Branding has shifted over the past decade from ensuring consistency to stimulating desire; from creating functional and emotional differentiation to fundamentally changing the way a business goes to market; and from communicating the consumer experience to actually shaping it. Adam Zimmerman and the Atlanta Braves are a case study in this inspired thinking. Here, brandchannel talks to Zimmerman, the Braves’ SVP of Marketing, about the bold moves his club has taken to leap ahead of customers and competitors around Major League Baseball and beyond. —Blaine McEvoy
What is the human truth at the center of the Braves’ brand?
We constantly remind ourselves of the role that we play in people’s lives. And I don’t think that’s a hyperbole. People share remarkable stories of what’s happened to them at our stadiums, first at Turner Field and now at SunTrust Park. Things like, “I met my wife there,” and “my grandfather introduced me to baseball and it was the last thing we did before he died.” Those are really powerful things that people carry around. And our brand is attached to all of them. But what really differentiates us is our “Southerness.” People visit Atlanta and move here from all over the world. We’ve got a great music scene, a great food scene, and gentle, old-fashioned core values that everyone agrees on to a certain extent. Think “yes sir” and “no sir.” Think the “thank you, ma’am” and “be nice to your neighbor” mantra. We’re warm and friendly. Those are our truths.
How do you activate that, authentically and attractively, for fans of the club?
Our research says the number one reason why people buy tickets is what I’ll call the “on-field product:” they want to see a good game, and they want to see the Braves win. As a marketer, that’s something I can’t control. But what I can control is how they feel when they come here. Fans and visitors should feel that they are experiencing some of the attributes of the South. Remember southern hospitality? Well, we embody that. We live that every day. It’s what we teach our front-line staff—the ushers, greeters, ticket takers, and people who wipe down your seat. They are really our brand. Over time, they get to know our fans by name. But we’re not only doing face-to-face interactions. We’ve also invested heavily in our app. So we know if it’s your first game. We know if it’s your birthday. We know if you’re having an anniversary. And we’re able to scale that. Maybe 500 people are celebrating something in the ballpark tonight. We make sure that they are celebrated. We go that extra mile through face-to-face interactions, and through data and analytics, to really serve-up something that makes you feel appreciated and like an honored guest.
What big, bold bets are the Braves making to leap ahead of competitor and customer expectations?
There are four ways to make money in professional sports: tickets, food, merchandise, and media rights. What we’ve done is added a fifth—commercial real estate, that we own and operate. In every space, we ask ourselves, “How can the Braves brand live and breathe here, 365 days a year, and act as a destination for people?” That gave us the permission to partner with Live Nation, who we’re 50/50 with on a 4,000-person music venue. We also partnered with Omni Hotels & Resorts to see what a hotel experience should look like today. They helped us with all of our bars, restaurants, and shops. We have the fastest Wi-Fi network right now in North America. In today’s environment, you’ve got to provide the opportunity for your fans to be totally immersed. You are reminded of the Braves brand in everything you see and do here. It’s unique amongst professional teams and something that people have come from all over the country to study.
What should a more traditional brand builder take away from this conversation?
You’ve got to take a risk: put things out there that you hope people will bite on, and then play it from there. That’s where our real estate play began. We asked ourselves, “if we had our own neighborhood, what could that look like?” We wanted to create an environment where people who were on a date could have that experience. And people that are out here to party, they can have that experience. And people who are serious fans, they can really get into the game and ballpark. In short, we designed our stadium around modern customer expectations.
But can reinvention go too far?
There were some things that we just put out there to see if they will take. Honestly, we’re constantly doing that. One of the mantras we have here is, “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” Well, one day we said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a DJ who played under a big baseball strobe light that transformed our parking lot into a club every Friday and Saturday night? It might suck. People might hate it. But they might love it.” And guess what: they do. So you have to encourage your people to dream, and have the courage to activate that bravery every day.