Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Six-Pack Interview Series: Kyle Sheldon, D.C. United’s Director of Marketing Communications (Part One)

Editor’s Note: This is a shorter version of our “12-Pack Interview Series” where we talk to the people, personalities, and groups that are shaping soccer in the United States.

Selling soccer in America is no easy task. Particularly in cities with many other major sports teams abound makes bursting through all that more difficult. The men and women on the front lines of this marketing war for Major League Soccer and their clubs have their work cut out for them.

We’ve remarked before that there are MLS clubs doing some amazing things to sell their teams and bring soccer to the forefront of fans minds in the U.S.

If you’re a fan of any MLS side you may or may not be aware of all the work that goes into the successful selling of soccer. Today (and tomorrow) the Free Beer Movement hopes to give you an inside look at the marketing efforts of one team, D.C. United.

From l to r: Corinne Thomas (future Mrs. Sheldon), Kyle Sheldon,
Ben Olsen, and Olson’s wife Megan Schoen
We spoke with Kyle Sheldon, United’s Director of Marketing Communication and self-proclaimed “soccer nerd”. He was kind enough to sit down and provide, in excellent and extreme detail, the focus of his department in selling DCU for the 2010 season.

Given Mr. Sheldon’s (very welcome) verboseness we’ve decided to take down a whole six-pack in one sitting may not be the most responsible so we’ll give you all two days to get through it all. Think of it like respecting a very high-alcohol imperial IPA or barleywine… those need to be sipped slowly and enjoyed in their full flavor.

Much like Kyle’s words.

[You can read “Part Two” of our interview with Kyle Sheldon here.]

1) D.C. United had a very difficult and tumultuous previous season in Major League Soccer. What’s was the marketing/media strategy going into this season?

2010 was a record-breaking year for D.C. United – unfortunately, as our supporters well know, we were breaking all of the wrong kinds of records. Our struggles on the pitch were widespread and well documented. The only benefit of being out of the playoff race by August was that we were able to turn our attention to 2011 very early on. We began season ticket renewals earlier than almost any year prior and conducted full analysis and evaluation for almost all of our major programs and ticket packages before the season was even over.

We also knew midway through 2010 that we were in the midst of Jaime Moreno’s last season in United black. He truly was the last link to the incredible early years of our club. Heading into 2011, we knew that we’d have a ton of new players that would be relatively unknown, especially to the general market fan. As we discussed our marketing communications strategy during the offseason, we were keenly aware we’d have to introduce a lot of new faces.

We had a number of things fall into place during the offseason the made our jobs a little bit easier. Ben Olsen being named Head Coach gave us a guy who was not only one of the best known players in club history, but someone who is quite possibly one of the best interviews in U.S. soccer. The acquisition of players like Dax McCarty, Josh Wolff and, of course, Charlie Davies, gave us a group of new guys who were not only going to be significant contributors on the field, but who were personable, engaging and great with fans and media alike. We were excited to introduce these guys to D.C. and our broad strategy centered on that idea – we needed to generate general market awareness, enliven and excite our hard-core supporters, and introduce the casual fan to the new faces of D.C. United. Our plan was to do that as best we could via paid advertisements (print, radio, digital, outdoor); local, regional and national media (radio, TV, online); internal content production and distribution (dcunited.com, Facebook, Twitter); and by hosting a series of local events that would draw fan attention and media coverage.

2) Your pre-season marketing efforts, and correct me if I’m wrong, seemed to focus on getting the United brand out into the larger D.C. market and was directed at potential casual fans. I’m going to list a few of the more recognizable ones and hope you can comment on what each one was, why you chose these opportunities, and what was the goal for each.

You’re not wrong. You’re spot on. In fact, I wrote the above answer before reading this question and you’ll notice we used almost the exact same language. To reiterate, gone were the likes of Jaime Moreno, Luciano Emilio, Christian Gomez, Ben Olsen and others that were well known in D.C. over the previous several years. We were coming off a terrible season and had a lot of new players and needed to reenergize a fan base and market.

* Ads at Metro stops and on Metro buses:

Our marketing team identified very early on the need to garner general market awareness via outdoor advertising. In short, people weren’t encountering our brand often enough to make an impact. Coupled with the fact that we had the previously mentioned new faces, our approach was two-fold – we wanted to smack people in the face with the D.C. United badge and introduce our new players. In other words, we needed to recapture some of the relevancy that was lost after missing playoffs for three straight seasons.

Our idea was not a novel one – we created a series of identifiers for some of our key players (Dax McCarty was The Engine, Andy Najar was The Phenom, Chris Pontius was The Workhorse, Santino Quaranta was The Veteran, etc.) and centered everything on the new man in charge – The General, Ben Olsen.
The call-to-action was simple (and centered around one of our most valuable assets): Join Olsen’s Army. The creative – designed by our Creative Director Ben Mahler – was also clean and simple. Big badge. Big player image. Very little copy. We wanted something that stood out amongst the clutter and didn’t try to do more than it needed to.

We did a mix of outdoor ads – within metro stations, on buses and at bus stops. We also did one large wallscape featuring Davies and Andy Najar, in a young, trendy neighborhood that hit just a few weeks before the home opener. To achieve the wide mix of (costly) ads, we worked with our partners, adidas, who supported a large portion of the total outdoor ad buy.

We received incredible feedback from our supporters. One of the benefits we hoped to see occurred very early on – our hard-core supporters were so jazzed to see their team represented around the city that they were tweeting, commenting on facebook and posting photos frequently. It empowered them to be excited about their team again.

