CMO of the Week: The NFL's Tim Ellis

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When Tim Ellis joined the NFL as chief marketing officer in the fall of 2018, he believed a shift in strategy and approach was necessary to future-proof the league for years to come.

When Tim Ellis joined the NFL as chief marketing officer in the fall of 2018, he believed a shift in strategy and approach was necessary to future-proof the league for years to come.

"The first thing that hit me was that we needed to connect our fans with our players. Unlike other sports leagues, our players are constantly behind their helmets," explains Ellis. "My goal is to emphasize the personalities, goals, and beliefs and highlight who they are with their helmets off. I wanted our players to be relatable, which meant removing the proverbial helmet and showcasing a more human face of the league. A league that is willing to have tough conversations, authentically lean into youth culture, and stand behind our players and what matters most to them." 

"My vision is to continue to modernize the league and make it more human and compassionate, with our finger on the pulse of societal issues that resonate most with fans. Implementing this approach has been the fuel for growing our fan base to an all-time high and resulted in a tangible resurgence of the NFL brand, with league perception at an all-time high and viewership dominating the media ecosystem," he continues.

The NFL has three growth audiences that are core to driving the brand forward: Gen Z fans, the Latino community and women. "We seek out these groups where they are, the platforms they use most whether it be social, gaming, streaming, or otherwise. We make sure we’re relevant and talking to fans about what they care, with our players, influencers, and brand partnerships as the authentic messengers," explains. "When we reach these audiences, we need to know our fans as individuals and meaningfully engage with them via personalization."

Ellis will be speaking at Brand Innovators' Sports Marketing Upfronts in Arizona this week. Brand Innovators caught up with Ellis this week ahead of the Super Bowl to discuss the big game, working with brand partners and the NFL's game day spots. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you hoping to accomplish with this year’s Super Bowl?

The goal with this Super Bowl, as with any, is to continue to put our tentpole event at the forefront of culture and establish NFL as the leader in sports & entertainment. The Super Bowl is one of the most-watched events in the world each year, with eyes all over the globe and people of all backgrounds gathering to take part in the annual showcase. The Super Bowl is the culmination of the season, and it’s our mission to unite people and communities through football and highlight the true joy of the game by providing best-in-class sports and entertainment.

How has the league been preparing for the big event?

The planning for Super Bowl goes back years to when Arizona was selected as the host city. Since then, we have worked with numerous incredible partners on the ground and the many teams across the league who work tirelessly to make this production everything it should be. 

This year's game is going to be one of the biggest productions ever, and we at the NFL are looking forward to seeing the culmination of everyone's hard work and the fan reaction to all the amazing activations and events that are a part of Super Bowl week.

How are you working with brand partners this year?

We are thankful to have such supportive brand partners for this year's Super Bowl. With the wide array of events and activations taking place throughout the week, it’s truly a team effort to bring this massive spectacle to life. What’s so exciting about Super Bowl is that it’s grown from a Sunday event to a week-long cultural phenomenon.

Our partnerships can be split into two buckets global and local and from a marketing POV, we target four key pillars: fashion, gaming, wellness and music. Some partnership examples include Rihanna for the Apple Music Super Bowl Halftime Show, as we’ll collaborate with her on a Fenty collection; Hip-hop artist Saweetie will perform in the first Super Bowl Roblox concert; and Super Bowl Content Creator House will host number of football-specific creators who will create daily content for the event, and more.

We also are implementing some exciting local partnerships that highlight and celebrate the community of Arizona. One example is our Origins Collection, which supports local up-and-coming designers in the Super Bowl host city to bring awareness to their small business and their talent. We are also highlighting with local artist Lucinda Hinojos, the first Chicana, Native American artist to work with NFL on Super Bowl theme art, as she created an elaborate, meaningful piece will be featured on an array of design activations for the upcoming Super Bowl in Arizona, including Super Bowl tickets, out-of-home displays and more.

Will the NFL be running any ads, and if so what are the themes?

This year we will be running two ads. For the first commercial, which will be our biggest piece of creative of the year debuting during Super Bowl LVII, we will have an epic action-packed journey full of NFL players and special guest appearances. It’s going to be a blockbuster, but most importantly, we are using our Super Bowl platform to spotlight Flag football, one of our most important long-term strategies. We have a pair of exciting teasers already released, and we look forward to the world seeing the full spot right after the Apple Music Super Bowl Halftime Show. 

The second spot is “We See You,” our umbrella cause ad. “We See You” showcases the impact our NFL family has in our communities and highlights the various social responsibility programs we support. We are committed to being a force for good in the community, shedding a light on those who are often overlooked across the country, and inspiring real, positive change to help those who need it most.

Will there be any NFL Foundation activations?

Super Bowl Week will feature a wide array of activities and activations thanks to our incredible Foundation team. These events include community projects made possible by NFL Foundation Super Bowl Legacy Grants and the Super Bowl LVII Host Committee, community greening projects, Salute to Service events to honor our military and veterans, NFL PLAY 60 Kids Day and a series of volunteer projects involving the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award presented by Nationwide nominees.  

Another aspect of the week comes as a part of Inspire Change, the league's social justice initiative. The NFL will work with three local community organizations to address the digital divide and the way it impacts youth. Throughout the week the NFL will honor, empower, and connect with the military community through a number of Salute to Service-centered events. The NFL is also proud to support the LGBTQ community throughout the week in Arizona in several ways. One event is a Night of Pride with GLAAD, presented by Smirnoff, we will also welcome youth and their families from one-n-ten, a Phoenix-area nonprofit dedicated to serving and assisting LGBTQ individuals, for a special flag football clinic. We look forward to supporting the community with these events and many others throughout Super Bowl week as we look to leave a lasting impact on the community supporting our largest event.

It’s Apple’s first time doing the halftime show. How is this partnership going and is there anything new than how you worked with Pepsi?

We're incredibly excited to have Apple Music on board this year. Apple Music has a truly innovative team and it has been a pleasure to collaborate with them on our biggest performance of the year. They bring with them a lot of new ideas to the table that we are looking forward to executing for our fans. Fans can expect an amazing show this year, and we are looking forward to the final product that Apple Music and Rihanna put together.

Any predictions for the kinds of ads we’ll be seeing on game day?

The Super Bowl obviously isn’t just a massive stage for us at the NFL, it’s also the largest platform for other brands to showcase their best creative. We expect to see a wide array of celebrities, some great humor and entertainment, and lot of exciting, fun ads this year.

To catch up on the latest Super Bowl ads, check out Brand Innovators' Super Bowl ad tracker.

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