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Cohesive Branding During Controversy: The NFL's Anthem Response

Jeff Lane, Bo Bothe, Elizabeth Tindall, Ashley Horne


Solving for B°
Cohesive Branding During Controversy: The NFL's Anthem Response

In today's NFL, players have as big a platform as ever. It is their constitutional right to speak out about what they believe but what happens when the medium gets in the way of their message? How does the NFL, and its constituent teams, handle a topic that evokes such strong emotions? What can they do?

In this episode, we'll address those topics and provide insight into the things your brand should consider if it decides to take a position on an issue. We'll also discuss how to ensure that your message doesn't get lost in the medium that you choose. We hope you enjoy the latest installment of the Solving for B° Podcast.

Read the Transcript

NFL Logo and Footballs

*This transcript has been edited and formatted for readability.

The NFL's National Anthem Controversy 

Jeff: Today we are joined by President and CEO, Bo Bothe; Brand Manager, Ashley Horne; and Brand Strategist, Elizabeth Tindall.

We will talk about managing your brand message when somebody within your company takes a stand on a controversial issue. We will also discuss strategies you need to think about both before this happens and once it's out there and people are responding.

The NFL is probably one of the most widely recognized brands in the world. Although a seemingly bulletproof brand, it is dealing with some issues right now. Many players have decided to take a stand on an issue and make a statement by kneeling during or not attending the national anthem before the game, a traditional and sacred thing for many people.

Now, the NFL and its players are having to deal with this controversial issue. We want to talk about that today because this is something your brand could experience at some point.

Bo: This all came up when we were in the office talking about how we are always guiding our clients in what they should do, what they shouldn't do, how they should represent their brand and what they believe in.

At some point, we wondered about how to deal with situations where beliefs are different. Everybody's different in an organization, so what if somebody stands up in a different way? What's the appropriate medium to stand up? How do you handle this? Our conversation then focused on our clients and the things they deal with daily.

It was not a political or social discussion. We were talking about how somebody could get their message out without putting things in the way of it.

Jeff: I want to be clear about the fact that we're not really going to discuss the merits of whether or not you should protest at all. We're all about free speech, and we think it can be appropriate for a brand to take a stance on an issue. We want to discuss the importance of thinking about it beforehand, having a strategy and having a plan.

Elizabeth: I think what this situation brought to light within a branding perspective is ideas like understanding your audience, what's sacred to them and how they could potentially react to certain actions. We need to consider their beliefs and motivations when we're first starting to uncover what a brand's strategy might be.

It's also about looking at the right mediums and platforms for delivering communications, no matter what they are. Another aspect to consider is the associations people may have regarding the brand, and how these associations affect and impact these strategies.

The NFL’s situation, particularly, had a far-reaching impact – for better or worse – on many different industries. Advertisers are pulling ad dollars. Sponsors are being impacted and having to figure out reactions. There are sports bars that are choosing whether to show the game or cut portions of the game.

Some advertisers like Budweiser are taking a proactive stance and using this situation as a platform to further their brand. Rather than responding one way or another, they just opened up a hotline – as a neutral party – to let listeners voice their opinion.

But there are all kinds of wide-reaching implications and aspects of a brand that we can delve into.

Jeff: It sounds like no matter what your stance is, there's going to be a reaction. The main thing is to think about it ahead of time and understand what the reaction might be. Some might think the reaction is unfair while others might think the action is irrational. But understanding that there will be some kind of reaction allows you to prepare.

Elizabeth: It goes back to what we always say: you can't really control your brand once it's out there in the marketplace; you can only try to manage it.

How to Handle Negative Backlash

Jeff: What is the best way to deal with a situation where a leader or employee comes out and takes a stance and the brand has to deal with negative feedback?

For example, a few years ago, Chick-Fil-A's leadership had a position on an issue. And once it became public knowledge, people started boycotting their stores.

How do you respond to these types of reactions? What are some of the things you need to think about once it's out there?

Bo: You need to think a lot about it before it gets out there. But sometimes you don't have much control over it, like an individual athlete deciding to kneel during the anthem.

The reaction the league and the teams took was, “It's all right as Americans to stand up for what we believe in.” Though the media may have gotten in the way, the reaction of the league was reasonable.

That's what we should do as businesses: support our people, talk to them about the ramifications of it, look at how it's affecting your brand or the way people perceive you in the marketplace. Either associate or disassociate.

In this case, the NFL couldn't disassociate because of their large number of employees. So how do you deal with this in a positive way? The key is determining how to do it in a respectful way, understanding both sides and being able to say, “Look, we may not agree, but we understand.”

