June 06, 2014

NFL Tackles Super Bowl Branding Issue

Earlier this week, the National Football League (NFL) made the somewhat surprising decision to move away from Roman numerals for the 2016 Super Bowl and instead use the more familiar Arabic numeral system for the first time.

The league made the change because it feared that calling the game Super Bowl L would be too confusing to the public, so it will be written as Super Bowl 50. After the 2016 game, however, the league has vowed to go back to Roman numerals.

Of course, anytime a tradition is altered people have their own opinions about whether the decision to make the change was a good one. But what marketers can take from the NFL—one of the greatest branding organizations in the world—are three basic principles:

Providing a clear message

League executives weighed switching to a less confusing logo against the potential damage to its brand awareness. Obviously they decided that for one year it was worth it and that the bigger risk would actually be to not make the change and have people walk past display ads and wonder if Super Bowl L was somebody’s idea of a joke.

Focusing on the Future

Unlike some of the other professional sports leagues in America, clearly the NFL is not tied religiously to its past. The Roman numerals are recognizable, but when the situation called for a change they weren’t afraid to make it. Rather than allow itself to be rigidly tied to its traditions, the league took an individual challenge and made a choice based on a specific set of circumstances.

Maintaining consistent branding

Having dealt with the issue of the 2016 Super Bowl the NFL made very clear that it would immediately change back to the Roman numerals in 2017. The distinctive method of number the games goes hand-in-hand with the Super Bowl and the league clearly understood that permanently abandoning the system would be a mistake. When you’ve spent five decades building an event into the most highly-rated television show in the country every year, you don’t want to make drastic branding shifts unless it is absolutely necessary.

These three principles are helpful for marketers to think about as they build a content marketing strategy, whether internally or by outsourcing. Decisions about messaging should never be made on a whim but rather should be considered carefully from every angle. After all, the NFL pulled in $9 billion in revenues last year and has its sights set on $25 billion by 2027.

The league is doing something right.


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