Three Lessons for Brands from Ellie Goulding’s Thanksgiving Day Stand Against the Salvation Army

Thanksgiving Day means more than eating Turkey and watching football. For British musician Ellie Goulding, Thanksgiving has become a time for social activism, at the expense of the NFL and Salvation Army.  

Ellie Goulding Knocks over a Red Kettle

Goulding is scheduled to perform in the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show during a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys/Buffalo Bills game. The show marks the official start of the Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle Campaign. For the past 22 years, musicians ranging from Eric Church to Destiny’s Child have appeared on the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show, befitting the particularly close relationship between the Dallas Cowboys (who play each year on Thanksgiving) and the Salvation Army.

At first Goulding seemed like the perfect choice for the NFL and the Salvation Army. Her millennial-friendly electronic pop is interesting without being risky, and she is a noted philanthropist. Indeed, on November 7, the Salvation Army issued a press release gushing about her upcoming performance, which quoted Goulding as follows:

I am honored to perform at the Dallas Cowboys halftime show and kick off The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign. With so many people in need, I believe it’s our duty to help, and I encourage everyone to donate to The Salvation Army. The money they raise during the Red Kettle Campaign will change lives for the better all year long.

So far, so good, right? But after Goulding shared on Instagram a photo of herself at a Salvation Army location, some of her fans pointed out that the Salvation Army has a reported history of anti-LGBTQ+ actions and beliefs.

Thus chastened, Goulding issued the following statement threatening to cancel her performance in the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show:

Upon researching this, I have reached out to The Salvation Army and said that I would have no choice but to pull out unless they very quickly make a solid, committed pledge or donation to the LGBTQ community. I am a committed philanthropist as you probably know, and my heart has always been in helping the homeless, but supporting an anti-LGBTQ charity is clearly not something I would ever intentionally do. Thank you for drawing my attention to this 

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Goulding’s threat to pull out of the halftime show put the NFL into an especially difficult position, and not just from a logistics standpoint. The NFL is already caught in a cultural maelstrom stemming from the fall-out from Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest. The league could really do without another headache like this one.

The Salvation Army Leaps into Action

Fortunately for the NFL, Goulding apparently decided to perform after all, according to The Dallas Morning News. And the NFL has the Salvation Army to thank. Her threat prompted a dialogue with the Salvation Army, which convinced her that the show must go on. Obviously, the Salvation Army is ready for this kind of negative news. Instead of circling the wagons, the organization quickly responded to Goulding and talked with the news media about its stance toward LGBTQ+ rights. For instance, Salvation Army representatives talked with The Dallas Morning News and put a positive spin on the situation. Maj. Jon Rich, a Salvation Army commander in Texas, said,

It brings attention to how inclusive we are as an organization and serving everyone no matter who they are, what their sexual orientation is, what their station in life is. We serve without discrimination. It’s our international mission statement that we serve human needs without discrimination.

He said that the organization is evolving its practices to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons and characterized anti-LGBTQ+ statements from Salvation Army members as uncharacteristic of the Salvation Army’s values. The interview was a textbook case of being responsive in a moment of crisis. 

The NFL Is Caught in the Middle

Goulding’s reluctance to perform created a negative news cycle for both the Salvation Army and the league at a particularly trying time for the NFL. The NFL, caught in the middle, was wise to say nothing, even though at least one writer in Business Insider called on the league “to take a page from Goulding’s book and back her up” (the writer stopped short of recommending specific actions). It’s not that the Ellie Goulding/Salvation Army controversy is insignificant; rather, the news quickly began to blow over. Why draw attention to the story – especially as the NFL was dealing with Colin Kaepernick once again creating news for the league?  

Social and Political Activism Creates Complications 

The Ellie Goulding/Salvation Army controversy is the latest high-profile example of a brand/artist collaboration taking a left turn into the realm of political/social consciousness. I recently blogged about the 1,000+ musicians who have boycotted the Intersect music festival because it is sponsored by Amazon Web Services (AWS). The musicians object to AWS’s work with Palantir, a data company holding $150 million in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Musicians can lend incredible cultural relevance to brands. Lyft bought its way into coolness by forming a partnership with Kendrick Lamar for his Championship Tour. Belvedere Vodka looked woke by working with Janelle Monáe on brand-sponsored short films. But in an era of political and social activism in music, brand-artist collaborations can create tension.

