Sunrise over the Bay Bridge before the start of Day 1.
Last week, the Oregon MBA headed south down I-5 to San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area for an experiential learning week visiting companies in our respective industries of interest. The Warsaw Center had an incredible lineup of companies beginning Monday morning and ending Friday afternoon. With 12 company meetings and a networking event in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area in a span of 5 days, the trip was a whirlwind, but it was one of the most incredible experiences I have had in my professional career thus far. I will only touch on a few of our company visits, but you can check out our whole itinerary in the graphic below:
My experience in Warsaw this year has been eye-opening. Before coming into the program, I was unaware of the breadth of directions one can choose to take in the sports business industry. Our Bay Area Trip touched on every one of those areas of opportunity. The companies that we visited revolved around a diverse set of products and services including: agency services, consumer packaged goods, apparel, equipment, professional teams, e-sports/gaming, social media/technology, and sponsorship.
What was striking to me, was that despite their differences, the companies that we visited were actually narrowing their focus onto the same issue: how can we understand our customer better? It seems too obvious, right? If you are trying to sell your product or service to a customer, you should know who they are. But in this digital age where purchases are being made across screens instead of face-to-face, that process has become increasingly complex and difficult to execute. Companies are now looking for ways to understand both what consumers want and why they want it.
Our hosts at Clif Bar spoke about driving trial of their product at points of need. This is a simple concept, but one that really struck me as profound. For a brand as successful as Clif Bar, #1 in their category and a recognizable brand to both elite athletes and the general consumer, this tenant leads them to continue strong grassroots marketing efforts at events. This gives Clif Bar a chance to connect with their target customers in person, who otherwise might be buying Clif Bars anonymously off of grocery store shelves to stock up for their training or their next race. Ultimately, Clif Bar is meeting their customers at the “why” of their purchase by staying present at the races, meets, etc. where consumers will need their product.
The concept of understanding the consumers’ needs came up again at EA when we heard from Zach Anderson, VP of Marketing Science & Analytics. Anderson talked about consumers (or “players” in EA speak) being like diamonds; they have many facets to their lives. If EA wants to satisfy their players through their gaming platforms, then it is important to obtain as holistic a picture as possible of who is playing their games. EA dives deeply into the exploration of what players are doing and what kind of decisions they are making in order to determine the “why” behind player behavior. Ultimately, this effort provides deep insights into who EA’s players are and what motivates their actions, which helps EA improve its bottom line and continue to cultivate a meaningful experience for their players moving forward.
Both North Face and Marmot appear to be in stages of gradual shifts within their marketing, as the outdoor apparel industry continues to try to define its broad reaching culture and customer. Today, Patagonia, Columbia and North Face are everywhere on college campuses (think Better Sweaters, Denali jackets and Jester backpacks) as well as on the rock faces and hiking trails. Living a healthy and active lifestyle is trending, which is great for these companies, but it is also a challenge to determine how they should be communicating their brand to a customer base using their products for a very wide range of purposes. The competitors actually seemed to be on the same page, as they talked about a change in their brand communications from core aspirational to more relatable and accessible. This transition is best exhibited in the evolution of Marmot’s ads over the past several years: Check out the “Momentum” spot from 2013, followed by their 2015 commercial and their most recent Marmot super bowl commercial. Their most recent campaign is targeted at the “evolved consumer”, called “Fall in Love with the Outside”. The brand is focusing less on the fact that their jackets can reach the top of Mt. Everest (which they can and have!) and more on the fact that anyone can enjoy the outdoors at any skill or interest level.
We were also very fortunate to tour 4 stadiums home to 4 different sports in the Bay Area: Levi’s Stadium, home of the 49ers, the SAP Center, home of the San Jose Sharks, Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes, and the Golden 1 Center the future home of the Sacramento Kings currently under construction (see hard hat group photo below!). From the newest stadium being built by the Kings to the more lived in SAP Center, each of the organizations were creating innovations to drive increased engagement among their customers in a world where less people are willing to get off the couch to go to a game. The Avaya Stadium is home to the largest outdoor bar in the United States, which sits at one end of the field and looks like a very relaxing, enjoyable way to watch a soccer game. There was an enormous amount of technology that went into Levi’s Stadium, including beacon technology which can communicate with fans during a game about where the short concession lines are or remind them of their seat location. Levi’s Stadium also includes an outer ring for getting around the stadium apart from the hallway that contains the concessions. Have you ever tried meeting a friend on the other side of a stadium during halftime? It’s nearly impossible to dodge the crowds and get to where you want to go. Levi’s came up with a great solution to that customer need. The Golden 1 Center, in Sacramento, has been heavily informed by consumer insights through focus groups and surveys and will be a state of the art stadium and entertainment hub beginning next year.
Overall, our trip to the Bay Area highlighted the fact that companies are quickly trying to adapt in order to maintain touch points, relationships, and relevancy with their customers as the digital world continues to evolve consumer behavior. It was fascinating to see how this overarching initiative spanned the industry in a variety of forms.
Thank you to Craig Leon for coordinating a great lineup of visits and to our gracious hosts at Clif Bar, Twitter, Visa, IMG, GMR, VF Corporation, EA, the Sharks, the 49ers, the Earthquakes, Marmot, and the Kings for opening your doors to our program.