And that's hard. You're going to take a beating for it either way. But it is better to take it head-on, rather than turning around and ignoring it, because that never works.

Ashley: To some degree, it's worth taking the time in advance, as Bo mentioned. Ideally, you'll have a plan and a strategy of what messages you want to convey. But to Jeff’s point, if an employee steps outside of that, what do you do?

It's worth having a preparedness plan. To do that, you need to know what your brand voice is and what messages you stand for. It is important to take time in advance with your marketing and PR teams.

That's something you can do before anything happens. It really needs to be tied to your brand position, values and brand messages. This will be a way to salvage some of these inevitable outliers as you're working to manage a brand.

Jeff: We live in America and a lot of Americans have a lot of pride and patriotism because we acknowledge a person's freedom to speak up. One of the interesting things about America, though, is that often that freedom comes into conflict with another. Fortunately, we live in a country where we're allowed to work through that.

If your brand is a company of up to 50 people, it might be easier to control communication efforts, deal with crisis plans and get everybody on the same page.

But the NFL is a pretty large organization. They have 32 branch offices, if you will: the teams. Then you have all of these players on these team. It might be hard to tell everybody what to say.

It's a tricky thing. But we noticed that a lot of the teams were allowed to respond in their own way, and a lot of the teams got together and said, “How do we feel about this? What do we want to do together?” That’s a positive way of dealing with such an issue. Would you agree?

Managing the Communication of a Layered Brand

Bo: Absolutely. There's the NFL and then the NFL’s sub-brands. It's a brand architecture issue. The sub-brands are the teams and those teams are individual business units. Each of those is in a different part of the country with a different fan base, with a different group of people. As you're trying to manage that brand you cannot take too much control over it. 

I am a Texans fan because I am in Houston and I'm part of it. So each of these groups has a different identity, and each of those identities can't be completely controlled by a mothership. The mothership does have a brand to uphold that overarches everything, but that makes it even more complicated.

Take the Steelers, for instance. The Rooney family has been very involved in social justice issues over its lifetime and the Steelers, Pittsburgh itself, has always had the history of racial tension. What do you do in that situation? As a sub-brand of a larger brand, you have your individual beliefs, your group beliefs and your corporate beliefs. How do you reconcile all those For years the NFL has done a good job of managing that.

Take it down to the individual, Alejandro Villanueva. He had to stand because he took an oath for the flag. How do you ask him not to do that? So all of those things are caught up in this effort of trying to make a decision. But the ultimate thing goes down to respecting both the individual and the group.

It’s a two-way street. Your employees have to respect that you're an entity that stands for something in the marketplace. And you have to hire the right people who may not agree with everything you say or do. And even may have very different beliefs, but at least understand and respect that.

That's going back to what Ashley was talking about. The brand has to set their values, beliefs, and a way to handle crises in the beginning. I would think that most athletes said something like, “I agree with the issue and I want to support it, but I'm also employed by this group and it's a team setting. I want to be a part of the team.” That's a big part of this discussion.

Finding Opportunity in Crises

Jeff: There's also a wonderful opportunity for the NFL to respond in a really positive way. They could unify groups and reach out to their own community and say, “Let's tackle this issue.”

In this case, it's racial inequality. They could take a leadership role because on a football team, like a lot of sports teams, color doesn't matter. What matters is if can you play, you’re a good teammate, you work hard. These are the beautiful things about team sports. But team sports can also step up in the community and lead.

There must be some opportunities to reach out and say, “Let's talk about this as a community and discuss how we can fix these problems.” That way, the NFL would be saying, “We're addressing the issue, we want to make it work because, in a lot of ways, team sports deal with that issue every day. We're all equal and we're all in this together…”  which is an American value. So there would be a patriotic side to it as well.

Elizabeth: It goes back to the brand and the beliefs of the brand. Many of the companies that we work with have community outreach and involvement events. Usually, it's very closely tied to their values and culture, so it's really a matter of embracing that.

What do you believe in? What do you want to impact outside of your company and your organization? Once that is determined, it must be tightly woven with your company, your culture, your values and your strategy.

Jeff: When we engage with clients that are creating or re-building a brand, we address their mission, vision and values, and how important each of those are. They’re not just words on a page; they really do have an impact on people. If you embrace them, they can energize you and lead initiatives. 

We are pretty serious about our values here at BrandExtract, and we work really hard to live them every day. Every company must make sure these statements and values are guiding them the right way. That is, make sure everybody's aware of them; that they know them and they behave by them.