The Lesson for Brands

If you’re going to partner with a musician, it’s important to:

  • Understand that all musicians now operate in context of a wide-ranging social and political awakening (“pop’s great woke awakening,” as Pitchfork puts it). Do your homework and understand the social and political forces pressuring musicians to take a stand.
  • Find a musician who aligns with your brand. If your business has embraced brand activism, then an outspoken artist might be the perfect match. If you avoid brand activism, then find a safer musician. Whatever you do, find someone who aligns with your brand values. As part of your due diligence, examine what they say and do on social media.
  • Be ready to act when things go the way you didn’t expect. As I noted, on the surface, Ellie Goulding aligned well with the NFL and the Salvation Army. But all it took was one Instagram post for the relationship to nearly become derailed. Be prepared to act when the unexpected hits, as the Salvation Army was when its name got dragged through the mud. Anyone who works with performers in a live setting should know that planning for the unexpected is part of the process, politics and social activism aside.

With an election year coming up, brands can expect musicians to become even more outspoken than they are now. Buckle up. We’re all in for a bumpy ride.

The Super Bowl LIII Halftime Debacle: What Will Be the Fallout?

My how things have changed.

The Super Bowl halftime show used to feature marching bands and harmless American cheese such as Up with People. Then the show became a high-profile global stage for big-time musicians such as Beyoncé and Bruno Mars. This year, it’s a lightning rod for controversy and an embarrassment for the NFL. 

For the Super Bowl LIII halftime show occurring February 3 in Atlanta, the NFL has struggled to find performers to land a gig so prominent that stars are usually willing to perform essentially for free. That’s because a number of musicians have staged an unofficial boycott of the halftime show to express their solidarity with embattled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The Colin Kaepernick Factor

In 2016, Kaepernick triggered a national culture war and a public battle with NFL owners when he took a knee during pre-game national anthems to protest oppression of people of color. He became a free agent before the 2017 season, but no team signed him. In the wake of his not being signed, he filed a collusion suit against the NFL that is expected to move forward in 2019. 

Over the past two years, Kaepernick has become transformed from an NFL star into a social activist. His public profile received a major boost when a Nike ad in September 2018 positioned him as a leader who transcends sports. And now the NFL Super Bowl halftime show has done the same although certainly not by design.

The Rihanna Factor

Normally, artists jump at the chance to perform at the halftime show, and it’s easy to see why: since 2010, Super Bowl viewership has ranged from 103 million to 114 million, giving halftime show performers a gigantic stage to promote their music and elevate their personal brands. But when the NFL approached Rihanna to appear at Super Bowl LIII, she reportedly turned down the gig to support Kaepernick. And when someone with Rihanna’s clout acts, others follow. Musicians joining the unofficial boycott include, reportedly, Cardi B, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj. The NFL finally confirmed Maroon 5 on January 13, and then Big Boi and Travis Scott agreed to join them. By contrast, the NFL confirmed Justin Timberlake, last year’s headliner, five months before the Super Bowl.

In the days leading up to Super Bowl LIII, Big Boi, Maroon 5 and Travis Scott have faced criticism on social media and from other artists. For example, Roger Waters has challenged Maroon 5 to take a knee onstage as Colin Kaepernick did before the national anthem. T.I. has called Travis Scott selfish for agreeing to perform. Black Twitter has spoken out as well. The show has now become a racially charged PR fiasco for the NFL, an especially embarrassing situation given Atlanta’s prominence as a burgeoning hip-hop center and its reputation as the black mecca of the United States. 

