Is Love Enough?

futurelab default header

ESPN is launching today a new branding ad campaign intended "to demonstrate our love of sports," according to one of its execs quoted in The New York Times.

I’m sure that the spots will be funny and sometimes even memorable. I’ve enjoyed many of the "SportsCenter" spots that Weiden & Kennedy created for it, and the same agency is producing this latest campaign, called "It’s not crazy. It’s sports." I’m looking forward to seeing minor leaguer baseball players talking about hand signals. Car racing teams duking it out on the highway. Footage of Moon astronauts playing golf.

I’m just not so sure that love of sports is a Big Idea worthy of an ad campaign.

First, isn’t it like McDonald’s declaring "we love hamburgers," or Geiko saying the same about insurance? ESPN had better love sports, and I can’t imagine the connection is a secret. I’d wager that 99 out of every 100 adult Americans surveyed would mention "sports" among the top three responses to the question "ESPN shows what type of programming?" Branding ESPN with sports is about as earth-shattering as SyFy boldly asserting that it still features sci-fi stuff.

And it’s not branding anyway…it’s advertising, which delivers awareness, and a connection thus forged between a brand name and some quality like funny or love has a half-life that doesn’t last much beyond the surveys intended to discover it. It’s impossible to own abstractions and advertising isn’t the right mechanism to try; like faith, acts are required to substantiate even the most fervent declarations (or promises). Microsoft can’t make PCs cool no matter how much it spends on ads, some of which are arguably very well done. McDonald’s can’t claim to be healthy in spite of wasting millions on sponsoring the Olympics.

Words require deeds, and that means there are two ways ads can contribute to brands: either as a priori promises — "we will become something" — or a posteriori, as in "look what we do." I’m a horse-before-the-cart sort of guy so I prefer narrating reality instead of getting caught up in the variability of hope. And in either case, it’s surprising that so many marketers still confuse a mechanism for this communication with the substance of the result. Advertising can tell us what was or what will be. The brand is what is.

Ads (and billboards, social media campaigns, etc.) come from creative marketers. Brands come from consumers.

So, second, what does ESPN do to evidence its love of sports? Well, it dedicates multiple channels to it, along with online content and sports bars, which says a lot, but that’s the function of distribution and licensing contracts. Are its programs better, or more comprehensive? Are its talking heads smarter or funnier? Can it prognosticate on contests with a higher likelihood of being right? Does it get sports scores or news before anybody else, and does it get it into the hands of its users first?

Which brings me to the recent LeBron fiasco, in which ESPN effectively prostituted itself by giving the basketball star an hour’s worth of space to embarrass himself and the network. In the context of proving its commitment to sports, couldn’t ESPN make the case that it had to do it? Where’s the spot that addresses it head on — in a real way, not the faux apologetic lie that Nike used to further squander its investment in Tiger Woods — or the proactive outreach to viewers to join a conversation about it on some proprietary social tool? Similarly, why was the World Cup programming uniquely ESPN? It bought the rights. I get it. Why was it better?

Without addressing such functional experiences that support its love of sports, ESPN isn’t really telling viewers anything that matters. I’m not advocating being dull, but rather that the marketers searching for ESPN’s brand should look internally first, to the things it does to demonstrate its love and warrant a similar commitment from its viewers, and then get to talking about it (either proactively or retroactively). There’s probably so much it could choose to do if it first tasked its resources to develop the tangible operational proof points for its positioning.

Again, the ads can’t do the job of branding…the company has to do the real work so its customers can conclude it.

Third, the campaign is going to run exclusively on ESPN, which means they’re going to tell existing viewers something that they probably already know. There’s a logic to this strategy if it can affirm and strengthen consumer commitment. Lots of marketing money gets spent telling buyers that they were smart or cool for forking over their cash for a product or service. Though this would argue for making the content of the campaign more about the added (or better) benefits of watching ESPN. I’m not suggesting this as a creative angle but substantively the campaign should finish this sentence "You’re the most amazing guy on the block because watching ESPN gives you…"

Love? Naw. The answer is much harder than that. Love isn’t enough.

(Disclosure: I’ve spoken at ESPN corporate, had a hamburger at ESPN Zone, and I watch SportsCenter more than infrequently, so I qualify as a fan)

(Photo credit: A screen grab from

Original Post: