After 35 years of up-and-down fortunes as the New Jersey Nets, new ownership decided it was time for a serious shakeup, beginning with a trip across the Hudson River. First taking the court as the Brooklyn Nets in 2012, the team has adopted its new home’s edge, reflected in everything from stark black-and-white official colors to the slogan of its third-season campaign: “We Are Brooklyn.” “In New Jersey we were searching for that solid, unequivocal identity, and that was difficult,” says Petra Pope, the team’s senior vice president of marketing and community relations. “Once we got to Brooklyn, we were able to say, ‘This is it!’”
From humble introductions to bold loyalty
The Nets were not so forward during their first season in Brooklyn. The first campaign was played under the banner of “Hello Brooklyn,” consciously designed to show deference to the entrenched residents of the borough. “Our approach was to come in with a very humble manner,” says Elisa Padilla, senior vice president of global marketing for the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center. “We wanted to be careful, as we only had one chance to make a first impression.”
This clever strategy was designed to acquire new fans, and to spark their imaginations. The Nets were counting on Brooklynites—long without a team to truly call their own—to release decades of pent-up fan energy. The approach combined the brand’s intended humility with a release of authentic enthusiasm from its new fan base. “We knew from our research that Brooklynites were hungry to have a professional team to call their own since the Dodgers left,” Padilla says.
After a second-year campaign designed around the question “Are You Ready?”, the Brooklyn Nets are themselves ready to declare themselves a permanent fixture in year three. “All of our ‘We Are Brooklyn’ creative is tied to our players and an iconic landmark here in Brooklyn: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Coney Island Ferris Wheel, Tillary Park,” she says. “Our goal is to be where our consumers live, work, and play.”
Converting the fans
Behind the high-profile “We Are Brooklyn” campaign, plastered everywhere from subways to Times Square, is the Brooklyn Nets marketing group, which also represents Barclays Center, the Nets’ new home. As a year-round arena and entertainment facility, Barclays Center gives the marketing group five distinct franchises to build highly targeted consumer offers around:
- Brooklyn Nets
- Brooklyn Boxing
- Brooklyn Hoops (neutral-site college basketball games)
- Brooklyn Show (concerts)
- Brooklyn Family (family-oriented live entertainment)
The marketing department aggressively analyzes purchase behavior to find affinities between the five franchises. The strongest signals for a Nets prospect, for example, are purchasers of boxing or concert tickets. These crossover tendencies are used to build targeted offers, such as including boxing fans and concert-goers in Nets pre-sale offers.
Fans reward the Brooklyn Nets’ commitment to relevance with enviable engagement rates. Email open rates were 13.5% last season, an increase of 28.5% compared to the New Jersey days. “We don’t send blind offers to everyone in our database,” Padilla says. “We have very good response to email, because we customize everything.”
The team aggressively devises new multi-game packages to encourage repeat attendance and a partial season ticket structure to move consumers up the ladder season by season. The journey all starts with a single ticket, logged in the Barclays Center master database. “We know all of the individual buyers who bought a single ticket to every game or concert at the arena,” Padilla says. “So when we launched our mini-plans, we sent customized messages: ‘You enjoyed one game, so how about five games?’”
In the direct mail space, the team focuses on two traditional but effective tactical audiences: previous purchasers and new movers. Oversized postcards welcome movers to the neighborhood and present a meaningful overture to their new home team. On average the team sends six different direct mail campaigns per year. “We’re huge supporters, because the one thing people still go through every day is the mail,” Padilla says.
21st century channels for a 21st century team
The Nets also make significant investments in emerging channels to foster deeper, lasting connections with fans. “We’re in the number one media market and there’s so much competition. How are we going to break through that clutter?” Padilla says. “Through social media.”
Social media allows the Nets to quickly develop and deploy engaging campaigns in response to the team’s fortunes and prospects. During last season’s playoff run, for example, the Nets worked with partner airline JetBlue on a #ForBrooklyn Twitter hashtag promotion, culminating in on-court skill contests. Capitalizing on an immediate opportunity while the team’s fortunes were peaking, the team quickly racked up more than 1,100 retweets for a single campaign message.
Beyond Twitter, the Nets have an entrenched presence on Facebook and are expanding the use of targeted posts and lookalike audiences. “That’s particularly exciting for us because we can reach not only people who are already engaged with us, but also people who look like those fans,” Padilla says.