Brand Values and Brand Association

Bo: This is an issue of brand association. Using American Football as an example; it is an American sport so the American brand is all in that. It would be one thing if we were talking about soccer or any other sport that is global or that started in a certain place.

But this is one truly American sport so all of those values – the equality, teamwork, work, hard work, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, anybody can be, anybody can work hard enough to win – are in there.

When you try to separate these brand associations that have been built up over the years, and, as an individual, decide you’re going to stand up for something, it culturally stands out.

One of the things we've talked about is simplicity. What are people really kneeling for? There might be confusion around that. Different people are kneeling for different parts of the same issue but it's not coordinated.

Timing is another issue in this case. When is the right time to kneel? When is the right time to take a stand?

And finally, emotion. That’s the medium being used in this situation. We're kneeling on one of the most sacred elements for American culture.

Some people argue that this is part of our rights. And yes, of course, it's your right. But there are always consequences to your actions. Especially when it comes to a medium that will get in the way of at least half the audience. Your purpose is equality, not standing out. And these get confused by people. 

In this case, the brand association of America with American Football, its core values and how they work together play a big role. They get muddled up and it becomes too complex for someone to unpack and say, “I stand for equality.” They can't put that together in their heads.

This is the importance of brand positioning. What do you stand for? What's your one message? What is the one thing you want people to understand about you?

When those start to splinter, your employees start to differ. Things don't work quite as well and people can see it. You're definitely going to get attention, but half the audience is going to shut you out, and that doesn't benefit the cause.

The Importance of Knowing Your Audience

Jeff: When most business leaders want to tackle an initiative, they sit down and think about the pros and cons. “This is going to be really profitable for us, but we might have to give up something over here…” You weigh those things before you make really big decisions. When it affects your brand, it's the same thing.

Ashley: You really do have to know your audience, but you also have to think about how they may misunderstand what you're trying to say. Bo mentioned that people were standing for different reasons, which can only make the message confusing. You must know your audience and understand how they might interpret what you're saying.

But the vehicle is also very important. Stay away from things that may be sacred. Although you get attention, it increases your likelihood to alienate or even upset a certain section of your audience. The NFL’s audience is made up of all kinds of demographics. That's something that needs to be considered, no matter who it is that you're talking to. 

The Importance of a Thoughful Response

Jeff: I'm a big proponent of responding to a crisis in a positive way. For example, the leader in basketball, for quite some time now, has been LeBron James. He's an icon that transcends the sport. 

During a similar issue where people were upset about racial inequality – and he's a member of the race that was experiencing the inequality – he could have responded in an aggressive or controversial way. But he stepped up and used his platform to say, “We need to battle this with love.

That’s an example of someone trying to step up and unite, as opposed to being controversial. When you experience one of these situations, you can take it as an opportunity. You could say, “How can we reach out and be a positive influence? Even if we're experiencing some controversy, or if one of our own has stepped out and elicited a harsh response... how can we step forward and be leaders? How can we move people forward? How can we unite?”

That's an opportunity that can actually elevate your brand and move it forward.

Bo: There's the saying “The message is the medium.” When you make the medium the message - – standing on the flag, running down a president – any of these things that are sacred to a certain group of people, that's all they will hear.

People see you dislike the president, you're kneeling during the anthem, and even assume you're disrespecting the flag. But the reality is that might not be your intention. They may be saying they disagree; they may be saying they want some difference. But all someone can see is the medium and they cannot hear the message.

When you're level-headed as a leader, when you have a platform, you must use it wisely. That is, being synced about what your message is, how you're going to share it and making sure those messages align with the set values. This way, it becomes a lot easier for people to hear you and to get things done.

Those are conversations we have around here all the time. “Why aren't things getting done?” In this case, the medium is getting in the way of the message.

Elizabeth: It's also important to have a thoughtful plan. And it is not just reacting but taking a step back and figuring out what the course of action is, even if bad things happen. 

If you can figure out the plan of how to proactively course-correct, reinforce that through communication. You must also figure out what's the right communication strategy. You might have had missteps, but you can always course-correct with a thoughtful plan – moving forward and reinforcing that. But silence or knee-jerk reactions aren't going to work.

Bo: Well, I think you saw it the Sunday after the president’s comments. Each team was left to their own design. With each team individually outside the brand, there were 32 different opinions, and it confused the country and football fans. 

Regarding Elizabeth’s point on planning, there needs to be some deep thought that cannot happen at midnight the night before the game. The planning component is huge for managing that message.

Jeff: Exactly.

Well, this has been great! We thank you for listening. Please feel free to post any response, share it because this is an important topic and we can all learn from it. Thank you very much!