I personally knew the campaign was a success when Ben Olsen – who was featured across all ads – pulled me aside and said, “what have you guys done? I can’t eat breakfast in this city anymore without someone coming up to me and saying ‘hey, you’re the general!’” I told Ben I was sorry… but that that’s exactly what we wanted.

* Third jersey launch at the Washington Auto Show:

Where United is, there also is Volkswagen. VW is obviously our biggest partner and is closely tied to everything we do. When conceiving of a launch for our third kit, we wanted something that was both different and high profile. We had several people internally working directly with Volkswagen – who invested a hefty amount of money in the event – to help us pull off the reveal during the busiest day of the Washington Auto Show, which sees tens of thousands of people come through the Washington Convention Center over a long weekend in February. 

We had a huge 15×15 foot replica 3rd jersey made and hung behind the stage and stationed a couple of good lookin’ VWs stage left and right. Of interest, we were somehow able to keep the kit under wraps until the actual reveal – something that is very rare these days. That led to significant web traffic for those wanting to see the new kit. Following the reveal our large jersey was hung at the Convention Center entry way for the remainder of the show. It ended up being a great crossover event that put us in front of a ton of people who might not have otherwise encountered our brand.

* United truck cruising the streets (and at D.C.’s Shamrock Fest):

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tbridge/
Our Marketing Manager, Amanda Farina, discovered the AdVan – why it’s called an AdVan and not an AdTruck is beyond me – while doing some research last year. The Portland Timbers used the truck for some of their promotions in 2010 and we immediately dug the uniqueness and high visibility the truck provided. In working with the Portland-based crew at All Points Media, we were able to secure the services of a truck the three weeks leading into our home opener. It aligned perfectly with our pre-season Olsen’s Army campaign and we jumped at the chance to do it. We were also lucky to work with a video production company based out of Minneapolis, Elite Edge, to create a really sick 90-second spot that played on a loop while the truck was out. The truck was in-market for 21 days and spent eight hours a day driving around downtown D.C., Northern Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland. We targeted high traffic areas around rush hour, lunch and big events (Capitals and Wizards games, concerts, Shamrock Fest, etc.). The driver also periodically parked the truck during the day and handed out home opener information and various premium items (key chains, sack packs, hats, tees).

* Ben’s Olsen’s Chili Bowl:

This little promotion was a bit of a miracle. As we entered the last two weeks before the home opener, we were looking for one more promotion that would generate general market interest and local media coverage. 

We worked with a topnotch local agency – AKQA – who conceived of the idea and helped us execute the entire thing in six days. For those that don’t know, Ben’s Chili Bowl is a D.C. landmark on U Street. It’s the most well known eatery in all of D.C. and happens to be about two blocks from Ben Olsen’s house. The Thursday before our Saturday home opener we took over Ben’s Chili Bowl and turned it into “Ben Olsen’s Chili Bowl.” The takeover included new signage on the front of the store and our giant 3rd kit hung up on the side of the building. From 6-7pm Thursday evening, we had Benny, Charlie Davies and Dax McCarty behind the counter giving out free half-smokes – their signature meal – to all in attendance. AKQA designed an exclusive “Ben Olsen’s Chili Bowl” t-shirt and anyone who purchased tickets to the home opener or checked-in to the Ben Olsen’s Chili Bowl location on foursquare received one for free. The full-time staff wore either a 3rd kit or D.C. United branded aprons the entire day.

We generated coverage from local TV affiliates, Comcast SportsNet and several local blogs. And, it was a whole ton of fun.

Video of the event:

3) Thus far most MLS teams haven’t tied much marketing to the coach, but you guys have made a pretty big deal about having people declare they’re apart of “Olsen’s Army”. Was this because Olsen has just as much name recognition as players on the team (being a former member of DCU)? Are you wary of tying your efforts too closely with a coach if things don’t go well?

Ben Olsen is the absolute man. Our fans adored him for the way he played – with heart, passion, grit, and determination – and loved his honesty and commitment to the team off the field. Because of his work in the community, he was and is very well connected outside of the soccer-loving public. In other words, he’s one of the best-known sports figures in Washington.

When he was named as the team’s Head Coach at the end of November last fall, we knew we had a guy that our supporters would get behind immediately.  As we discussed how to best integrate Benny into our pre-season campaign, we borrowed from a song our fans had sung for years in support of the head coach. The simple first lyrics of the song are “we’re all part of Benny’s army, we’re all out to win the League.” We made a slight adjustment using his last name in the formal campaign, but felt the message was just as strong. The call to action simple – join us.

Additionally, the Olsen’s Army campaign was conceived primarily as a pre-season initiative, so we instituted it knowing it would phase out as we got into the season and began to focus more on specific games. The team continues to do well – and the campaign has been successful enough – that we still use the tagline periodically. Clearly, if things don’t go well it becomes more difficult to use, but we also believe Ben has built up a lot of 
“political capital” with our supporters and that they’d support him through any potential early struggles.

[You can read “Part Two” of our interview with Kyle Sheldon here.]

All Photos Courtesy (and with permission) of D.C. United’s Flickr account unless otherwise noted. 

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Stan said…

United's marketing department has done a lot with what they had to work with this offseason.

One thing I wanted to note here:

"seemed to focus on getting the United brand out into the larger D.C. market and was directed at potential casual fans."

This describes demography, but probably not geography. It's been a pretty 'downtown-oriented' campaign from what I've seen. Lots of ads on Metro (trains and buses) and in newspapers like the Examiner and Express that are designed to be read on Metro. I interpret that as a way of focusing your message towards downtown.

Danny Beerseed said…

@ Stan –

Yeah that's a really good point. DCU seems to be focusing on that younger, urban casual fan. This is in line with many successful MLS sides. Switching away from the fleeting family dollar.

Good move either way.

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