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Marketing Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

Valuable lessons brands can learn from the NFL’s ‘helmets off’ marketing strategy

By Margo Waldrop | Content Writer

December 1, 2022 | 9 min read

The NFL is the king of sports marketing. Your brand can learn a thing or two.

https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/03/06/only-9-of-the-worlds-plastic-is-recycled

NFL Helmets Off Strategy / NFL - National Football League/Adrian Curiel/Unsplash

There’s no denying that the NFL (National Football League) has perfected the art of marketing. They are everywhere and not just during the football season but year-round. Social media, commercials, podcasts, blogs, YouTube, TikTok, live streaming, guest spots, and podcasts are just the tip of the iceberg. While their ‘be everywhere’ strategy isn’t necessarily new, their ‘helmets off’ strategy, is.

Chief Marketing Officer for the NFL, Tim Ellis, brought his marketing wizardry to the American football league in a successful bid to engage younger audiences.

The man obviously knows what he’s doing having spent seven years pushing Activision’s marketing game to the top, with a massively successful launch of Call of Duty, hitting $1 billion in sales within 15 days. He previously oversaw a marketing surge for Volkswagen of America, commanding a market share of over 63%.

Ellis is a force of nature and when he puts his mind to growing a brand he knocks it out of the park. Which is exactly why taking note of his current strategy is an exceptionally smart move for other brands.

Go deep with your strategy

When first hired, Ellis saw a gap between the NFL fanbase and a much-needed youthful market. Understanding today’s Gen Z and even millennial groups was key in implementing what came next. He recognized that younger generations liked ‘up close and personal’. They followed celebrities and influencers just to get a glimpse into their daily lives and get to know them like they would a friend. It wasn’t necessarily the athletic connection they needed with players, but the ‘he’s just like me’ bond of a personal connection.

Ellis’ ‘helmets off’ approach boiled down to showing the faces, and personalities of players so audiences could get to know them on a more personal level. He removed the shield of anonymity by strategizing the use of players in ads, social media, game teasers, and any other mode that would help highlight the NFL brand. His goal was to show the players off the field and allow fans to view them as normal human beings – funny, vulnerable, compassionate, and hard working.

Partnerships pay off

Once the ‘helmets off’ strategy took off, companies were quick to capitalize on the potential it offered their own brand. The NFL garnered partnerships with companies who were itching to utilize the off-the-field talents of players. In fact, one of their more lucrative collaborations involved a $1 billion deal with Nike.

NFL players quickly became household names for reasons other than their athletic skills. Kansas City quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, became a fan favorite and has been featured in ads with State Farm Insurance, Bose Headphones, Adidas Sportswear, and the Call of Duty video game, just to name a few. His personal social media accounts have also accumulated a following of over 8 million fans.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end, Rob Gronkowski, also a fan favorite, has appeared in ads for ESPN, Dunkin’ Donuts, Visa, Tide, DraftKings, and Footlocker, in addition to charity work that keeps his face front and center despite his retirement from football.

It’s this ‘front and center’ philosophy that allows players to expand their reach laterally across a multitude of brands and still tie the relationships back to the NFL.

Think wayyyyy outside of the box

Ellis’ strategy also included bringing a sense of humor to their marketing, which pushed players out of their comfort zone personalizing them even more. The NFL took advantage of YouTube’s reach by creating humorous on the spot reels, taking viewers behind the scenes of professional football, into camps, locker rooms, and anywhere a fan wouldn’t normally get to see.

One of the NFL’s more clever moves involved the creation of NFL Tuesday Night Gaming, a YouTube tournament series that teams up top gamers in direct gaming competitions with NFL players. This series brings in a demographic that isn’t normally associated with professional football – gamers. It is the marriage of two highly competitive, die-hard fan-based sports who should have been sympatico all along.

Another strategic move involved highlighting the NFL’s strong commitment to community. Players are routinely shown interacting with various charities and local foundations, providing even stronger, personal relationships for fans. A great example is the NFL’s own foundation for cancer prevention, Crucial Catch, which encourages diagnostic testing and follows players into hospitals as they visit patients.

The genius of Ellis’ strategy also included tackling the controversy that has plagued the football league for years – player safety. The NFL had recently been under fire for their lax procedures in allowing concussed players to continue to play. In a bid to get fans onboard with their advancing safety precautions, the NFL created a video to show the science and technology that goes into manufacturing helmets that will protect players’ heads and reduce brain trauma resulting from repeated concussions.

NFL helmet safety video

Click here to watch video.

While the NFL has been around since 1920 when ten football teams gathered in Canton, Ohio to create the American Professional Football Association, now known as the National Football League, its evolution has peaked into marketing brilliance. In no small part, thanks to Tim Ellis and his knack of turning a stale strategy onto its head. Ellis once proudly addressed his strategic initiative, “Not only were we able to sort of get the attention and start to bring in these younger fans into the brand, but we also began to drive energy and youthfulness into the brand itself”.

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Brands can certainly learn a lesson or two here, so let’s recap:

1. Go deep with your strategy:

  • Find your marketing gaps by finding your audience gaps.
  • Future proof your brand by expanding your audience.
  • Get to know your current or future customers exceptionally well.
  • Discover new ways of reaching your customers.
  • Show off your company – the people, the hard work, what you do, and why you do it

2. Partnerships pay off:

  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for lucrative partnerships with other brands that complement yours.
  • Stretch laterally by expanding your brand across a variety of opportunities and channels.

3. Think outside of the box

  • Laughter connects people, let your brand have a sense of humor.
  • Team up with a completely different industry for a mutual marketing extension.
  • Wear your heart on your sleeve by demonstrating a commitment to community.
  • Address your mistakes or controversies head on.

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