The Atlanta Hawks had a problem.
The team is located smack in the middle of the biggest metro area in a six-state radius. Atlanta is a thriving, successful city; a growing city, and one that loves sports. By all accounts, The Big Peach should be wild about their NBA team.
But the problem was, they just weren’t. Instead, they faced a problem every marketing department dreads.
It wasn’t that the city didn’t like basketball. They loved it, in fact. It wasn’t even a feeling of animosity for the team or its leadership.
They just… didn’t care.
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The Hawks’ front office dug into some market research and decided on a plan to target a group they dubbed “Next Generation Atlantans”—Millennial and young Generation X residents of the city who they felt would attach their loyalty to the team and what it represents, and drive influence across the rest of the market as a result.
But plenty of brands want to attract Millennials. Most of them do a poor job at it. Attracting a young audience has to be more than Snapchatting buzzwords and using more (MOAR!) emojis.
What were the Hawks going to do differently?
That’s the question Melissa Proctor had to answer as the Hawks Chief Marketing Officer. And for the former ball-girl turned front office executive, it comes down to one thing:
“How do we be bold in how we do business?”
That question led to a rebranding effort that has seen the Hawks grab recurring national headlines, not for their on-the-court performance, but for their eyebrow-raising marketing campaigns that are loved by some, and scoffed at by others.
And that suits them just fine.
From Ball-Girl to Chief Marketing Officer
Proctor’s NBA career started young; she was the Miami Heat’s first ever “ball-girl” as a teenager living in South Florida—a job that included cleaning locker rooms, folding laundry, rebounding for players during warm-ups, and (of course) wiping up sweat from the court during games.
“Patrick Ewing was definitely the most memorable, because that guy would sweat buckets and everyone would have to run a mop over it 20 times,” Proctor recalls with a laugh. “Random basketball fact.”
In college, Proctor worked as an intern with the Heat, helping the Basketball Operations team with draft prep. A few years after graduation, she landed a role at Turner Broadcasting, Ted Turner’s media giant headquartered in Atlanta. It was here that she started diving heavily into brand work, eventually moving up to a VP role.
Then, in 2014, she joined the team at the Atlanta Hawks. Less than 2 years later, she was promoted to the role of Chief Marketing Officer.
“There’s a lot of weight (to that title). A lot of weight, a lot of expectations, and a lot of ideas.”
Proctor came to the Hawks during a time of transition. While the team had been making strides on the court, consistently making the playoffs, the organization was struggling to carve out a dedicated fanbase in the city. New leadership was brought in, and plans were already in motion to begin rebranding the team.
The first thing they did was hit the books.
“We started out with doing a deep dive on our brand, understanding every study and survey that we could get our hands on,” Proctor says.
Who was in their market? What were their interests? How about their jobs? How did they feel about the NBA? How about the Hawks?
The results of that research were a bit alarming.
“We found out there was a lot of apathy.”
Not a lot of love, not a lot of hate. Rather, they had a city who was lukewarm on their home team. That’s a tough problem to solve—rather than trying to reignite passion or give dedicated fans a reason to come to a game, they had to get that fire lit in the first place.
Once they had figured out the problem, they started to nail down a solution.
Proctor knew they needed to focus on the future. Atlanta is a fast growing city, and they needed to set themselves up for future success with that growing population. They landed on a target audience of Millennials and young Gen X-ers. Universities around the region were pumping thousands of young professionals into the city every year, and it was an increasingly diverse population. These young, hip Atlantans would help drive the culture of the city, driving sales across demographics from lucrative corporate ticket sales to the casual fan. If anyone would grab onto their brand, it would be this group.
And so, “Next Generation Atlantans” became the Hawks’ target.
Being Bold, Avoiding Cliches
There’s no shortage of brands hoping to attract young Millennial audiences—it’s become somewhat of a marketing cliche. The problem is, a lot of brands are doing a really bad job at it.
Navigating that challenge was top of mind for Proctor.
“We want to find creative and smart ways to speak to this audience,” she says. “For us, it’s about big and bold thinking.”
But bold thinking has to be more than creative promotions and a cheeky social media personality. The Hawks went all-in on their new strategy, reinventing the team from top to bottom—from how they talk to how they dress. The team got new uniforms with a flashy new color palette that were unlike any other team in the NBA. In a talk given at Percolate’s Transition 2016 event, Proctor said their goal when designing these uniforms was “specifically so that we were the coolest team that a kid would want to pick if they were playing (the video game) NBA 2K.”
That’s not typically how you redesign a brand.
Decisions like this can be risky. The Hawks risked alienating what fan base they already had—creative risk means that sometimes your ideas are going to fail. But part of being a company dedicated to “bold thinking” is accepting those risks and being comfortable failing.
“There’s always some (blowback),” Proctor says with a laugh. “But in some ways, when people are talking about you, that’s a good thing.”
And talk they did.
Tinder Night, Ashley Madison, and the Hawks
If you want to attract Millennials, you’ve got to have a feel for the zeitgeist of the generation—an elusive moving target. And in 2015, nothing quite captured that like the hook-up app Tinder.