Two Big Questions

In the aftermath of the media storm surrounding the controversy, two questions remain:

  • Will all the drama hurt Big Boi, Maroon 5, and Travis Scott? Yes and no. They’ve lost credibility with other musicians for crossing the unofficial boycott line. But fans are another story. An artist has to try really hard to alienate their fans to the point where they stop buying their music. If anything, the media exposure will help Maroon 5 and Travis Scott sell more tickets for their tours, which are in progress. Big Boi just released two new songs in advance of the Super Bowl. He’s banking on the controversy to help him.
  • Will the NFL be affected? Not on Super Bowl Sunday. Fans are not going to boycott the game because of the halftime show. But it says something that musicians were willing to skip a show that should have been a no-brainer decision to do. The NFL can be wounded (especially when Rihanna wields the sword). The unofficial boycott has called attention to Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem controversy just when it seemed as though the issue had become dormant. The NFL would prefer that the Super Bowl buzz focus on football, not on racial injustice. But the artists have stolen the narrative. They have collective power that they could exercise in other ways in the future, such as turning down Super Bowl ad spots.

Meanwhile, the halftime show mess has probably helped the man at the center of the boycott, Colin Kaepernick, by keeping his name in circulation as his grievance against the NFL goes to trial. The graphic below shows the volume of searches for Colin Kaepernick in the United States within the past month. Searches for his name spiked on January 16 when a story broke about Travis Scott reportedly meeting with Kaepernick before Scott joined the halftime show lineup. Interest is climbing again on the eve of the Super Bowl.

I doubt that Colin Kaepernick’s protests have had any impact on NFL viewership. NFL fans, like music fans, are very good at compartmentalizing. Viewership ratings have dipped and then increased over the past few years, and the quality of the play on the field has made the difference. But Colin Kaepernick never said he was protesting the NFL when he took a knee. He was, and is, calling attention to oppression of people of color in the United States. He has succeeded. Musicians have helped him keep the conversation about racial injustice in the public eye. And this conversation is bigger than the Super Bowl.

Virtual Reality Helps U.S. Athletes Train to Win Olympic Gold

When U.S. Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin won a Winter Olympics gold medal in the giant slalom race February 15, she also achieved a victory for virtual reality.

She is among the members of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team who have used a virtual reality (VR) training regime from STRIVR Labs to prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang County, South Korea, according to the team.

The team’s deployment of VR training, reported widely, also shines the spotlight on VR’s potential to improve performance in sectors ranging from sports to retail. Continue reading

Snapchat and Vine: The Disruptor and Disrupted

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Remember when Vine was cool and Snapchat was dirty? How quickly their fortunes have changed. Vine, once the darling of visual storytellers, is losing brands and attention, sinking in popularity on the app store. Meantime, Snapchat has overcome its reputation as a fringe app run by a badly behaving frat boy. Adweek recently named Snapchat the hottest digital brand of the year for 2015 while Vine was making headlines for losing market share. Their changing fortunes demonstrate how easily the disruptors can become the disrupted. But the story ain’t over yet.

Vine: The Disrupted

Vine came along at the right time. The app was officially launched in January 2013 amid the rise of video storytelling. Brands, always looking for fresh content sharing platforms, latched on to Vine as a fresh alternative to YouTube. Vine’s format for sharing 6-second video stories seemed like a natural fit for a multi-tasking world with a shrinking attention span — and, crucially, Vine was (and remains) an easy-to-use mobile-first app at a time of rapid mobile adoption. Its user base grew rapidly, and Vine was hailed as a YouTube disruptor. Brands eager to extend their presence into mobile content, began adopting the app and bringing with them more users. By fall of 2013, Dunkin’ Donuts and Trident Gum were launching the first-ever TV spots using Vine.

But even as Vine was ascending, a multitude of forces were converging to disrupt Vine’s success. Just six months after Vine launched, Instagram rolled out its own video feature, with superior editing capabilities, Facebook would also beef up its video-sharing capability. Snapchat, which had existed longer, added more functions, exploded in popularity, and, in 2014, introduced advertising (while Vine did not). Facebook could wield its scale and targeted advertising effectively against Vine, and Snapchat had coolness in its favor. Meantime, YouTube kept evolving as a premier source of online entertainment for brands and YouTube stars such as PewDiePie.

