The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the sports world in profound and largely unprecedented ways, driving cancellations and forcing brands to find innovative ways to field their product and connect with core audiences.
Geoff Miller, Associate Director at Interbrand, speaks with Major League Soccer’s Senior Vice President of Brand and Integrated Marketing, David Bruce, about how MLS is successfully navigating this challenging period by leaning into the needs of its fans and its players—and how using brand as a north star has helped the league navigate the uncertainty of our new normal.
Starting with the big picture, how have you stayed close to your existing fans and continued to grow the league’s fanbase—as well as supporting individual teams’ efforts to do so—during the pandemic?
The hardest part of working in sports right now is that your product has been turned off. How do you create a connection knowing that the optimal way of delivering your brand is in a live environment with fans?
We started to think about two things really quickly. First, how do we continue to motivate and engage fans in a time when delivering what makes you special is challenging? And second, on the commercial side, how we are able to retain partner dollars and keep the engine going?
In the absence of live games, we decided to lean into our incredible fan base and support the things that they care about. We created MLS Unites, a league-wide platform launched in partnership with the MLS Players Association that highlights all the efforts that players, coaches, the clubs and the league were making to address the important messages and programs taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overall, we are seeing consumers placing trust in individuals and everyone was looking towards our players. MLS players became the delivery vehicle for the messaging around social distancing, washing your hands, wearing a mask, etc. From education to providing fun and engaging content, we featured MLS players doing things at home such as exercising and reading bedtime stories to their kids. MLS Unites campaign also showcased community “heroes” who were fighting the pandemic on the frontlines.
Since the start of this year, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of support for social and racial justice across the sporting landscape. Can you share a bit more about the decision to overtly support Black Lives Matter—both during the MLS is Back tournament and the resumed regular season—in the way that you have, and how these decisions have impacted MLS’ brand?
During the pandemic, we have seen more human actions from brands around their communities than ever before. Brands that have been successful have been incredibly aware of themselves and of what’s been going on in the world, connecting authentically with the needs of their communities, whether it is around COVID-19 or the broader social justice movement.
George Floyd’s unnecessary death, along with so many others, was felt very deeply by our soccer community. MLS is a diverse brand that welcomes people from all different types of backgrounds. Inclusivity is at our core. We believe in creating a product and environment in which our staff, players, partners and fans are treated with dignity and respect. A group of players came together to create Black Players for Change, an organization of more than 170 Black MLS players that was formed to give Black players a voice and assist in making systemic change both inside and outside of the league. Together with the entire MLS community, we will continue to marshal the power of our collective platforms to enact social change.
Our return to play took place during an important moment in the ongoing, global discussion about racism, social justice and equality. The demonstration by the 170 Black Players for Change before the opening match was powerful and memorable. every single Black player on the field telling the world how they felt, having that moment of silence and solidarity with their fists in the air. That was probably one of the most powerful things that I’d ever seen. Throughout the tournament, the players, coaches and referees kept social justice front and center.
MLS worked with the players to amplify their message. The iconography and the visual system around Black Lives Matter were designed by players—The Black Lives Matter t-shirt was designed by Warren Creavalle from the (Philadelphia) Union. Sports has a unique role to create a dialogue between players and fans and effectuate positive social change.
As the league continues to grow, how is your team working with expansion franchises in Charlotte and St. Louis to create, launch and build their brands? How has this process been different as a result of the pandemic, in terms of your engagement with key stakeholders, from owners to agency partners and beyond?
Nothing has changed because of the pandemic, there is still a process to move through to get to the right result. Every market is distinct, every fan base is unqiue, and every club’s surrounding commercial community is incredibly varied. The way that you build the brand should be uniquely personal to that particular club and their circumstances. There are some things that we want to see along the way to ensure that the club articulates a unique strategy, a foundation by which they can build around – not just a visual system but also a sense of culture and purpose – an attitude that drives the things that they do every single day.
These new clubs need to stand for something to recognize success and value. Standing for something means owning your truth and behaving consistently across everything they do. Every club has to create a strategy and follow that path forward. Charlotte, Austin and St Louis brands all feel very right for them. It’s routed in a city’s uniqueness at the macro and micro level of culture. Soccer is a young sport, followed by a younger demographic that expects to have a different role in the birth of the club. When we are able to align those elements and principles together, we create a modern progressive sports club, and we are at our best.
How has the transition to remote work impacted your team and the league at large? What aspects of this transition—and our new normal—have surprised and/or frustrated you most?
I was pretty freaked out when I realized that we were going to be working remotely. Creativity is born in these early forms of an idea that generally becomes something bigger and more powerful because multiple people are seeing it, working on it, and advancing it to a point where you realize you have something special. I was nervous at the beginning, thinking about how we could continue to be creative and engage with our fans, all while staying apart.
During this time, we told a great story around our 25th season. Being remote and thinking outside of the box was a challenge. The good news was we have a true north star. We have a true sense of who we are and ideating in a physical location verses a virtual one didn’t really matter. Virtual working is going to continue and to become even more powerful. We relied on the power of our League brand to drive true connectivity. During the past few months, I have seen more creativity in my team and in the league than at any other time.
We recently unveiled the newest iteration of our 25th celebration brand campaign, “Our Soccer.” The spot features Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, who is also the co-owner of Austin FC, MLS’ latest expansion franchise that will start play in 2021. It’s a campaign that celebrates the growth of the soccer movement, highlighting MLS as the league for a new North America and depicts the story of “25 Years in 25 Seconds”.