NBA’s Atlanta Hawks on Millennials, Rebranding and Digital

Peter Sorckoff explores the motivators behind rebranding, from target markets to rebuilding customer loyalty.

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Peter Sorckoff, Atlanta Hawks. Source: CMO Disrupt, Melbourne.

Rebranding is more than just changing a logo or a name. It takes meticulous calculation based off data to understand what consumers really want and how you can capture their attention.

Professional NBA team, Atlanta Hawks went through their own journey of rebranding five years ago, spearheaded by their Chief Creative Officer, Peter Sorckoff.

Although the Hawks were very successful on the courts and consistently made it to the playoffs, there were often a large number of seats left empty at their arenas.

Sorckoff shared the story of Atlanta Hawks with 200 of Melbourne’s top marketing executives at the latest installment of OmniChannel’s CMO Disrupt, Melbourne.

Sorckoff recognised the need for change and started their revolution so that they could truly represent the ‘Empire City of the South’, Atlanta.

From the start, the Hawks and Sorckoff harboured big ambitions of changing the way teams market not only in the NBA, but the national professional sports scene.

“I think we realised really quickly that we needed to disrupt ourselves, our city, our league, and we were trying to disrupt professional sports in America.”

To achieve this, the Hawks needed more than just ambition, they needed a strategy to understand the minds of the modern NBA fan and how they think.

The most important factor revolved around on knowing the customer. By examining their customer’s behaviour using information from the data they collected, the Hawks could validate their strategies.

The information revealed they were failing to get their fans engaged and committed.

Out of the 30 teams in the NBA, Atlanta was ranked 3rd when it came to selling tickets for individual games. The challenges they faces were around selling the prestigious season tickets that required a real commitment for a fan; this is where they were ranked 27th.

To understand why there was a lack of commitment from their fans, Sorckoff surveyed the citizens of the city and found their downfall lay in their outdated target market.

The main feedback suggested that although people liked them 20 years ago, they don’t feel the same level of loyalty towards them today. According to Sorckoff, the customer feedback suggested the Hawks were losing relevance which was a marketer’s worst nightmare. However, he used this as constructive criticism to establish what customers did want.

“So, there was a time and a period that people were romanticising our brand and we wanted to really understand why they romanticised it, where was that euphoric recall coming from and could we learn something from it?”

It coincided with the fact that the Hawks were generally marketing towards 52-year-old white males living in the Atlanta region. After some research, they found out that this segment made up less than 1% of the market, not even appearing in the top 5 demographics.

Following this, they realised that the key demographic was Millennials and readjusted their strategy to attract a younger audience.

However, they did not anticipate the new marketing campaign would grab the attention of the older generations as well. By marketing to Millennials, the Hawks were appealing to not only the younger demographic, but also the older generations who were reminded of their youth.

“It doesn’t matter what age you are, old always wants to be where young is and old always wants to understand why young is excited about something, because that’s how old feels young,” Sorckoff explained.

Yet, this remained challenging as ‘digital natives’ have grown up with technology and therefore have high expectations. Saying this, their use of social media means that successfully capturing their attention will result in a great digital presence.

By recognising this and harnessing the power of innovative thinking, the Atlanta Hawks found new and creative ways of engaging their target market.

Take their Tinder ‘Swipe Right Night’ campaign for example. The Hawks leveraged a well known product in their market and offered VIP treatment to any customer who swiped their way to a match during a game.

Targeting the wrong people wasn’t the only adaptation in their marketing strategy. Sorckoff argued their reliance on data was resulting in a lack of understanding and personalisation for the customer. For a purchase that is based on emotion and driven by the experience, it was essential that the Hawks did not overlook this emotion.

“I know that data is a huge part of what we all do but I think what we started to recognise was that we were so data-centric, so data focused and trying to be so efficient in how we were targeting everybody…that what we had lost was the fact that we were actually dealing with people.

The Hawks found huge success after rebranding. Source: CMO Disrupt, Melbourne.

“We had basically stripped emotion out of everything that we were doing and had removed that emotional context out of the business inadvertently.”

Sorckoff stressed that to engage with customers, it was important to treat them like people rather than numbers. As a result, they changed their title to ‘Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club’, because a club symbolises a place of belonging.

Sorckoff and the Atlanta Hawks found huge success in their rebranding journey, with packed courts and growing revenue. Sorckoff concluded his presentation by saying it’s because they knew why they were selling their product, referencing Simon Sinek’s book ‘Start With Why’.

“People don’t actually buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

View highlights from Sorckoff’s presentation here