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Heroes and Villains: Why Deflategate Is Good for the NFL

Tom_Brady_vs._Vikings_2014

Photo source: Wikipedia

NFL CMO Dawn Hudson should be pinching herself right now because the “deflategate” controversy is a godsend for the league. Allegations that the New England Patriots knowingly provided underinflated footballs for the AFC championship game have created more conversation about the upcoming Super Bowl XLIX than the NFL could have ever dared to manufacture with its own marketing and PR. Deflategate has also elevated Super Bowl XLIX to a battle between good and evil, injecting an element of much-needed drama on the field at a time when the league has reeled from off-the-field controversy. Casual fans who have zero loyalty to New England or Seattle may now be motivated to watch the game in order to see whether the Guardians of the Galaxy from Seattle have what it takes to defeat Darth Vader and his New England minions.

The 2014 Super Bowl was the most-watched television event in history. But between then and now, a number of ugly incidents involving NFL players have damaged the league’s image. (According to YouGov’s BrandIndex, consumer perception of the NFL has dropped by half in one year’s time.) Obviously, fans of the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks are going to watch Super Bowl XLIX February 1, anyway, as will die-hard NFL fans. But the game needs to attract casual fans to match or exceed the 2014 TV-viewing numbers, and the shaky public perception is a cause for worry — which is where deflategate could play an important role.

Casual sports fans might not appreciate the finer points of an NFL game, but they do appreciate drama and spectacle, especially battles between good and evil. Hence, movies as strikingly different as Saving Private Ryan and Raiders of the Lost Ark do great box office by catering to our desire to see the good guys defeat the bad guys (especially World War II era villains who are so cleanly drawn). Sports are no different. For instance: Continue reading

One Stadium to Rule Them All

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Even the most successful NFL teams cannot control the quality of their product on the field. And in an era of free agency, it’s harder for teams to develop fan loyalty toward their best players. So more teams, even successful ones, have turned their stadiums into memorable experiences, where a team has more control over its own brand. In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys wowed fans with a new stadium that features the world’s largest column-free interior and (at the time) the biggest high-definition video screen in the world. In 2014, the San Francisco 49ers opened Levi’s Stadium, which features high-tech amenities such an app that allows you to order food from your seat. But the Atlanta Falcons are preparing to open one stadium to rule them all in 2017: a state-of-the-art extravaganza that may change the way we experience live sports.

In the 49-year existence of the Atlanta Falcons, the team has compiled a decidedly subpar record of 316 wins, 414 losses, and six ties. The team has won no Super Bowls and has fielded zero Most Valuable Players. The Falcons have been wildly inconsistent, capable of an impressive 13-win/3-loss season followed by a horrid 4-win/12-loss season, as was the case in 2012-13. But there is more to football than winning (and I don’t care how many ex-jocks in the broadcast booth say otherwise). Football teams want fans to have fun, and the New Atlanta Stadium (whose title will certainly change when a corporate sponsor is found) is designed to provide fun in spades.

For starters, the new building is going to be an architectural marvel that Atlanta visitors and residents will visit and tour in the off-season. Most football stadiums, however well designed, look like, well, football stadiums. You always know one when you see one. But New Atlanta Stadium isn’t any ordinary football stadium. New Atlanta Stadium is designed to be a visually stunning building where football games happen to be played.

The dramatic glass-and-steel exterior, which as been described as a gigantic metal origami, evokes the creations of Frank Gehry and Jørn Utzon (who designed the Sydney Opera House). Lead designer is Bill Johnson, a principal at Kansas City-based 360 Architecture (recently acquired by HOK), designed eight ocular shaped panels on the roof as an homage to the Roman Pantheon. According to 360 Architecture, the roof will “open and close like a camera aperture.” Moreover, the shape of the roof panels are will emulate the wing-like Atlanta Falcons team logo.

