Maintaining the Message

Maintaining the Message

Failing to consistently and, over time, deliver and reinforce the marketing message and product attributes, or, worse yet, providing mixed marketing messages, routinely diminishes brands. This is not to say that marketing and advertising campaigns must remain static; merely that the inherent message contained within these branding vehicles communicates and reinforces the message.

Any disruption or inconsistency in the branding process undermines an organization's ability to establish its brand. Such disruptions or inconsistencies consist of any development that breaks the branding chain.

For example, the branding process can be detrimentally influenced when a competing product is present. Alternatively, the branding process can also be negatively impacted in the event the core brand and its attributes are not consistently presented. An example of this is the omission of the brand in any brand-building opportunity. Because the NBA was all about Jordan, failing to include him in NBC's promotion of upcoming Bulls games would result in a missed opportunity to reinforce the NBA's brand and its close association with Jordan. Similarly, should McDonald's, one of the companies Jordan endorsed, not feature him in a promotional campaign targeting sports fans, it would be missing a golden opportunity to connect its brand to Jordan's.

Because the brand resides within the hearts and minds of (prospective) customers, any confusion in the marketplace will assuredly impact the value of the organization in the consumers' mind. For example, avid NBA fans, loyal purchasers of Nike footwear and apparel, and especially Nike, would be dismayed to learn that Michael Jordan was promoting Reebok. In an effort to ensure that its customers do not become confused, most corporations require athletes to avoid such conflicts of interest by agreeing to exclusively endorse a specific product or product line for a defined period of time in exchange for certain consideration.

Similarly, it is critical that when sports leagues rely on athletes to assist in the branding process, this symbiotic relationship not be interrupted. Should an interruption take place, a league must confront numerous public and private challenges; challenges that impact marketing, financial, and human resources—and threaten the integrity of the brand.

For example, the reputation and standing of the league in the marketplace and among key industry stakeholders will be affected. Those impacted by any branding inconsistency or interruption include, but are not limited to, (potential) customers at all levels of the buying process (i.e., TV networks, sponsors, and fans), competitors, other sports marketing channels, athletes, and employees.

By the time Jordan retired for the second time at the end of the 1997–1998 season, the NBA was also dealing with the lockout of its players, which postponed the start of the season from November to January. This combination, along with the increasing ticket prices seen throughout much of pro sports, alienated fans and was reflected in a decline in attendance.

More ominous than fewer fans in attendance was the decline in the sport's TV ratings. With roughly 75 percent of the NBA's TV revenue generated during the championship series, the NBA was hit hard as ratings fell to levels not witnessed since the Bulls won their first title in 1991. Overall, the NBA, NBC, and TNT had to adjust to six to eight million fewer households watching league games, and presumably buying less league merchandise. In addition to reduced viewership, and due to the emergence of such urban brands as FUBU and the prevalence of nonlicensed "knock-off" NBA products, gross retail sales of NBA-licensed products plummeted more than 50 percent between 1995 and 1999, and totaled $1 billion by 1999.

Most industry observers believed that the only way to resurrect the sagging fortunes of the NBA was to anoint a new Jordan, a process that never fully took hold following his first retirement after the 1992–1993 season. However, the question of just which player that would or should be consumed the media, sponsors, advertisers, and fans.

For years, the NBA didn't have to aggressively market its teams or the majority of its 350 players. The battle of Magic versus Larry gave way to Isiah Thomas' run with the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons (remember Bill Laimbeer?), which led to Michael Jordan and his run of six titles in eight years. In the wake of Jordan's departure, which player or players would emerge as the marketing face of the NBA?

In Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were beginning to gel, winning two championships during Jordan's absence— and a third during Jordan's return beginning with the 2001-02 season. Because they were both comparable in star power, however, neither emerged as the dominant face of the NBA.

Allen Iverson led Philadelphia to the finals in 2001, but his positioning as an unsavory character all but eliminated his ascension. Grant Hill of the Orlando Magic and Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves had the requisite talent, but Hill was frequently injured and Garnett wasn't playing for a high-profile, successful team; in fact, the Timberwolves have yet to make it past the first round of the playoffs.

Attention quickly turned to the Toronto Raptors' Vince Carter. However, he was stuck playing for a low-revenue team in Canada, which saw its other franchise, the Vancouver Grizzlies, relocate to Memphis, Tennessee, following tens of millions of dollars in losses. Unable or unwilling to find his way across the border to a major U.S. TV market, Carter signed a long-term contract in 2001 to remain in Toronto.

It was clear that the NBA would be led into the 21st century with a group of stars, each boasting his own considerable strengths and weaknesses, guiding its brand. Then along came the "savior."

After a few years as a part-owner of the Washington Wizards, Jordan announced his return as a player for the Wizards in late September 2001. Ticket sales in Washington and around the league rebounded; local TV ratings increased as both diehard and casual fans tuned in to satisfy their curiosities.

Did his "back to the future" coronation help or hurt the NBA brand? Struggling for three years to find the right formula for long-term branding success in the post-Jordan era, the NBA and league stakeholders were ambivalent about his return at the age of 38. Yes, short-term revenue from a variety of sources, including money made as fans crossed through turnstiles and bought the latest Jordan-inspired merchandise, would increase.

However, Jordan's return also posed a real problem because the league's ability to redefine itself once and for all following Jordan's retirement was threatened. His return cast a long shadow over the emerging stars, relegating them to second-class citizens and mitigating their ability to help market the league going forward. Jordan's return surely helped in the short run, but it had little or no impact on the new TV contract.

There was, however, a significant intangible linked to Jordan's return. Could he somehow slow what corporate America believed to be the urbanization of the NBA? Stemming the tide of an increasingly in-your-face sport, dominated by a group portrayed by sports agents and unions as largely misunderstood and vilified by much of middle America, remains important to the NBA if it hopes to sell its product (i.e., solid and sustainable TV ratings) to mainstream audiences for years to come.

In short, Jordan's return was anything but a financial and branding slam dunk for the league. Perhaps Jordan broke the branding chain, or maybe he simply disrupted a branding process gone astray.

Companies must make sure they are not overpromoting their old mainstay product or service, merely hoping to resurrect the results of yesteryear. Allocating time and resources to resuscitate a former success story might only serve to hinder the organization's ability to succeed long term because doing so might confuse the customer and be a drain on human and financial resources. For instance, automobile manufacturers must decide when a certain once-popular car model or feature no longer warrants the same degree of marketing or promotional support.

It is important for organizations attempting to brand themselves that they identify and swiftly address developments that impact the branding chain; a failure to do so not only confuses customers, it can wreak havoc on the brand's identity.