How Not to Rely on Advertising to Build Your Sports Brand

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It can be daunting to set up a brand new sports brand when you face mega-names like Nike and Adidas. These athletic giants can spend your entire marketing or branding budget to produce on single TV spot, and you can’t hope to match that at this stage in your company’s life.

Besides which, today’s customer is a lot more sophisticated, and responds less strongly to broadcast, one-way marketing than they used to. In order to create and maintain a cult following that will act as your springboard to the big leagues, you will need to focus on a more grass roots approach.

Focus On the Product

When faced with a choice, you should always invest your time and money in your product, not marketing. A good product will find ways to thrive without advertising, but advertising will not survive a bad product or a brand disconnect. Even if advertising does bring a measure of success to a bad product, all it will eventually do is expose other people to its shortcomings and bring about comparisons to better built competitors.

There’s another reason you should focus on product first. Whether you offer sports apparel, footwear, equipment, or training aids/supplements, your key customers—the athletes—will be very frank in evaluating your wares. An athlete who falls in love with your product will be your best friend and most vocal advocate. These are the early adopters, who generate the sort of word of mouth advertising that marketers would kill for. These are the people who will help your product grow without paid advertising. And they will only do so if your product is worth their attention.

Get the Right Endorser

Once you’ve created a great product, you need to put it in the right hands. If you get can find the right celebrity athlete, they may give your brand a huge boost in publicity and help drive interest. Find an athlete that fits your brand personality, keeps a good athletic record, and has a stable personality. The last thing you want is for your chosen endorser to be embroiled in scandal after scandal.

Many top brands pay athletes copious amounts of cash for an endorser, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Try sending a sample of your product to athletes you want to have as endorsers (but first make sure they’re not locked into an existing agreement with a competitor). This is kind of a gamble on your part, because you have no guarantee that they will respond favorably. But it’s a good risk because a) if they decline, it will only have cost you a few units of product, and b) if they agree, then they will be converts with access to all sorts of media outlets where they might be able to praise your brand. Be aware, however, that some business-minded athletes might not want to tout your product for free, no matter how much they love it. Be prepared to shell out some cash for an endorsement deal regardless.

Foster a Community

Sports have always had a strong social aspect to them. Athletes bond together through training, competition, and a mutual passion for their sport. Fans gather to support their favorite athletes, to celebrate their victories, and to mourn their losses.

As an emerging brand, fostering this kind of community within your customers is a great way to generate a strong following. Find your biggest and most loyal advocates—the ones who buy your product the day it comes out—and befriend them. Don’t just sell to them. Get to know them. Ask for their impressions of the new product, how it could be improved, and what they do like. Make them your sounding boards for new ideas. Let them feel like they have a stake in your company’s success. Let them feel your passion for your product, and encourage them to share in it. They more they feel like their opinion is valued, the further they’ll be willing to go to help you succeed—and that includes talking to other athletes.

Connect With the Emotion

Sports brings out very strong emotions in people, both in athletes and fans alike. Oftentimes, the reason people participate in a sport is not for the sake of the activity itself, but for the emotions the activity generates. The feeling of power and strength as fighters conquer each other in hand to hand combat. The giddy thrill of tempting fate as skiers glide down a freshly powdered hill. The satisfaction of well-coordinated teamwork as a quarterback passes flawlessly to his receiver.

Create a strong identity for your brand that your customers can relate to and absorb into their own identities as athletes. A brand of running shoe that is “rugged and independent”, for example, is music to the ears of trail runners, who love the solitude of the trail and atmosphere of the untamed wilderness.

You don’t have to rely on advertising to get these ideas across. Your brand can communicate through your marketing materials, your POS displays, in-store posters, and your logos. But you can also express your identity through your product names, the product design, and the packaging. And let’s not forget your website. Keep your message consistent through all of these.

Hustle

If there’s one thing paid advertising does best, it’s reach. Mass distribution across many homes, shops, and cities. It’s got a hefty price attached to it, but it can reach much farther and faster than nearly any other tool at your disposal.

So you’ll have to really hustle to make up for it.

Don’t stop. Don’t rest. Don’t let your brand collapse. Market and build up your company at every opportunity (but don’t be crass and turn off your customers in the process). Constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to network, to market, to sell, to distribute. Ron Foxcroft, the man behind the Fox 40 whistle, used in professional games all over North America, peddled his revolutionary product to his fellow referees backstage during games. He had no advertising budget. All of his fledgling funds were devoted to R&D and production, and he was the only sales staff he could afford. But he hustled, and persevered, and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. And so can you.

Be the biggest name nobody’s heard of.