What CEOs and CMOs Can Learn from the Chargers Mishaps
From my perspective there are two differing and opposing belief systems within the Chargers organization. One is the ownership perspective, which is focused on increasing the value of the Chargers NFL franchise. The other is the front office roles of branding, PR and marketing, which is charged with creating a loyal fan base and selling tickets for both the team on the field and the fan experience. It seems that the public has seen the Chargers value-system clash play out publicly through the events of the past several years.
From 2007 to 2015, just before the Chargers announced they were interested in moving to LA, my agency Mth Degree was the branding and marketing partner for the Chargers. I feel fortunate both for our time in working with the organization and the many good people there, and to have jumped the ship just before things started to go south, or I should say, north.
A brand is the culmination of how anyone experiences an organization. What that organization believes and how that organization behaves will define what the audience experiences. The clash of differing internal perspectives, created not just a confusing brand, but essentially a chaotic public perception debacle.
It’s astonishing to me how the Chargers leadership fumbled so many things with the public. What played out couldn’t have gone worse for the Chargers brand or the fans.
All of this begs the question, what could the Chargers have done better or different and what can be learned here? Here’s a few suggestions.
To love them is to know them. Having an authentic relationship with the people who support your brand is a cornerstone to understanding and relating, and necessary for a meaningful relationship in business. One of the biggest mistakes that the Chargers ownership made was not sitting down with the San Diego fans (or the ones to be in LA, for that matter) and listening to them and having open conversations with the people. Instead they threw a Hail Mary ultimatum called the Convadium Initiative that was voted down on the fall ballot.
When the Chargers made their announcement to move to LA, they posted a manifesto of sorts that began with telling the people of LA who they are, what they stand for and what their city is all about. Big mistake. By going to LA or any other location and not listening and learning first, any brand is doomed to fail.
Stand for something beyond money. What would make a team move out of America’s Finest City? Money. Greed is a horrible brand position and an even worse guidance system when building a fan base. This purpose serves no brand promise other than what’s in it for the ownership. Unfortunately, the true colors of the Chargers ownership has shown and it will take years, or maybe a team sale, in order to repair it with fans.
Lead, don’t chase. Once a company starts to chase their competitors they have immediately lost their own way. Having an internal compass that defines where you’re going and why you’re going there will guide you through the most challenging times. The Chargers lack this. If the Chargers were intent on going to LA or building a stadium to call their permanent home in San Diego, they should have committed to one of those paths. Instead, they chased all opportunities, which decided their fate. Now, they will pay the price for chasing every opportunity by losing years if not decades of brand equity and diminished brand value.
Be honest. While this seems like obvious advice, it seems clear that the Chargers ownership wasn’t honest—perhaps they weren’t honest with themselves, and not to the fans of San Diego. They seemed to have misled the media, misled city officials and misled Chargers fans everywhere. By setting and stating clear promises, and delivering on them, brands establish audience trust. Even if the Chargers had stated they were moving to LA and treated the San Diego fans with respect, they may have had a better opportunity to migrate a larger number of their San Diego fan base to follow them to LA.
Create a symbol that stands for who you are. On the design side of the brand the Chargers publicly shared a logo that was built with a design brief that may as well have read “add a bolt to the LA Dodgers brand so we can migrate their fans.” This logo was booed at the Staples Center when shown at the Lakers-Clippers game and ridiculed publicly across the country including by other sports franchises. Chargers then released three different logos in 36 hours and ultimately pulled the newly created logo.
The Chargers have some soul searching to do. They can make courageous decisions about what they stand for and what kind of brand they will be to their future fans, or they can stay the course and continue to question why the people of both San Diego and LA are so angry at them.