livestrong Sporting Park after a long, unsuccessful 10-game road trip to open the season. And the stadium opener hadn’t been much better — a nil-nil tie against the at-that-time lowly Chicago Fire.

So Kietzman is railing on Sporting KC. He’s never liked soccer. He’s letting them have it. “I’m just treating them like they treat everyone else in this town. That’s what they want.” Kietzman also wasn’t a fan of the new Sporting KC branding. He kept calling the team the Sporting Blue Dogs, because the mascot is actually a dog. “That pathetic problem they are putting out on the pitch right now is just terrible — mind-numblingly bad and boring.”

This is what sports talk show hosts do, right? It’s a business built on rants and the conversations they stimulate. But neither Kietzman nor his listeners expected the next caller — Sporting KC owner Robb Heineman.

“I can’t agree with you more about the performance on the field last night. It was atrocious. It was a perfect night right up until we kicked off. … I absolutely agree with the standard that you hold us to. If that’s the sort of stuff we’re going to put on the field, people shouldn’t come out and watch. Period. It was bad.”

Ever heard an executive be that candid? Honest? Listen and respond to criticism face-to-face…or in this case, phone-to-phone? Wait, there’s more.

“I can just tell you that it won’t be for lack of effort. We will do everything we can to get this thing righted.”

Heineman’s memorable call is a microcosm for the brand he has helped build. Today I had the privilege of hearing from Sporting KC’s Andy Tretiak and Kyle Rogers at the monthly KC/IABC luncheon. Here are a couple of the best takeaways from one of the best presentations I’ve seen in a while. Because it was different. Because Andy and Kyle made you think.

1. “If we were to market ourselves like the #Chiefs and #Royals, it would be hard for us to get a lot of attention.” Sporting KC calls itself a challenger brand. They challenge what’s normal and safe in the sports marketing world. Prime example: Instead of emailing season ticket holders asking them to renew, Sporting KC filmed a video series documenting the season ticket holders’ love for their seat — Love and Sporting.

Another “different” marketing tactic: Sporting KC sent grassroots referees into the KC nightlife scene where they gave people who hadn’t been to a game red cards (a discount code fans could enter once they like Sporting KC on Facebook).

2. “You’re a fan; you’re a part of what we’re doing…you’re not just a customer.” Sporting KC wants its fans to feel like they are a part of the team, or in this case a member of the club. Members get special privileges, like early access to the Members Club bar before Sporting KC games. There’s a difference between a customer and ambassador. The latter is what you want most and what Sporting KC has. Just ask Sporting Jesus.

3. “If you want to stand out, don’t market like everyone else does.” Robb Heineman did something 99 percent of professional sports owners — and corporate executives for that matter — would never have done when he called in to Kietzman’s show. He changed the perception of, and conversation about, Sporting KC in real-time. We call that real-time marketing.

The benefit of real-time marketing? Well, your brand is what your customers (or fans) say it is. But through real-time marketing, you can influence their brand perception right when it’s being formed. That’s something traditional marketing or PR alone could never do. Most companies aren’t doing it. Or they aren’t doing it well. Sporting KC is doing it and doing it and doing it well…very well.

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