What the NFL brand can teach us about brand values — 8-Point Arc

Your brand values will shine through no matter what.  If you deliberately communicate, train and foster your values this can be a good thing.  If you give lip service to your values and demonstrate your brand as something different than what you say you are...you will lose trust. 


Disingenuous brands breed distrust


If you don’t follow American football, you’re probably not familiar with Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott plays for the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL. He was rookie of the year last year and is one of the best at his position in the league. The NFL recently suspended Elliott for an alleged domestic abuse incident that may or may not have occurred in July of 2016. The police decided to not press charges in the incident. The NFL conducted its own investigation and decided to still suspend Elliott for six games.


This comes on the heels of a string of domestic abuse incidents involving NFL players, the most notably being Ray Rice in 2014. The NFL suspended Rice for two games until video surfaced of the actual incident. The NFL endured a public relations firestorm after the video became public and extended Rice’s suspension.


If you have watched the sports news outlets, the Elliott suspension has received a fair bit of criticism for being too harsh. It left me wondering why there was such criticism.  Especially, given the previous allegations by some of the same pundits that the NFL is far to lenient when it comes to the topic of domestic abuse.


You can't fake your brand values


Then it occurred to me. People are upset with the NFL, not really because of Elliott’s suspension. People are upset because the NFL seems disingenuous. It’s because the NFL attempts to appear to have one set of brand values, yet operates by another.


The criticism on the Elliott suspension is because some don’t trust the NFL truly cares about helping to solve the problem of domestic abuse. They believe the NFL wants to give the appearance of caring about domestic abuse to protect the thing that the NFL cares about most: making money. 


And I would have to agree.  The NFL as a brand, to me, is like a robot programmed to only think about and do things that contribute to its mission: to make money. If it has to pretend to care about domestic abuse, it will do that. If it has to keep brain injury research quiet at the detriment of its own players, it will do that. It will even accept money from the US military to appear patriotic—and then give it back when an unhappy public learns they were charging the military to unfurl a flag before games. Because, it is programmed to react to public sentiment and protect that money. That’s what the brand robot is programmed to do.


Great brand values require authenticity and emotion


But the problem is that robots don’t have emotion—even if they try to fake them. So Roger Goodell (commissioner of the NFL), are you wondering why you get grief no matter what decision you make? It’s because there is a significant contingent of people that do not trust you care about anything other than money, no matter how much you say you do.


Which brings me to the point.  Brand values are important and come through in almost everything you do as a company.  Whether intentional or otherwise, your brand values are clear to your audience. 


Let’s juxtapose the NFL with Avon as a brand.  We ran the content for both brands.  The 8-Point Arc positioning clouds evaluate words and concepts that are presented the most across all content a brand offers.  Of all the content Avon offers, there is a disproportionate amount of content devoted to the causes the brand holds dear.  This is a brand that REALLY cares about the women’s causes they champion. Avon is one of the more remarkable brands we have processed when it comes to brand commitment to social good. That’s a brand with actual brand values because their actions and communication back those values.


To be fair we often see positioning clouds for companies that have their own brand as the most communicated concept.  By no means does that mean those brands have an issue with their stated values.  Is it a terrible thing that NFL shows up in the center of their positioning cloud? Not necessarily.  It is, however, unsurprising.  Based on what I know of the NFL brand as a consumer, I was fairly confident the positioning cloud would look exactly as it does.


For me, the lesson is that there is real danger in attempting to appease your audience in an inauthentic way.  There is no doubt there are plenty of fans that aren't giving this issue or the NFL brand a second thought. They are showing up on Sunday and more power to them.  I just wonder if the NFL is cashing in some trusted equity with its fanbase as they navigate some of these very serious issues.



Brian Dames


Leave a Comment