If you’re unfamiliar, Tinder shows you a brief profile of other users around you, and you can swipe the picture left or right to reject or accept those profiles, respectively. If both users accept each other, they’re matched up to chat, and they can decide where to take things from there.
The trick is that Tinder is location-based, so you only see people who are in nearby proximity to you. That means it works a whole lot better when there are lots of people around—maybe in a bar-heavy neighborhood or a concert.
Or, a basketball game.
In January of 2015, the Hawks launched “Swipe Right Night,” a game promotion in which they encouraged fans to use Tinder throughout the game to find a love-match at the stadium. They set up a “Tinder Suite” in one of the arena’s luxury boxes—complete with roses and breath mints—where matched couples could meet face-to-face and take in the game while getting to know each other.
Some kid is getting conceived in Philips Arena tonight.
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) January 8, 2015
“Those things are squarely directed as positioning the brand as the brand for Next Generation Atlantans,” says Proctor. “We’re very much about events, and being the place to see and be seen.”
From a PR. standpoint, the promotion was a smashing success. Sports media outlets all over the country picked up on the story. It hit the exact target they hoped for and served as notice that the Hawks were here and they were ready to do things differently.
Swipe Right Night was so successful, in fact, that the Hawks hosted another one the next season, complete with some new and, shall we say, more interesting amenities.
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) March 19, 2016
The Hawks marketing team grabbed national headlines again that Fall with another eyebrow raising promotion—a season ticket package endorsed by Ashley Madison.
No, not that Ashley Madison.
The Hawks hired 3 Georgia residents, all legally named Ashley Madison, to appear in promotions for their flex plan ticket package—a 10-game plan aimed at younger fans with less cash to spend.
The idea was born out of the insight that many potential fans had allegiances to other teams—Atlanta being a very transient city—but they could still come to Hawks games just for fun. The timing of the promo played into headlines dominating the news about the Ashley Madison hack, making the site a household name.
CEO Steve Koonin said of the campaign “everyone thought it was a good idea, which actually scared me.”
There’s an obvious risk with these types of innuendo-laden campaigns: Not everyone is going to appreciate the PG-13 humor.
“We definitely had folks who weren’t fans of it, but for us it was important to be relevant to our target,” explains Proctor. “I think the creativity and the audacity of what we did, people in that target loved it.”
The fastest way to squash creativity is to try and appeal to everyone. The risk with trying new things is that you’ll alienate a certain segment of the population, but the payoff is a stronger connection with your target. Proctor and her team accept that risk, and the early returns are promising. The team has seen close to 200% growth in online retail sales, an 18% jump in both attendance and TV ratings, and they’ve tripled their Twitter following over the last 2 years.
“It’s a fine line, but in order to break through the clutter, you can’t just do the same things everyone else does.”
Doing a Lot with a Little
It’s easy to see why Proctor was entrusted with the keys to the Hawks’ brand. She possesses a potent mix of marketing expertise, tolerance of risk, and deliberate planning—a point guard who’s not afraid to shoot an outside 3, but also knows when to take the easy layup.
The Hawks are almost guaranteed to make headlines every season, not just for on-the-court play, but because of the work of Proctor and her team. As recently as a few weeks ago, the team dominated national Twitter trends for a night when Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane proposed to his girlfriend at a Hawks game.
When asked if that was planned or just a happy accident, Proctor laughed and said “I… will plead the 5th. But it is just another great example of content that performed really well for us, and positioned the brand as ‘the place to be.’”
It’s not easy (or common) for organizations to do what they’ve been able to do, even just a few years into the rebranding process. Despite appearances, professional sports teams tend to be smaller organizations—the Hawks hover around 200-250 full-time employees.
“I think a lot of people think we’re the size of a Coke marketing team, but it’s very different than that perception,” says Proctor. “We do a lot with a pretty small team and resources.”
With a department that size—tasked with the challenge of changing a city’s attitude—everybody has to pull their weight. For Proctor, building a strong marketing team is the legacy she hopes to leave. That starts with hiring the right people, but also with helping them develop.
It also starts with blazing a new path for others to follow.
Two years ago, the Hawks became the first team in the NBA to hire a full-time Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, a move that was soon mirrored by other organizations in the league.
“I really believe that my legacy is in the people that are on my team. The more that they can thrive and grow in their careers, the better it is for our entire organization and myself. I just want to leave everything better than it was when I got here.”
It’s tempting as an observer to chalk up a team’s brand success as simply being a product of their on-the-court play, and that plays an undeniable role. But even teams without a history of success need to sell tickets and build an audience, and the onus for that falls on the marketing team.
“For us, that success looks like the Atlanta Hawks being the team of Atlanta and having sellouts every night,” says Proctor. “We control that on both the business side and on the basketball side, when everything works together we are successful.”
At least this far into the strategy, it seems like Proctor is onto something.
Feature image and Philips Arena image courtesy of the Atlanta Hawks/Getty Images