On any social platform, the team is careful to stick with indirect messages rather than outright push for conversion. Questions and polls, about everything from Barclays Center amenities to potential music acts to the recent performance of the team are all fair game. “We’re sensitive to not beating up our fans with sales messaging, because we want those people to engage with us online,” Padilla says. “We focus on building our brand through original content and engagement so [fans] have an organic path to end up at Barclays Center with a ticket.”
Ever sensitive to data and results, the Nets have found that Facebook engagement is most successful in the early evening, while the middle of the workday is best for email communication. “With Twitter, we haven’t identified an exact time because of the way people use it for news updates. We’re still working on those tactics,” Padilla says.
But the team has already found that what works for email maps well to text messaging. The Nets are still developing an SMS database and strategy, but one trial offer for same-day tickets, sent at 1:15 p.m. on a Thursday, generated more than 400 sales. “That response was incredible for one message to a segment of the database we had never touched before,” she says. “We’re mindful of the fact that if we can keep it relevant and don’t turn people off, we’re going to get ROI from mobile sales messaging.”
Social and mobile platforms also play a significant role in the game-day experience. The team encourages fans to share their courtside photos and rallying texts through their smartphones, and select entries are shown on the scoreboard during stoppages in play. On average, the team receives 540 submissions per game and is a clear win for the young fan base the team hopes to retain. “Today’s consumer is all about self-developing content, and fans love to see themselves on the Jumbotron,” Padilla says.
The art of the (big) deal
Individuals and families aren’t the Nets only backers. The Brooklyn Nets regard corporate marketing opportunities as much more than employee outings and luxury suites for valuable visiting clients. When marketing to corporate prospects, the organization positions itself as going far beyond just a couple of hours of sports. “We look at ourselves as a very customizable platform,” says Michael Zavodsky, executive VP of global partnerships at Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center. “We work to understand their business and what their objectives are, and tailor to their objectives, which can change if it’s a B2B or a B2C company.”
Overlapping ownership and management between the Nets and Barclays Center makes this approach much more powerful. B2C campaigns may focus on shared branding, such as putting restaurant employees in Nets gear, rather than a direct appeal to sell more tickets. B2B prospects are actively courted with access to Barclays Center Business Alliance, a networking group for sponsors, suite-holders, and premium ticket holders. “It’s no longer about just being seen in the venue. People want to know how it drives their business,” he says.
The 47-year-old infant?
Despite being founded in 1967, the team considers itself a toddler, born anew in the move from New Jersey to Brooklyn. “We know we’re still an infancy brand in Brooklyn,” Padilla says. “Like any product lifecycle, it isn’t until that fifth year that you’re in the mature stage.”
Mothballing the past is a bold move. As a rule, sports teams cling to the credibility and shine of league titles and Hall of Fame players to help bolster their image and remind fans of past glories. The team was actually one of the trailblazers in the American Basketball Association, winning two ABA championships in the 1970s with the legendary Julius Erving before merging into the NBA. This isn’t even the first time the Nets have left New Jersey—the Nets spent most of its first decade playing in New York.
But the Brooklyn Nets make little mention of this storied history, choosing instead to emphasize the team’s new home and present fortunes. “We’ve landed in a fantastic opportunity to meld into the Brooklyn identity, so we’re keeping everything new, fresh, and special,” the Nets’ Pope says.
Several NBA franchises have relocated in recent years, some more than once. But the Nets drew inspiration for its reinvention not from those stories, but from the mind-set of a brand-new team. “Coming into a new building, we saw that we had the opportunity to start fresh, so that’s how we approached it: the way expansion teams approach their launch,” Padilla says.
The team’s strategy is working. During the final New Jersey season, the team’s merchandise sales ranked 31st in a league of 30 teams, as the former Seattle SuperSonics actually sold more gear than the lame-duck Nets. Drawn by the team’s messaging and prospects, Brooklyn fans showed support in serious numbers, sending the Nets’ merchandise sales rocketing up to fourth in the league.
That early success shows that promising roots are taking hold, and promote enough confidence to declare that the Nets are, indeed, synonymous with its new home. But behind the scenes, the team hasn’t stopped working on new ways to build its audience. “We know we’re not yet at the place where we have hardcore fans,” Padilla says. “We still have to think about how we’re going to reach the casual basketball fan, the fan on the fence.”