The Road to the Supe…

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Two of my passions are sports and marketing, so Brand Innovators’ Sports Marketing Summit leading up to Super Bowl LVII in Arizona last week, was right up my alley.

Two of my passions are sports and marketing, so Brand Innovators’ Sports Marketing Summit leading up to Super Bowl LVII in Arizona last week, was right up my alley. With the Super Bowl being the biggest live cultural event, it’s no surprise that a lot of the talk was centered around the importance of brands penetrating culture. While there were many interesting discussions over the week, to stay on point for the Supe, I highlighted a few here that focused on football. 

The NFL: Tim Ellis, CMO

Tim Ellis, the CMO of the NFL, kicked off the week on stage with Artis Stevens, CEO of Big Brothers, Big Sisters. The focus of his discussion was on how the NFL is reaching the next generation, and most importantly what they’re doing for them as a force for good:

  • Every single NFL team is connected to the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in their local community. That means players, coaches and executives get involved at the ground level. The significance of this effort on the local youngsters would be hard to calculate. 
  • The future of the NFL is obviously with the youth, but they can be very elusive. So, the NFL is adding programs to connect with them where they are. Not just in sports, but with music, fashion, and gaming. As an example, Tim talked about the “Origins Project”, where they find emerging artists in underserved communities. They help these artists create cool hats, shoes, etc. it’s a great way to connect and engage, but also to give back.
  • In support of the first active NFL player to come out as gay, the NFL released a video titled "Football Is Gay". Tim said that video did a lot of good, but of course there was a lot of controversy. However, when people asked Tim what he was going to do about that, he replied “we’re going to run it again”, he went on to explain that trying to ride the fence doesn’t work. You need to have a POV around your values and recognize that you can’t please everyone.
  • And lastly, The NFL ran its own Super Bowl 2023 spot at halftime. It starred Diana Flores, the quarterback of the Mexico women’s national flag football team. The idea was that the spot should communicate diversity and that all fans should feel not only represented but embraced and inspired. 

Regarding marketing, he shared this advice:

  • “If you think the only way to build a brand is through creative and you look at data with disdain, you’re being foolish. Look at Spotify and Amazon they’re incredibly creative, but they understand how to leverage data and technology as well. So don’t let anyone put you in a box of being a data person or a creative person. You need to be both, and you all can be.”
  • Surround yourself with people who understand emerging new culture. Be curious.  “I know stuff that young people don’t even know.”
  • “We help the players build their own brands because that helps showcase the unique people they are. This helps build the overall NFL brand and helps us stay relevant and cool with young people.” 

Betting on Gambling: Andrew Sneyd, EVP Marketing, FanDuel

One of the biggest changes recently in sports, has been the legalization of gambling. Before this it was assumed that gambling on sports should be illegal because it would compromise the integrity of the sport. But that started to change about 10 years ago, driven by the internet and fantasy sports. This year it became legal to bet in Arizona and Fanduel created an epic activation… They created a live Super Bowl spot featuring Rob Gronkowski (“Gronk”) and called it “Kick of Destiny.”  They ran this spot live during the third quarter at a football field away from the stadium where “Gronk” tried to kick a 25-yard field goal, Fans were able to bet on this, and if he succeeded, they’d split the winnings of $10MM.  

Andrew described how this came together: “This was a long time coming. We had a big audacious idea that somehow kept moving through the creative process. As you can imagine, we needed a lot of partners to join us. The NFL got on board, Fox Sports accommodated us being live during the game, our bosses were crazy enough to agree to do this… and we’re really excited about the storytelling that comes with being part of the game, instead of being solely an advertiser. We're an entertainment product that is part of the game, so for us to have just shown up, and put a regular ad in the Super Bowl…and behave as if we are like any other brand, would not have been living up to who we are.”

This was brilliant in many ways. It not only helped Fan Duel build awareness of their brand, but it also generated engagement and actual usage, as it required users to actually experience the product. In the end, they didn’t execute perfectly as “Gronk” missed the kick, and they had to pay everyone anyway, but the innovation, awareness and sampling were hard to beat. 

Helmet to Helmet: Erin Griffin, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Riddell

One of the biggest issues culturally for the sport of football is safety. Specifically, the fear of concussions, especially for kids, is potentially a very real long-term barrier for the sport. Riddell is the primary manufacturer of helmets for all ages, and they spoke about their new Axiom helmet. This helmet combines deep experience in athlete protection, smart helmets and technology developed for Precision-Fit size to deliver the most advanced, personalized football helmet on the market. 