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The retractable roof and overall stadium design have already caught the eye of publications such as Architecture News Daily and DesignBoom, which raved about the “striking structure.” Now, let me ask you: when is the last time a retractable roof generated this kind of reaction? I predict that the  look of the stadium alone will inspire other architects to rethink the design of football stadiums, just as Oriole Park at Camden Yards reimagined the look of Major League Baseball Parks in the 1990s. Continue reading

What NFL CMO Dawn Hudson Can Learn from the NBA’s Comeback

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Photo source: guinnessworldrecords.com

Dawn Hudson has a lot of work to do. As the NFL’s newly appointed CMO, Hudson enters a maelstrom of controversy caused by the league’s failure to deal with repugnant off-the-field behavior of high-profile players like Ray Rice. But the NFL is not the only big-time sports brand that has faced hard times. In the early 1980s, the National Basketball Association was on the brink of failure due to the outlaw reputation of its players. In 1980, the Los Angeles Times famously reported that 75 percent of NBA players were regular cocaine users. The league was plagued by dwindling attendance and low TV ratings. But eventually, the NBA reclaimed the loyalty of sports fans. Hudson would do well to learn from the three reasons why the NBA battled back from the brink:

1. Change Starts with the Players

Fortune smiled on the NBA when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joined the league at the same time during the 1979-80 season. They were not only great basketball players who turned the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics into contenders; they were outstanding ambassadors off the court. Bird and Magic were not choirboys (a reality that would hit home many years later with Magic Johnson’s historic announcement that he had contracted HIV). But during a period when they were needed most, they gradually created fans with their earnest (in Bird’s case) and joyous (in Magic’s case) approach to playing basketball and living their lives.

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Photo source: historyrat.wordpress.com

Their dedication to teamwork and single-minded pursuit of excellence were like a throwback to another time, when sports stars earned attention for the quality of their play instead of their rap sheets. But there was also something different about these two: they had personality, and they didn’t embarrass the league with their off-the-court behavior. Johnson was charismatic and boyish. Bird was the cocky but likeable country boy.

And then during the 1984-85 season, Michael Jordan took the best qualities of both Magic and Bird — Magic’s boundless enthusiasm and Bird’s tough competitiveness — and created something that the public had never seen in an NBA player. His ascendance in the mid-1980s (along with the winnowing away of the generation of players who dominated the 1970s) slammed the door shut on the bad old days of the NBA.

 

Long before he became known as the leader of the world champion Chicago Bulls, Jordan had already created a brand onto himself that transcended the NBA. He not only played hard but, like Bird and Johnson, off the court he drew attention for all the right reasons. He was the kind of guy people wanted to like, not just root for during a game. What he did for the game has already been well documented, but you cannot overstate his impact: he made even non-sports fans love the NBA.

A lesson for the NFL: The NBA’s turnaround started when a newer generation of players convinced sports fans that it was safe to start believing in the athletes, who are the heart and soul of any sporting organization.

2. You Need to Show Fans a Commitment to Improvement Continue reading

Bruno Mars Brings His Own Brand of Cool to the Super Bowl

Bruno

Is there anything that Bruno Mars cannot do? During a spirited Super Bowl XLVIII halftime show, the Grammy-award winning pop star sang, danced, did the splits, played the drums, and for 12 minutes made us forget we were watching an overhyped, tedious championship game. He also may have provided a blueprint for future Super Bowl halftime shows: a performance by a young, energetic star who evokes curiosity and relies on charisma instead of a predictable catalogue of hits to engage a global audience.

Usually, watching the Super Bowl halftime show is like watching a manic televangelist on late-night cable desperately beg for your attention. In fact, the show is engineered to fail, sandwiched inside a larger rock concert known as the Super Bowl. The big pop stars, who are used to owning the stage, invariably try too hard to make the most of their brief moment, the Black Eyed Peas being an egregious example in Super Bowl XLV (although sometimes the stars don’t bother at all, as we saw with the Who in 2010). To make matters worse, the NFL shoehorns too many performers into a desperate medley of poorly choreographed music. Just when you’re about to warm up to Aerosmith play “Walk This Way,” out pops Britney Spears to throw the moment off kilter.

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To be sure, there have been some notable exceptions, such as U2’s tribute to those killed in the September 11 attacks and Beyoncé’s sensual tour de force in Super Bowl XLVII.

