Guest: Steve Patterson, a coach at CEO Coaching International. Steve spent more than 35 years as a successful executive and entrepreneur in a variety of areas, including professional sports, college athletics, finance and construction, media, branding, and crisis communications.
Quick Background: An effective brand fills customers with positive vibes and projects crystal clarity about what a company does and what it stands for. Whether a company is starting up, scaling rapidly, or recovering from a stumble, that brand also has to maintain a careful balance between consistency and adaptability so that customers want to stick with the business on its journey to BIG.
On today’s show, Steve Patterson details the specific brand initiatives he executed for four professional sports teams and a university, and how CEOs can apply the lessons from his experiences to make any brand better.
Keys to an Engaging Brand from Steve Patterson
1. The Houston Rockets: Broadening Engagement
“Your brand really is your reputation and how people interact with either you, in a personal brand, or a company,” Steve says. “If it’s a company brand, what does that interaction feel like? What does it look like? How is it communicated internally and externally?”
During his nine years as General Manager for the Rockets, Steve’s external engagement was focused on kids. Rising ticket prices were making it harder for families to attend games, and Steve wanted to find ways to bring the arena experience out into the community. Eventually his team focused on creating a new kid-friendly mascot that would broaden the Rockets’ appeal.
“We went out and hired Harrison/Erickson, the same people that built the Muppets and other sports mascots,” Scott says. “Houston’s known as a space city, so we wound up calling the mascot Booster. And we created another character in a slimed-down outfit that allowed the mascot to do all kinds of acrobatic things during the game or outside of the game such as dunking the basketball or gymnastics moves. And it was just a way to continue to build engagement in a broader community for the team and for the brand.”
How does Scott know his new mascots worked? Because he tracked and measured event sign-ups, kids club memberships, and merchandising sales driven by the new mascots.
Your brand might not need a world-class Muppet to drive up engagement, but it does need this same combination of identifying an objective, making a plan, and measuring the results to see if your investment is paying off.
2. The Houston Aeros: Over-the-Top Nostalgia
The Aeros were attempting to bring minor league hockey back to Houston for the first time in 20 years. The franchise had been successful in its heyday, winning championships and featuring NHL legend Gordie Howe on its roster. Steve wanted to use the new Aeros brand to remind fans about those great teams and connect the new team with traditional community values. He performed extensive market research to see how this concept would help to reintroduce the team and its brand to Houston.
“We wanted to hearken back to some of that nostalgia,” Steve says, “and that toughness that you see from people in Texas, and that tradition of hockey, and do it in a way that gave us a better visual representation than reusing the old logo. The logo we built was of a World War II bomber, with teeth painted on the nose. We built the uniform around remembrances of old-style uniforms: khaki green and white. In minor league hockey, you’re selling entertainment.”
And, in the Aeros’ case, over-the-top entertainment.
Steve’s data and experience in pro sports told him where that line was for Houston minor league hockey fans. Your knowledge of your customers could lead you to similarly effective nostalgic touchstones, such as comfort, security, wonder, consistent quality, or excellent service.
3. The Houston Texans: Building a BIG Brand from Scratch
After the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Titans, there was an NFL-sized hole in Houston. Steve wanted the Texans’ brand to engage that football-savvy market while also widening its reach into western and southern Texas, which would help to cover the new franchise’s fee to enter the NFL. Once again, research and follow-through were major keys to success.
“We did a lot of research with the NFL and our own marketing companies that we hired to research what do the fans really wanna see in this marketplace?” Steve says. “The five pillars of the brand were pride, courage, strength, tradition, and independence. And so from there, we could start to build what are the representations? What are the expectations for the company? How are we going to communicate that out? How are we going to build the logo? So it wasn’t “red,” it was “battle red.” And you could do theme days around when you want fans to wear “battle red” or “deep steel blue.” So it allowed you a lot of interactions that drove fan engagement with the franchise.”
Steve’s strategy also helped the Texans compete against their neighbor, and arguably the BIGGEST brand in all of American sports, the Dallas Cowboys.
