Marketing in Portland: Interview with Timbers VP of Marketing Cory Dolich

Over the last couple of years, we have conducted interviews with a number of marketing professionals throughout MLS.  These Q&As have provided great insight into the marketing strategies and goals of various franchises.  Within the league, the Portland Timbers are one of the most exciting marketing stories of 2011.  The expansion team has made waves with its billboard campaign, downtown store and robust season ticket sales.  Cory Dolich is the Timbers’ Vice President of Marketing and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Timber’s 2011 marketing efforts.  Thanks to Mr. Dolich.

Footiebusiness.com: The Timbers have launched a memorable billboard campaign featuring real Timbers’ fans and plastered them all over the City.  What was the inspiration for the ads?   Who is the team trying to attract with the campaign?  How effective have the ads been in generating buzz?

Cory Dolich: We’ve been very pleased with the feedback that we’ve received thus far on the campaign. There’s obviously been a lot of exciting events and announcements surrounding the team this offseason, from player signings to our kit launch, and the campaign has certainly helped complement the existing buzz and further galvanized our overall message.

As it relates to the inspiration or genesis of the campaign, we were fortunate enough to partner with Jelly Helm Studio on the campaign. In conjunction with them, we wanted to expand upon some of the previous Portland and Timbers fan-centric messaging we’d used during the previous six-month period, but be a little less explicit about it. We wanted to embrace more of a “be it, don’t say it” approach. We have an amazing fan base that creates such a tremendous in-game experience – it was about showcasing that…at its core, showcasing the authenticity of Timbers fans and the faces of that make up our community. Plus, the icons, the chainsaws, axes, etc. are embedded in the heritage of our team, and using them was critical to further cement the authenticity of the campaign – they’re such strong visual pieces with great significance to our fans and organization.  Ultimately, it was about highlighting what makes us the Timbers – strong and striking icons, great fans, an authentic in-match experience, being Portland’s soccer team.

From a demographic standpoint, we took what might be perceived as a counter intuitive approach – it wasn’t so much about a targeting a specific age range, gender, etc. but more about sharing the message with all of Portland. We wanted to live the mantra of “being by, for and about Portland” and as such, make it inclusive of all Portlanders, rather than excluding specific targets. We recognize that in a lot of cases you can’t create an “all-inclusive” campaign, but felt the messaging did well to speak to both young and old, families and singles and existing fans, and those that might not be as familiar with our product.

FB: How do the Timbers plan to utilize online avenues such as social networking sites, SUM’s online ad network, etc… to market the team?  What is the goal of such online marketing efforts?  How do you measure the success of these efforts?

CD: We put a great deal of value on digital media, specifically social networking tools; it’s certainly going to be a significant part of our marketing strategy moving forward. We try and diversify our digital approach and be more targeted (as opposed to the billboard campaign) using this media – whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, national ad servers, local websites or search-optimization tools, we’ll layer messaging throughout these different mediums when activating on a campaign.

Our goal is simple – create engaging and unique content to develop and grow fan interest. And hopefully…if all goes well, that interest turns into ticket sales. At the foundation though is content, and providing it is key. Telling the team’s stories, by sharing the access we have to all facets of the organization is pivotal.

From a measurement standpoint, it’s a combination of a lot of elements. There’s certainly a lot of statistical evidence that we can use, be it click-thrus, number of impressions, Facebook “likes,” resulting ticket sales, etc., but there’s also a level of anecdotal measures to mix in as well. Are people talking about it? Have they seen it? The current billboard campaign is a great example of that; we’ve received a ton of unsolicited feedback which shows people are taking notice. There’s also some web reporting tools, like Radian 6, that we use at times. They can track the degree in which the club is being “talked about” on the web, from articles to blogs to social media posts, and if all goes as planned, those measures spike during a campaign.

FB:  What lessons can the Timbers take from the marketing success of Seattle and Toronto?  Similarly, what lessons can the Timbers take from some of the marketing mis-steps of the early years in the League?

CD: Seattle, Toronto and Philly (last season) have been great case studies of how to launch a team. Each club has been very generous in sharing their experiences, and we’ve learned from their respective launches. Where they’ve succeeded, and where others might have struggled, can be traced, in my opinion, to how each club has approached how they view the sport. They’ve embraced the authenticity of the game. They hold true to the game’s traditions, culture and heritage. Each of those clubs has built a strong level of trust between the organization and the fan base. You don’t need to change the dynamics of the sport or the in-match experience just because it’s played in North America, as opposed to Europe or South America. The fans are savvy – don’t try and fake it – be authentic.

Plus, I think they’ve done a tremendous job of customizing their launches to the culture and attitude of those cities, while, simultaneously, not over-complicating the message. Seattle and Toronto’s use of the scarf was really strong – it helped galvanize those cities around a soccer specific icon that really resonated for the fan base.

That said, you have to be true to your own brand and your own fans. We are a different and unique culture that has a lot of history behind it and is quite distinct from Seattle, rivalry aside. We categorically need to keep things “Portland.”

