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Error Ball: NBA Shows that Ad Campaigns Can't Cover Defective Products

I'm one of the few self-described basketball purists who still watches and follows the NBA. It's because I love the game itself, and many of the attributes that I love – speed, skill, agility – are found at the highest level in the professional ranks.  But like many, I'm not as passionate about the league as I once was.

It's too easy to say the NBA has a branding problem.  At its core, the league has a product problem.  Excessive salaries and equally excessive egos are affecting the product – the play on the court.  The result is a weakening affinity for the league that was once so abundant among fans like me.  The NBA is now widely considered to be declining in popularity, as last year's revenue figures show.

Like any other organization or company, revenue success for major league sports is closely tied to the league's ability to create an emotional bond with the consumer and deliver a positive customer experience.  This is what drives sales of jerseys, memorabilia, cable packages and more.  (I probably have to be the largest collector of Portland Trail Blazers memorabilia in northern Indiana, for example.)

And that's a problem for the NBA because many people my age or older feel the game – the product – was better "back when" – back when Jordan played, back when Magic faced Bird, back when players didn't need a 60-minute special to announce where they'll be playing next.  Most people feel the product has changed so much it's not worth their money anymore.

Enter a new ad campaign the league will unveil April 8, the goal of which appears to be to remind people of those glory days and perhaps rekindle the emotional passion for the NBA brand.  In it, basketballs will recount some of the great moments in league history through their own perspective – what it felt like to be dribbled, passed, shot, stolen, etc.  It's a clever idea and I can't wait to see the creative.

It's a stretch to say the campaign is focused entirely on boosting sagging revenue numbers, but that has to be at least an indirect goal.  Reminding fans of the excitement of the game reminds them that they love the sport, and the desired spending behavior could result.

But the effort will be a brick if it only succeeds in highlighting the difference between the product of the past and the product of the present.  And that's the takeaway for marketers and anyone that happens to be in business to make money: No savvy creative or big-budget ads can cover a defective product.  If you don't deliver a great experience for the consumer, all your marketing efforts will be for naught.  Launching an ad campaign without making sure the product is sound is a little like walking out for the opening tip without spending any time on the practice court: Sure you can play the game, but the result will almost always be a loss.

Filed Under: branding

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