Erin also said that beyond the protection, they believe that the future is smart helmets. So InSite Analytics, which is the smart technology, serves real time information to the sideline. It also transmits information into an inbox, about how the player did in the game to help him improve his actual performance. There’s only a few being used right now, but some of them were worn at the Super Bowl by the Chiefs. And one of them was customized and on display here for Brand Innovators.

The “Duke” Amanda Lamb, Global Director & Partnerships, Wilson Sporting Goods Co.

Given all the talk about culture and branded entertainment, I interviewed Amanda and asked her what the impact of the Wilson volleyball was in the movie Castaway and how it came about. She said, “Fox studios asked us to donate some volleyballs for the movie and we sent them a bunch. We spent $0.00 and 22 years later, it’s still one of our top volleyball sellers, but more importantly, it’s still a fan favorite, and has created real brand love. We actually have it on display at the office." Interestingly, I saw Joyce Filippazzo, CEO of AIM Productions, Inc. in the audience. I had to give her a shout out (live and here) for some of the great branded entertainment placements we did together years ago at Unilever and because AIM is among the best in this field. You're welcome Joyce.

The Castaway story was a fun conversation, but the more impressive story was the transformation Wilson is going through. Amanda talked about how for 100 years or so, Wilson has been a great manufacturer of sporting equipment. But seeing how successfully companies like Nike & Under Armour have built their brands, they recognized that they had to be more than just great equipment. Here are some of the things they’ve done as part of that transformation:

League Partnerships

  • Both football and basketball are drivers of culture. They had lost the NBA for 37 years and recently negotiated it back. So now the new NBA basketballs are back to being Wilson and they are the official ball for the NFL as well. 


  • “Our brand is about “access to sports”. We want to be the very first ball you choose as a kid and last ball you choose when you’ve “arrived”. That last ball could be the end of high school or it could be something like “the Duke” which is the NFL ball if you happen to make it all the way.”
  • They have a mantra to “act like a big brand”, to remind themselves that they are in some spectacular sports places. But what they haven’t done in a while is really talk about that…until now.

Consumer Experience

  • “We want you to touch and feel and really experience the product. So, in our stores, for example you can shoot hoops or have a football throw.” 
  • They try to connect the brand story to the brand experience. At the NFL experience, here at the super bowl, they brought their football factory so fans can watch a football made by hand, walk away with it and share that experience on social channels. 


  • They have opened several of their own branded retail stores.
  • They make and sell sportswear there so that they will soon get consumers to not only love the equipment that they choose, but also love their brand so much that they’ll be willing to wear it.

College - NILS

NIL’s or Name, Image, Likeness are one of the most exciting things happening in sports. Student athletes for the first time ever can profit from their name images likeness.  The NCAA had prohibited that in years past, but the Supreme Court changed that so all of a sudden, a whole new world has opened.  

The panel was moderated by Leonard Armato, CEO, and Founder, Management Plus Enterprises and included:

  • Justin Giangrande, Founder/CEO, The Network Advisory, who the moderator referred to as the “premier agent” in the NIL business right now. 
  • John Brenkus, Founder and CEO, BrinxTV, talked about his new venture called BrinksTV and his show called NIL house which is a 24/7 show about NIL’s
  • John Terzian, co-founder, The Hwood Group and an ex QB at USC. He’s very vested in the future of USC athletics and talked about collectives. Collectives are groups of boosters that want student athletes to come to their school and they use NIL as a way to entice them to do that.
  • Nick Marquez, Sports Creator & Emerging Athlete Lead, Meta has established himself as the leading person helping student athletes educate themselves on how to better create content and build a bigger brand for themselves. He loves to call them “media companies of the future” and said the reason we are all so excited about this opportunity is we know over 500MM fans follow athletes on social media. So, in this creator economy, that's an opportunity for them to not only monetize, but to build their own brands on a global scale.  

Their final word about NIL is that student athletes are their own businesses…and they just need to figure out how to monetize that with brands. This is a great opportunity for brands, as well as athletes. One of the issues the panel stated was that it was difficult to find brands to partner with, but as luck would have it, Josh Spiegelman of Burns Entertainment was in the audience. Burns’ whole model is to represent brands in the endorsement space. 

The Brand: Todd Kaplan, Chief Marketing Officer, Pepsi

So as an ex-CPG marketer myself, conventional wisdom was that great marketing starts with consumer insights, knowing who you are as a brand, what you stand for and then expressing what your point of view is. While Pepsi is a CPG brand, it also considers itself to be kind of a cultural content marketer as well. As such, Pepsi is the brand most associated with the super bowl and has created some of the biggest moments in the game with great ads, halftime show, etc.. With that it may be a little surprising that they no longer sponsor the halftime show. But its not that they canceled it, the contract actually ended after last season. Pepsi did renew the sponsorship deal with the league, but the new deal does not include the company sponsoring the halftime show. In explaining the line of reasoning, Todd said, “We love the big cultural moment that the halftime show provides but it's been a decade, we had a great run, we had a great show last year, and we wanted to go out on top and with so much changing in the media landscape there’s more we want to do.”

