With 205 million unique viewers during 2013’s regular season, accounting for 81% of television homes in the U.S., the NFL is one of the most visible brands in sports--and Jaime Weston has been tasked with shaping that image.
For the past 12 years, Weston, vice president of Brand & Creative, has spearheaded team-design overhauls, campaign rollouts, and product launches for the NFL. Now, Weston and her team are gearing up for the 2014 season, kicking off Sept. 4, with their priorities fixed on NFL Now, a digital content platform that gives fans access to personalized clips, news coverage, and archive video. Weston's team is also behind the “Together We Make Football” campaign, a contest asking fans to submit their stories of why they love football for a chance to win a trip to Super Bowl XLIX, and the NFL International Series, three regular-season games played at Wembley Stadium in London. It’s a grab bag of responsibilities, each as crucial to the NFL’s brand as the next, but Weston isn’t really sweating it. “I’m always really good at wearing many hats,” she says.
Her most important role at the NFL to date, however, may be as one of the architects of a singular brand that each of the 32 teams--as different from each other as the cities they're based in--could rally around. Her creative inspiration for the outcome? The league's most valuable players, of course: the fans.
Weston recently spoke with Fast Company about how her experiences have shaped the NFL brand, and the secret to tapping America's love for football.
What past experiences have you applied to the NFL?
That’s where I’ve been very clear to myself: It doesn’t matter what industry I’m in, I’m going to continue to build out the branding, marketing, advertising--that, to me, is the discipline. I’ve been here for 12 years and we’ve seen a big shift in people coming in. It’s not like, “I know everything about sports! I’m a huge sports fan.” That’s not as important as what’s the experience you’re bringing to the table to better all the employees here and better the business.
How have you bettered the NFL’s business?
When I got here, we were really just trying to get a hold of what is the NFL brand about. And if you asked 100 fans, or even 100 employees, you would get 100 different answers. So what is the brand we want to convey? We did a lot of work with our fans to understand our brand essence, which comes down to three words: intense, meaningful, and unifying.
At the end of the day, what we deliver is a game that’s intense: The fact that your team only plays one day a week--every second matters, every down matters. Meaningful: It really is much more than a game to us. We really permeate well beyond the Xs and Os on the field. And unifying: We’re like that last great American campfire, in that people come together and share stories. So that’s how we look to manage the brand: It’s about the storytelling behind it, the meaningfulness, and pulling people together. We run that through everything we do including commercials--the ticket-exchange spot is one of my favorites.
We brought in real fans and there’s something really authentic about that. We went to all those stadiums and met with those fans. Again, you get those stories from them--it’s really meaningful to them.
What’s the secret to tapping into your fans?
It’s us being as real and authentic to allow our fans to be. I would say the best thing we’re doing to reach that this year is our “Together We Make Football” contest. Asking that simple question “Why do we love football?”--we’re hearing from the fans. We can tell you why we think you love football. We have our research and all of that, but no one can tell us better than our fans.
Last year was “Why do you love football?” This year we realized we didn’t include communities. What we stand on is "intense, meaningful, and unifying," which is so important to our brand. So it was a simple shift from why do you love football, to why do we love football.
You also work with teams on their brands and images: How do you incorporate your creative approach with fans and the NFL itself, with 32 different teams?
The rigor that we put behind building out the brand, we also do so with teams. We come in as a consultant and do everything from a communication audit to fan focus groups on the national and local levels. We go to the game and experience it as a fan. And then we take away all that research and come back to the team and say, 'This is how you guys see your brand, but this is how your fans see it.' Sometimes it’s really close and sometimes it’s not. So you have that conversation of where do you want to be.
We tell the teams it’s really about that driveway-to-driveway experience, from the minute you leave your house to getting to the game. From a marketing standpoint, we can’t control the Xs and Os on the field--we have no effect on the outcome of the game. But we can help control or influence every other touchpoint. So if you think about a fan, 50% of the time he can be really annoyed about his team. Can you imagine having a brand where 50% of the time the consumer is not happy with it? If we can’t control the players on the field, how do we make sure every other touchpoint is uplifting and really something the fans want to interact with?
What’s been the most extreme turnaround of a team’s brand you’ve overseen?
In 2009, Michael Vick was coming off the [Atlanta] Falcons but he had a lot of influence in the brand: how the game day experience was put out there, down to uniform design choices. The first thing, and we say this to a lot of teams, is you don’t always want to depend on one player to be your brand. You always want your brand to live above a player or coach because they might not always be there--your brand is bigger than that.
Went through the communication audit and looked at how they’re expressing themselves as the Falcons and we noticed it was a little dark and intimidating. And that’s okay for some teams. But when we got to learn more about Arthur Blank [owner of the Falcons] and what he does for the community, it was a little counter to what Atlanta was about. There’s something very attractive and magnetic about Atlanta. So we said, the Falcons should be the beacon of that. There are so many transplants in Atlanta, but the Falcons can be that connector for everyone to rally behind. That’s where we got to their three words: authentic, magnetic, and elevating.
It’s making every experience with the Falcons authentic, magnetic, and elevating that when you left you felt the Falcons raised you up. We turned it into “Rise Up” and the The Richards Group and the Falcons built this whole campaign with Samuel L. Jackson.
This is where the Falcons were fantastic, it’s really about the team buying in, too. The entire community has come behind that “Rise Up” mantra. It’s not just about the Falcons, it’s about everything they’re doing in the community. So it’s gone well beyond game day.
When redesigning a team’s image or logo, have you ever gotten it wrong?
We’ve been pretty lucky! What we do to make sure we get it right is that we work very closely with research and do a lot of focus groups--you want to make sure you’re rooting your design in fan truths. We’re always rooting what we do in fact, so at least when we’re going out there to the fans it’s “Here’s what we did and why.” It’s not like we woke up one day and on a whim did this: Here’s the story behind it--here’s why it’s meaningful.
How do you feel being a woman in leadership at a place that’s perceived to be so male dominated?
I’ve never dwelled on anything like that. When I walk into a conference room, I don’t do a count of who’s male and female. I really look to make sure that everyone, junior employees, male or female, are being empowered and are passionate and energetic about the job they’re doing every day.
If it’s in the back of your mind, it’s going to pull you down. I played sports my whole life and I was just about performance and teamwork, and hopefully that comes through. It’s personal for everyone, but that’s been my mantra.
[Images courtesy of NFL]