Published on May 16, 2018, at 8:44 a.m.
by Halle Russo.
What do Tom Brady, the New England Patriots and the National Football League all have in common?
Strong, distinct branding.
While Tom Brady is technically a part of the New England Patriots and the New England Patriots are technically a part of the NFL, there is no doubt that these three entities have each forged their own separate images through their respective brand strategies.
Branding in the NFL presents a unique dynamic. Now, more than ever, players create their own personal brands, teams try to develop lasting images despite changes in their rosters each season, and the NFL as a whole tries to maintain the brand that it has fortified for nearly a century despite scandals and changes at the team and individual levels.
When he was preparing for his professional football career, Barkevious Mingo, who is currently an outside linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, said, “Building my brand is equally as important as getting prepared for the NFL draft,” in a Forbes interview.
Not only are players counting on their skills standing out on draft day, but they are also letting their personalities shine by cementing their personal brands on social media and in interviews. Defining a personal brand helps an athlete stand out to both prospective teams and prospective sponsors, such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.
Cam Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, earned $13 million from endorsement deals in 2017 in addition to his salary of $13 million. Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, earned $14 million from endorsement deals on top of his salary.
In addition to the monetary benefits from sponsorship deals, solidifying a personal brand is in the best interest of each athlete because it establishes an image that transcends an athlete’s time on the field. Even when no longer playing in the NFL, an individual can still capitalize on the image that they’ve created for themselves.
Olivia Ortiz, graduate student in the University of South Florida’s Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program and former student-athlete at The University of Alabama, said, “Players are partnering with brands that represent their personality. They’re cultivating their own brand that sticks out and gets the attention of as many fans as possible. The sports industry is constantly moving, so players don’t always stay with a particular team for a destined amount of time. They’re looking to set themselves up for future opportunities.”
In the 2017 season, the NFL relaxed its rules on footwear during pre-game activities, which presented an even greater opportunity for players to both express their personalities and to partner with brands that don’t necessarily represent the entire team.
For instance, the Washington Redskins are sponsored by Nike. However, 23 of their players don’t wear Nike cleats during pre-game.
Redskins’ cornerback, Josh Hosley, commented on his teammates wearing competing brands in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article. “Everyone brings their own flavor, it just depends on what you like,” he said.
Prior to even being drafted by a team in the 2018 NFL Draft, Saquon Barkley became the season’s first upcoming rookie to sign a sponsorship deal with Nike, announcing the partnership on his Twitter account, @saquon.
“Brand loyalty is huge, which is why I think brands are beginning to reach out to youth teams and partner with youth athletic programs. They’re trying to ingrain their image and brand value at a young age so that they’ll forever have loyalty from those athletes,” Ortiz said.
Even though NFL athletes seem to be increasingly developing their personal brands, each team’s brand is still extremely important. It builds a sense of community on and off of the field, and it establishes a loyal fan base that reaches far beyond a single season.
“Each player is an image of the overall team,” Ortiz said. “Even when players get those partnerships outside of their team’s partners, there still needs to be a way to ensure some cohesiveness to create that team-central mindset.”
“Each team has to decide who they want to be and know their fan base. They not only have to consider who’s the best fit for their team in terms of who’s a good player, but they also have to consider that player’s personality,” Rachel Echevarria, advertising coordinator for OPEN MINDS and former Elon University student who conducted her senior capstone project on branding in the NFL, said. “Teams with a really strong image usually have multiple players that are not only good on the field, but also have a really strong personality off the field as well … usually they’re really active on social media.”
Tim McDermott, former CMO of the Philadelphia Eagles, thought about Eagles’ fans as the “true owners” of the brand and focused on communicating the Eagles’ brand to the next generation of fans: children. A 2012 Fast Company article explained, “Since 2004, the Eagles have targeted kids in various ways including a television show, a website and a club that McDermott says is the largest kids club membership of any sports team in the United States.”
Echevarria’s study specifically cited three teams that strengthen their image through strong brand communication on their websites: the Dallas Cowboys, the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. Her study states that “brand personality was evident by the incorporation of team colors, logos, fonts, and player images, as well as the tone conveyed through various images and text.”
When looking at the New England Patriots website, Echevarria explained, “The depiction of quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick posing victoriously with the Lombardi trophy and the multiple mentions of ‘five-time champions’ on the home page align with the Patriots’ boastful brand personality.”
With so many moving parts at both the team and individual levels, it’s a testament to the strength of the NFL’s brand strategy that the league has been able to maintain a cohesive image since it was founded in 1920.
A DMN article discussed the importance of the NFL engaging its target audience through multiple channels and fantasy football leagues, and the league’s symbol as two keys to its success as a brand. The article stated, “From the field to the jersey to the broadcast, every game is branded with the NFL symbol. The products, in turn, are a sum of the greater concept.”
This success also rests on the NFL’s extensive list of identity guidelines. The league has 45 pages of rules dedicated to the shield and house style alone.
According to the NFL’s identity guidelines, the brand positions itself as “the premier sports and entertainment brand that brings people together socially and emotionally like no other.”
Ortiz points to the overall experience and football’s long history as the basis of NFL brand loyalty. “It’s one of the greatest sports in America, and it’s the promised experience that the NFL has always brought. You can’t take that away, no matter what everyone’s opinion is, and no matter what the players’ sponsors are. [The NFL] will still get fans in the seats because of the love of the game.”
Echevarria echoed Ortiz’s viewpoint, explaining, “There’s just that deep-rooted fan loyalty that’s been present since football became an American pastime.”
Whether it’s an individual athlete, a team or the league as a whole, branding in the NFL works together at all levels to generate an experience that isn’t found in any other industry. While rosters and trends may change each year, the image that the players, the teams and the league create will endure forever.