However, for the most part, the NFL plays it safe and trots out classic rockers who perform hits we’ve all heard a million times before, only in a ridiculously amped up setting chock full of useless pyrotechnics. But most certainly in an attempt to court the increasingly important and sizable female audience, this time around the NFL gave us an intriguing star with sex appeal to burn. With Bruno Mars, we got a glimpse at a refreshingly young voice who channeled James Brown with his dazzling bouffant hairdo and evoked the young Michael Jackson with his dance moves and athleticism. He commanded the stage by dint of his smile and energy.  He even managed to integrate the appearance of the Red Hot Chili Peppers into his own natural energy flow — although frankly I would have preferred he fly solo.

The NFL still has a lot of work to do in order to overcome decades of mostly crappy productions. Giving us a hungry young artist with something to prove is a step in the right direction. Bruno Mars has opened the door to many other possibilities — say an adventurous artist like Lorde or perhaps an emerging international artist from Latin America. Meantime, between Beyoncé in 2013 and Bruno Mars, the Super Bowl halftime show is actually showing flashes of cool.

Why the NFL Needs Richard Sherman

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks

Welcome to the new modern-day NFL, where athletes are also entertainers and celebrities who cater to every personal taste. Two high-profile athlete/brands will take the stage February 2 to compete in Super Bowl XLVIII. On the one hand, the Denver Broncos feature Quarterback Peyton Manning, who caters to fans of the strong, silent earnest persona — the Harrison Ford of pro football.

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And as even non-football fans know by now, the Seattle Seahawks feature Cornerback Richard Sherman, the cocky, loudmouthed Kanye West of pro football.

Within hours, Sherman’s emotional, self-aggrandizing interview with Fox Sports triggered an explosion of chatter and harrumphing not seen since Miley Cyrus twerked on the VMAs. As my blog post for Jermaine Dupri’s Global 14 community points out, Sherman’s post-game interview was just the latest in a series of outbursts and stunts that have built his controversial brand. And the Richard Sherman brand is good for the NFL.

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“Hey Kid, Catch”: How Coca-Cola and Mean Joe Greene Launched a Legend

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The Super Bowl is the quintessential American pastime. No other event captures the essence of American culture so perfectly: our love of sport, our admiration of spectacle, and our devotion to capitalism. How else do you explain why the Super Bowl advertisements have become as famous as the game itself? I’ve been watching the game for as far back as I remember, including the year I wore a replica Miami Dolphins uniform (including helmet and knee pads) to watch the Dolphins vanquish the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII. And I have enjoyed the advertisements closely over the years. Even though the ads have become increasingly slick and high-concept, my favorite remains one that graced our TV screens 33 years ago during Super Bowl XIV: the Coca-Cola “Hey Kid, Catch” spot featuring Pittsburgh Steeler “Mean” Joe Greene and a little boy who adores him. In 2011, Advertising Age readers voted “Hey Kid, Catch!” as their favorite all-time Super Bowl ad.  I believe the ad’s enduring power is a testament to the power of storytelling and the appeal of Greene’s personal brand.

A Compelling Story

The ad, created by McCann-Erickson, endures because partly it contains a tightly constructed story arc, written by Penny Hawkey: after a hard fought football game, the hulking Defensive Tackle Joe Greene limps into a stadium tunnel to lick his wounds in the locker room. He is tired and bloodied. His Pittsburgh Steelers jersey has been ripped off his shoulder pads. A young boy timidly approaches the football star and offers him a bottle of Coca-Cola to soften the blow of what has obviously been a hard day.

“You want my Coke?” the boy asks.

Greene, obviously in pain, shakes his head no.

“Really, you can have it,” the boy insists.

Finally, Greene relents, offers the boy’s Coke, and takes a long swig while the boy turns away, muttering, “See you around.”

Then comes one of the greatest payoff scenes in advertising: Mean Joe Greene, refreshed by a long swig from the Coke, turns toward the boy and gently calls out, “Hey Kid.” The boy turns around, his face revealing that universal Continue reading