State College, PA: It is a crisp fall Saturday in Happy Valley and I am here for the football game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and their soon-to-be-vanquished foes. The identity of the opponent is of minimal importance. The whole event is the thing. My wife and I come for every home game and head straight for the Mecca of Nittany Nation-the overnight RV lot–where each week friends and relatives stake out several adjacent spots and completely immerse themselves and their guests in the Penn State football brand experience.
As it goes with sports teams and their brands, we wear our allegiance on our sleeves-and our backs, our shorts, our hats, our cars, our bags, cups, coolers, faces…well you name it, there’s a Lion logo on it. We have spent a great deal of time, money and energy being Lion fans, myself since 1986 when I first met my wife and she warned me that her family members were all Penn State fans. For a time I thought a promise to love the Lions might be part of our marriage vows.
And we do love them. To call us brand loyalists is too empirical. Football faithful? Certainly. Fanatics? That’s getting closer. This is classic unconditional positive regard, except for occasional moments of despair, when by some fluke we actually lose a game. Now, in the heart of football season, we mainline the PSU football brand for three months straight, take a break at Thanksgiving and gear up for a New Year’s bowl game. Most other activities are scheduled around the games, for being a fabulously committed fanatic is such a visceral reward, there is little we would rather do for 15 hours on a Saturday.
Sports brands are unique entities in the branding world. But what may be most distinctive is their relatively regional influence. There are no sports brands in college or professional ranks that are truly national, no matter where their fans may hail from. Notre Dame? Please. The Yankees? They’re not even the only team in their own market. Wait, the U.S. Olympic team? Sure, name two people who are on it right now.
But on a regional basis and when organized by leagues, conferences, and associations, big college and professional sports brands are regional powerhouses that can elevate other brands simply by granting (for a price) the right to be called a “corporate partner.” Which makes them perfect matches for other regional brands.
Back to Happy Valley, where upon closer inspection, there are dozens of brands along for the ride on our blue and white bandwagon, all looking to tie their brand experience into that special joy of being a Penn State pilgrim. The national brands are there-Pepsi, Hershey’s, Toyota, AT&T (wish my 3G iPhone would work during games, guys!). The money I could be saving with Geico has been looking down at me from an airborne banner for about three hours. But regional brands are in full force as well: Berks hot dogs, The Outlets at Hershey, Weis Markets, PNC, Highmark, Rockvale Outlets. All are partners of the official corporate variety.
Each of these brands is betting that the raging allegiance we feel for Penn State will be shared, at least to a degree, with their brands as well. “You’re a Penn State fan?” They ask. “So are we!” And for many of us, enthralled as we are with the game and the event around it, that’s good enough. We are more likely to shop, eat, bank, and drink cola from these sponsors.
That is, if we notice.
Like many other media, you can count the exposures and execute the promotions, but measuring the impact is difficult at best. What’s it worth to be the official hot dog of Penn State? The real value may be behind the scenes with the trade buyers who fill their shelves with hot dogs. Can Highmark really quantify the value of being a corporate partner with the Lions? I’d love to see the report, though no doubt there are quite a few business owners driving those posh RVs who also make healthcare decisions for their companies, and many more fans who have Highmark insurance.
There is a school of thought in branding that uses tribal theory as its basis, as in people identify themselves with brands and feel bonded with all others with an affinity for those brands. It applies more to some products than others, but regional brands are often able to connect with a local sense of community that can be powerful. It may be irrational, but it’s strong. (The satirical web magazine The Onion points this out with a t-shirt that reads, “You will be humiliated when the team from my area beats the team from your area.”)
Smaller regional brands can be elevated by their connection with the big time sports team. And large regional or national brands can use the connection to localize their image and help it seem uniquely Penn State or Steelers, or even Harrisburg Senators. Using sports marketing to build your brand should be a carefully considered choice (ideally one not clouded by your own fanaticism for the team), but it can be an important touch point in a successful branding program. And if you’ve never been to Happy Valley for a football Saturday, 110,000 of my tribemates and I welcome you to stop by for a visit. We’ll be the ones in the Penn State jerseys.