There were some brand similarities, including cheerleaders and spirit groups that tied both teams to the history of traditional football fandom in Texas. And the Texans included a nod to the state’s Lone Star flag, to the irritation of Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones. But Steve also drew inspiration from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, who would be sharing the Texans new stadium. They incorporated similar art, music, and signage into the stadium and the Texans brand, which helped the Texans forge their own identity while also broadening their appeal to new fans.
4. The Portland Trailblazers: Reconnecting to the Community
The early 2000s were a tough time for the Portland Trail Blazers. After playoff losses to the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, the Blazers’ roster and coaching staff turned over. Several of their players had legal troubles, earning the team a new nickname: the Jail Blazers. The brand had become synonymous with dysfunction, and fan attendance plummeted.
“I think everybody had gotten away from what was a ‘Trail Blazer,’” says Steve, who joined the team as President and General Manager. “How are you going to integrate that into your internal and external communications and how are you gonna help everyone understand what their responsibilities were, how their actions would be perceived internally and externally? So, we did a lot of research around, what really is a ‘Trail Blazer?’ What we found was, a trail blazer is open to new experiences, different, confident, and connected. Portland is a quirky town, You have to be confident if you’re stepping out there, blazing a new trail, but the only way you really get it done is if you’re connected to others and connected to the environment, connected to your team and those that you can help and can help you. It got into the psyche of the community and they were then set to understand that.”
This is a really strong example of how your brand and your culture can be intertwined. In order to close the door on the “Jail Blazers,” Steve and his team sunsetted secondary logos from those teams. The organization started placing a higher emphasis on character. And, eventually, that culture change was embraced play new players as well. Steve remembers a reporter asking star guard Brandon Roy about a string of fourth-quarter losses. Roy responded, “I don’t necessarily have that answer right now, but I’m confident that if we stay open to what the coaches are saying, and we stay connected as a team, we’ll come up with something different to get to a better result every game.”
“That came right out of his mouth naturally,” Steve says, “And so that’s when you started to see that the whole culture of the organization had changed and on multiple levels — not just in your advertising or your broadcasting, it was coming from all of the employees and then resonating in the community.”
5. Arizona State University: Clarifying and Modernizing Representation
Clear communication should be a stalwart at any organization, particularly a university. But at Arizona State, Steve found that a variety of visual representations were diluting the school’s brand.
“Across the athletic department and the university as a whole, each department had different supporters,” Steve says, “each had different agendas, each had different values within the very, very large organization. Based on research, our messaging wasn’t getting through as well as we would have liked, because we needed to simplify. We went from literally 12 logos down to two. And although there was certain nostalgia around the old Sparky mascot and logo, particularly from older donors, fans, and alumni, the research said kids and young adults who are thinking about going to the school found it creepy. And so we moved to the fork logo.”
Devils, pitchforks, rockets, stars, WWII planes, the “Swoosh,” the “Golden Arches,” a mermaid on a coffee cup — any well-designed image can grab attention. To turn that attention into affection, and repeat business, your brand has to say something that customers want to hear.
“As you’re thinking about your brand, recognize it’s much more than just the visual representation,” Steve says. “It really is your reputation, and you really have to have everybody in the organization aligned. This generally means that alignment has to start at the CEO level and be driven through all the way to the front line. If you do that and you work at it, you should be able to drive far greater benefits in the long run in terms of pricing power and staying in the marketplace, despite the ups and downs of the market. So it’s well worth spending the time and money to do it.”
1. Engage your customer base with a brand that makes people feel good about being in business with you.
2. Connect your brand to your community in positive ways that make your relationship stronger.
3. Clarify what you want your brand to say and who you’re communicating to.
About CEO Coaching International
CEO Coaching International works with CEOs and their leadership teams to achieve extraordinary results quarter after quarter, year after year. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 1,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries and 45 industries. The coaches at CEO Coaching International are former CEOs, presidents, or executives who have made BIG happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $10 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight, nine, and ten-figure exits. Companies working with CEO Coaching International for two years or more have experienced an average EBITDA CAGR of 67.8% during their time as a client, nearly four times the U.S. average and a revenue CAGR of 25.5%, more than twice the U.S. average.