Todd talked about their approach to marketing in a way that was modern and quite inspiring. He started by talking about insights in a way that went deeper than the typical approach. He spoke of how their creative ideas come at the intersection of a “cultural truth, a consumer truth and a product truth”.  And from there, they build “culture bombs”. The concept being that you create ideas that you could drop into culture and when you deploy them they create a ripple of earned PR, social media, etc.. and then when it starts to ripple, you add paid media on top of it that is “very focused, more product oriented, keep the lights on kind of stuff” as well, so it's a healthy balance of paid, owned & earned. 

What this does for CPG type brands is create top of mind awareness, which is a big driver of purchase intent and expresses their brand point of view in creative ways that over time continue to reinforce what the brand stands for. 

One recent case study he shared was this idea called PILK, which is Pepsi mixed with milk. The idea started on TikTok where soda mixology became a thing and people started pouring milk into Pepsi.  So, they created a campaign around this over the holidays where you leave cookies and PILK for Santa.  They brought in Lindsay Lohan who's associated with the holidays, created an online video and it took off! It trended on twitter, drove a ton of share of voice during a time that their biggest competitor typically owned…with polar bears, Santa Claus and red…instead they connected culturally, and gave consumers a new way to try their product. By the way, he confirmed it can be used with almond milk as well☺ 

He also spoke of experiences and some grass roots things they did at the NFL experience. In the past these reached few people, but now it can be scaled via social media. As an example, he talked about Lebron’s record breaking shot last week. He said, “If you look at a photo of when he's making the shot and literally every single person (except Phil Knight, because ya know..:-) is watching through their phone.  Even courtside where they paid $8000 a ticket, they're literally watching this historic amazing moment through a 3-inch screen with a guy’s shoulder in front of them. That, in itself, is an insight that it's not good enough to just be there, you need proof that you were there…you need to capture it and share it on social media. That’s just a truth of our time. So, when we think about experiences, there’s a rich opportunity for marketers, who if they build something interesting enough, no matter how grass roots, can scale to 200,000 people instead of the typical 200 people reached during most grass roots activations. But that kind of thing doesn’t “just happen” you must build it with that in mind, from the start. 

Lastly, I asked Todd the question everyone always asks when talking about content marketing or penetrating culture, etc…how do you measure it? Usually, you never get a great answer, but he gave maybe the most thoughtful answer I’ve ever heard. He said something along the lines of: “we do a lot of deep ROI analyses at PepsiCo on traditional paid media to make sure its moving the needle. But as you get into measuring cultural affinity, buzz, PR, earned media, these numbers make us feel warm and fuzzy but don’t always cut it in the boardroom. So you need to figure out how to balance those things and really help the organization understand the benefit of doing all these “other things” and how they all add up over time to drive brand equity. 

The reason why brands exist is to help consumers make decisions. The reason why you want to build brand equity overtime is pricing power, you can drive more frequency of consumption and brand love. And there’s a flywheel of benefits if you're a brand that people love and care about that drives customer lifetime value. You can't necessarily just measure one for one on some of these things based on cost. For example, something like the halftime show we measure the share of voice of social media on Super Bowl Sunday. How much is your brand talked about? We won the Twitter brand bowl three years in a row. Last year alone, 72% of all conversations about brands on Super Bowl Sunday were about Pepsi and a lot of that was because of the halftime show.  We have a digital war room of talented people sitting in Twitter headquarters mobilizing tweets, figuring out what to say, how to respond, etc.

In general, it really just depends on the objective behind the campaign. So for launching new innovation what it looks like in store and on shelf,  and retail sales might be the key metric. But if it's more about brand building or buzz you want to make sure you put the right KPIs in place that ladder back to reinforcing the brand position which we know drives brand equity. In the end, I am fortunate to work for a company that understands the value of brand building and I know a lot of companies are not like that. There are some companies that are brand led, where marketing is at the center and then there’s some where marketing is a service function where it's about getting clicks and immediate conversions. Now we do a lot of that lower funnel activity as well, but the reality is a lot of our products are not direct-to-consumer. In the end it's about having a balance. It's about picking your shots, not just doing everything. But if you have something that you think really makes sense, while also doing the blocking and tackling, you will see some success and leadership trusts you a little bit more and lets you continue to push because the business is growing and the brand is as well.”

And lastly, of course, what’s the Super Bowl without the ads

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