Building a Brand: A Conversation with Atlanta United

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You don’t win the MLS Cup after just two years in the league and not become a big deal. However, Atlanta United is a team and brand that has been a hot topic in the Atlanta community ever since its start. At AMA’s Keynote Luncheon, a few of the Imagineers had the opportunity to sit with other members of the marketing community to learn how Atlanta United went from a start-up soccer team to a championship franchise in just two years.

In a “fireside chat style,” Catie Griggs, VP of Atlanta United Business Operations, and Alex Gonzalez, Chief Innovation Officer for the Atlanta Metro Chamber, recapped the journey of building the brand behind Atlanta United. Here are some key takeaways from their conversation, which can apply to your business and brand too.

Invest Early

One of the most profound decisions made early on in the building phase of Atlanta United was investing early in the core team behind the brand. Arthur Blank, an already successful business mogul, understood the importance of establishing a team of masterminds before the actual soccer team had even been formally recruited.

By getting the ball rolling early (see what we did there?), he put his brand in the hands of professionals who were committed to the future success of the brand, everything from the fan experience to the quality of players. Getting a head start on building your marketing team will set you up for success before your service or product is launched. Atlanta United is an excellent example of what happens when you lay the groundwork for your strategy.

Do Your Homework

Once the core team was established, they were empowered to reach out to the existing soccer community in Atlanta. Faced with the knee-jerk reaction stating that Atlanta was “not a soccer city,” this marketing team was determined to connect with fans who were already supporting the sport. They attended soccer bars and restaurants around the city to engage with the fans of European and South American leagues who would wake up early on a weekend morning to watch a game. To get to know them, they’d ask questions such as why soccer was important to them or what their favorite parts about the soccer experience were.

By conducting this intense market research, the marketing team had valuable information to use while crafting the game plan for the Atlanta United Fan experience. When we onboard partners at Imagine Media, we also put a great deal of time into the research process by building audiences, analyzing competitors and connecting with like-minded communities. This stage of developing a marketing strategy is essential to creating content that will be valuable and relevant to your online audience.

Be Confident in Your Decision Making

When the name Atlanta United was released, the team received a great deal of backlash about the originality of this choice. The decision-makers behind “Atlanta United” chose the name for two main reasons. To begin with, the name fell in line with their end goal, which was to establish a soccer team that wouldn’t just be well known in the USA, but across the world. To be taken seriously by these foreign teams, they purposefully selected a name that was traditional to soccer leagues.

The second purpose for the name was a simple one: They wanted this soccer community to unite the city of Atlanta. We’re a diverse city, but very rarely is that diversity outwardly evidenced by one community. The Atlanta United team wanted to change that trend.

Sticking to your guns when you’ve made an important branding decision is important. The branding process is tedious, but you must build your persona based on your distinct goals.

Make Lemonade from Lemons

At the start of Atlanta United’s first season, the brand faced a potentially crushing reality: The $1.2 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium would not be ready in time for the first game and the first few matches would have to be held at a neighboring college stadium, Bobby Dodd. Because people had already purchased season tickets, the switch in location required a lot of coordination to move forward with the start of the new team’s season. They had been dealt lemons, and it was time to make lemonade.

The switch in the stadium turned out to be an unexpected blessing in disguise. Although the seats were uncomfortable and the concession lines were absurdly long, the community that showed up for the first few games created an incredible atmosphere. As the first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium approached, the new question was How can we keep this same tight-knit atmosphere in a stadium that holds 70,000? And they did.

Throughout a launch of a product or service, obstacles will inevitably arise. Think of action plans for those bumps in the road and rebound quickly.

Keep What’s Working, Fix What’s Not

One amusing side effect of the Bobby Dodd to Mercedes-Benz transition was the preservation of the “standing culture.” Since the seats at Bobby Dodd weren’t very comfortable, the majority of fans stood to watch the game, which resulted in a more intense and engaged crowd. This tradition was kept even when the fans now had access to more comfortable seats in the new stadium. The reason this was even a topic of conversation was because the top leaders of each department within the Atlanta United brand met after every single game to examine their mistakes and convert them into learning opportunities to bring a better experience to the fans next time around.

This type of detail-oriented customer service is mirrored among many of Arthur Blank’s businesses and proves to be effective time and time again. This practice of reflecting is a great habit to get into for any marketing campaign. By looking back on what went well and what didn’t, your processes will improve over time.

Grass Roots Marketing

After connecting with the Atlanta soccer community so early in the progression of the team, the marketing team felt confident in this smaller community to spread the word about the brand. One of the main ways people connected with Atlanta United was through the flags that were hung from houses, apartment balconies, cars and storefronts from day one. The flag culture accompanied by the massive merchandise sales in fan gear allowed for a walking, talking community of advertisers throughout the city. With the popularity of rocking the Atlanta United logo, Atlanta was responsible for a quarter of league-wide merchandise sales on the MLS online store. That’s a big deal for a new team!

Understanding and leveraging the power of your audience to act as ambassadors for your brand is a cost-effective way to build brand awareness. Brainstorm ways to empower your audience to facilitate grass roots marketing for your business.

Use Social Media As A Customer Service Tool

At Imagine Media, we always stress to our partners the importance of using social media as a customer service tool, and Atlanta United is the perfect example of the power of nurturing your online community. While they used social media to build the brand early on, the real genius behind their marketing strategy was engaging in a two-way conversation with fans, especially on match day. They have a dedicated team answering direct messages live during games, and whether fans are disappointed by a cold hot dog or experiencing a long line, the team puts boots on the ground to make the situation right for the fan in real time.

Happy customers will return time and time again, even if they initially had a negative experience. Read more about how to build brand loyalty through community management.

Keep It in Perspective

After an unprecedented and massively successful first two seasons, the team has not had the most ideal start to their third year in the MLS. With two losses, one tie and one win, the marketing team has been faced with challenging backlash from fans. One area where the team has taken a particularly negative hit is in social media messages and comments. Fans aren’t happy with some of the big decisions that were recently made, such as welcoming a new coach and the transferring of some of the principal players.

Catie stressed throughout the conversation that sports marketing is difficult because you can’t control the product that happens on the field, and this is a prime example of how to tackle that challenge. Catie tells her team to continue the conversation and work toward continuing to promote a community of hype, hope & happiness. To keep the situation in perspective, just a few years ago Atlanta United didn’t even exist, and now through their amazing marketing strategy, they’ve fostered a community of fans who care.

The Imagine Media team is incredibly thankful to the AMA Atlanta chapter for hosting us and providing such a valuable learning opportunity. It was fascinating to get a glimpse of how the most successful soccer brand in the country was born from the ground up. Hearing how Catie approached her campaign with authenticity at the forefront only further motivated us to continue to build relationships with our online audiences with that same priority in mind.

Your online community wants to connect with your brand on a human level, so approach your marketing strategy from a place of sincerity to build your genuine community of followers.

Story By: Sophie Duncan