FB: Is it inconsistent/challenging for teams to target “hard core” supporters, non-soccer sports fans and families?  How do you resolve those inconsistencies/challenges?  Will the Timbers target a particular group?

CD: Depends on the tactics you use to target those different entities. Some mediums, like the billboards, might have a more universal appeal and the medium is image-centric. Tailoring a specific message to a smaller demographic group isn’t as necessary with outdoor marketing. When using other mediums, be it digital or print for example, we are much more demographically and geographically targeted. Ultimately, the core message or spirit of the campaign, regardless of who you’re speaking to is fundamentally the same. For us, like I mentioned in question No. 1, we’re still talking about passionate fans, great in-match experience, being Portland’s soccer team…that doesn’t change whether you’re talking to our most ardent supporters or non-soccer fans alike. The difference lies in the nuances of how you tweak the tactics and imagery to reach the different demographic groups.

For us, we can’t be everything to everyone, but we definitely need to be smart in reaching out to multiple types of fan groups, including ardent soccer fans, non-soccer fans, families and the corporate community. We certainly have a significant, primarily young male (18-32) demo that makes up much of our core. For us to be truly a success and long-term fixture in the community though, we need to have an even larger appeal that reaches outside of this group.

FB: Will the team run day of game promotional events (e.g. giveaways, discounts, etc…) or will the Timbers rely on its season ticket base and face value seats to fill the stadium?

CD: We’ve been very fortunate to have close to 11,000 full-season tickets and are on pace to eclipse 12,000 by the start of the season. While I wouldn’t rule out offering some value-added ticket programs on a case-by-case basis, our emphasis has to remain on selling, servicing and building our season ticket base in both the short and long term. It’s all about retention for us. We feel we’ve affordably priced our tickets and cost isn’t a barrier for fans to attend games. Providing great fan service, a strong and exciting on-field product and a wonderful in-game experience is paramount to maintaining a full stadium.

We do have some giveaway nights planned in an effort to enhance the day-of-match experience for our fans. While still being finalized, we’re looking at doing about four premium giveaways throughout the course of the year.

Thanks again to Mr. Dolich.

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Soccer Business Bits: Portland Jersey Sponsor, Dallas Residency

One of the big business stories of the day was the announcement that Alaska Airlines signed a multi-year deal to serve as the jersey sponsor of the Portland Timbers.  The airline will be the first domestic carrier to sponsor an MLS team.   The arrangement includes multi level digital advertising at the renovated PGE Park (likely to be renamed before the season begins) and a role in the Timbers’ youth set-up.  Alaska Airlines employs approximately 2,300  employees in the Portland area.  What remains unknown, is whether the Timbers will wear Alaska Airlines on their jerseys or their affiliated company Horizon.

Elsewhere, there are multiple reports that FC Dallas is close to setting a full academy system at its Pizza Hut Park complex.  The team will partner with a local high school to provide classroom instruction for the residency program. Over the last few months, we have seen teams start consider moving to the residency model and Dallas appears close to setting up a full program.  The local high school is one that already has a relationship with the team as it was involved in the process of funding the fields at PHP.

Finally, it appears that David Beckham is close to completing his return from an achilles injury suffered in the Spring.  Beckham missed the end of the AC Milan season, the World Cup and most of the MLS season.  His return should mean a bump in attendance both home and away and should provide some marquee tv matchups down the stretch for the leagues tv partners.

MLS Expansion Update: 2011

Vancouver and Portland will necessarily engender comparisons during the lead-up to their 2011 opener and thereafter.  We thought we would check in on the progress of both franchises from a business perspective, starting with their stadiums and websites.

In Portland, the Timbers site has a countdown clock until opening kick and prominently features opportunities to purchase tickets for the game.  The ticket link brings users to a TicketMaster page that is available simply for deposits of $50 per seat.  A second link provides season ticket pricing and benefits and explains ticket priority for current Timbers’ season ticket holders.  Tickets range from $216-$432 per seat for the season and include 3 bonus matches.  Interestingly, season ticket holders will get discounts at stadium concession stands, an offer not typically made by MLS teams.  The rest of the website provides a stadium renovation update, history of the franchise and other general information.  The site is easy to use but is not frequently updated.

In Vancouver, the Whitecaps’ web page also focuses on tickets sales but the Whitecaps are only offering season tickets to current Whitecap season ticket holders.  Deposits have already been taken (and exhausted) for the first round of seats. Others are invited to place their name on a waiting list.  Unlike the Timbers’ deposit list, the Whitecaps’ waiting list remains internal and asks questions about the prospective purchaser for research purposes.

In Portland, the team has announced the re-design of PGE Park to accommodate the Timbers in 2011.  The $31 million renovation incorporates the existing structure to create a cozy urban stadium.   The renovation will add seats to all four sides of the structure and will include the addition of a 1,500 restaurant.  The stadium will also include an artificial playing surface.

In Vancouver, the Whitecaps have announced that they will play the first half of their inaugural season in a temporary stadium while BC place (their permanent home) is completed.  The temporary stadium (which is actually quite nice looking) will seat 27,500 and will cost only 14 million to build.  Given the  low cost of the structure, this seems like an outstanding temporary solution.