What Transparent Marketing Looks Like: Brought to You by ESPN

What Transparent Marketing Looks Like: Brought to You by ESPN!

Sometimes the easiest way to understand a new concept is to look at it from a completely different angle. One of the best examples we've found to demonstrate effective transparency as well as good visible marketing is the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) brand ”and yes, we know, it traditionally serves men. But, bear with us.

ESPN's hip sports empire includes 24- hour cable networks, a Web site, a radio network, a print magazine and theme restaurants . This fast-growing, multichannel media brand brilliantly and transparently targets young, affluent male sports fans. The entire ESPN brand focuses on delivering pitch-perfect content to their target demographic, men, and in so doing has gained the affection and respect of many male and female sports fans alike. Because they are not trying to be all things to all customers, they can dig deep into the humor, preferences and interests of their male market.

Before we examine the specific elements of ESPN's successful transparent marketing approach, we'll paint a picture of what it would look like if ESPN visibly marketed its magazine to men in the way many women's brands do. Let's look at an ESPN: The Magazine painted male blue:


  • The tagline would be "A magazine for male sports enthusiasts ."

  • The staff would be all male; the photos would all depict men; and the articles would cover only men's teams .

  • Columns like these would be included: "A Man's Perspective on ," covering sports industry issues; and "His Turn ," espousing a male viewpoint on topics typically covered by women.

  • Photos would show the usual: a collection of men from a variety of nationalities, each wearing their team uniforms and holding the appropriate sporting goods or equipment (a soccer ball, a hockey stick, for example).

  • The stories and cartoons would feature the usual stereotypical male humor about beer bellies, couch potatoes, armchair quarterbacks and hot cheerleaders.

  • Advertisers would sell traditional men's products using departments focused on reaching men.

  • Specialized "for men" programs might include interactive tools such as the body fat calculator for men; the all-men's fantasy football league; the sports-savvy men's sports quiz; and the athletic men's guide to sports history.

  • The magazine's palette would stick to clich d, "male-appropriate" primary colors, with a strong emphasis on royal blue.

  • The magazine would sponsor events around major male health concerns, like prostate cancer benefit runs or heart disease bowling tournaments.

  • It would all be politically correct and professionally carried out, but not very inspiring .

Now doesn't it just seem bizarre to envision ESPN reaching men visibly in this way? Doesn't it wake you up a bit to how women customers might perceive the visible "for women" efforts that come their way?

Let's turn things right-side up and examine how ESPN is actually capturing an avid fan base of both men and women, with their sophisticated and fun transparent approach. Considering the essential elements of transparent marketing we cited earlier in this chapter, here's what ESPN does so well:

The ESPN Brand with Transparent Marketing


ESPN targets a narrow and devoted market of young, affluent, male sports fans. They don't even list women in the demographics page of their media kit. In keeping with the rules of transparent marketing, they focus on delivering to the preferences of their core market, but have also developed a passionate following from a broader base.


Remember that bigger is better. In size , paper stock and attitude, ESPN: The Magazine resembles Spin and Vibe , which have become editorial bibles for attracting a target audience of Gen X men. Also important:

Eye candy . The louder and hipper graphic layout of ESPN: The Magazine is a huge departure from the designs of competitive publications , and it reflects a keen understanding of their younger audience.

Large, vivid photographs. ESPN concluded that the best play action is shown on TV, in replays and slow-motion. You just can't beat what is shot live by minicams on a goalie's skates. Instead, ESPN: The Magazine developed an innovative photographic style that includes vivid portraits and multiple-page photo spreads to make the still shots as inspiring as the ESPN television offerings. Readers like the photographs so much they use the spreads as posters .

Extreme sports coverage. ESPN was the first major multimedia sports brand to give significant print and airtime coverage to extreme sports like surfing El Ni ±o, snowboarding, BMX racing and wakeboarding.


Talk shows with back talk such as ESPN's are one the strongest vehicles for maintaining an ongoing dialogue with fans. The daily radio shows encourage live phone calls from listeners and have developed a group of regular contributors who keep the show's phone number on speed dial. ESPN radio fans are eager to share their opinions and viewpoints in the same witty, brash and straightforward style of their favorite talk show hosts . E-mail is also used to weave listeners opinions into the live shows. For example, popular talk show host Jim Rome regularly taunts and invites the " clones " to respond to his opinions . This witty group of listeners e-mail taunting comments in real-time that Rome gleefully reads on his show.


ESPN is aware of its information-hungry sports enthusiasts . Knowing its members are passionate about their specific sports personalities and teams , ESPN offers both great coverage and a relatively cheap online service to check up on articles from around the country. The magazine also provides the countless stats, charts and graphs that are essential to hardcore sports fans. They are also aware of:

Year-round interest. For many fans the best part of ESPN: The Magazine may be that, regardless of the sport season , they'll have reports in every major sports category. Getting up-to-date news on baseball in December and on college football during July sets this magazine far apart from other leading sports publications.

Connections to fellow fans. The multimedia capabilities of ESPN mean that their on-air personalities for all sports can both contribute articles and participate in online chat sessions, giving fans a chance to interact with them and with each other. From fantasy-football software online to printable fill-in roosters for forecasting college basketball 's "March Madness," ESPN equips fans with the resources and services needed to fuel the competitive fire in their local sports communities.


The ESPN SportsCenter has produced a variety of distinct brand personalities to whom ESPN fans respond with celebrity-obsessed devotion. Their on-air personalities, as mentioned above, get further personalized connection time with fans by contributing articles and participating in chat sessions. They also keep in mind such things as:

Humor. The ESPN SportsCenter is renowned for its style and humor. (The show even inspired the popular but short-lived 1999 “2000 ABC sitcom, Sports Night. ) For many fans, ESPN is more enjoyable because it doesn't always present the information in a serious manner and isn't afraid to have fun at the expense of the athletes , the fans and, most importantly, the sportscasters and on-air personalities themselves .

Insider's code. The ESPN SportsCenter has coined a quirky and fun sports language all its own that serves as an insider code to its devoted audience. Comments like "Boo-yah!"; "Fade. Fire. Fill."; "Dunk you very much" and "Get down with your bad self" unite sports fans everywhere.

Insider scoop. ESPN doesn't just ask the same old questions like, "Scottie, what was it like being traded from Chicago to Houston?" Their interviewers go deeper with questions like, "Scottie, have you ever just wanted to let Charles Barkley have it?" Or, "Aren't you tired of playing with Michael Jordan?" The audience gets the answers to questions they've always wanted to ask the sports figures themselves.

The "brand language" of ESPN: The Magazine includes short bursts of text and a fast-paced storytelling style (perfect for the attention span of their core readership ). Their use of fun and hip titles for typical magazine departments, like "Zoom," "The Sports Guy," "Outtakes" and "0:01 (with the beloved Dick Vitale)" also significantly resonate with their reader demographic.


Bold, irreverent and sometimes shocking, ESPN-brand sports coverage gives fans everywhere an honest and inside look into their favorite athletes and teams. Their no-holdsbarred style conveys the feeling of an honest, authentic, appealing and savvy sports empire.

ESPN is a useful case study for marketers because it vividly demonstrates a core principle of transparent marketing: If you know your customers intimately, you can use their core values, preferences and even quirks to both reflect back their personalities and define your brands.

In addition, we have found it easier for many people to understand transparent marketing from the male perspective, because it clears away from the discussion all the politics and diversity issues. Seeing how a company focused on a single gender without drawing from tired stereotypes helps lift the pink fog that can surround this marketing concept.