Hartwell Studio Works

The Hartwell Studio Works Sports Branding Podcast

The podcast for front office personnel who want to harness the power of sports branding to win more fans.


Listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Play


Episode #1: What Is A Brand?


Episode 1 Transcript

Hello and welcome to the inaugural episode of the Hartwell Studio Works Sports Branding Podcast. I’m your host, John Hartwell. I’m the brains and pencil behind Hartwell Studio Works. I’m a sports brand designer in Atlanta, Georgia.

This podcast is for front office personnel who want to harness the power of sports branding to win more fans.

As front office personnel, you know that fans are the number one most important commodity in the sports business. Without fans, you have no ticket sales, no merchandise sales, no media audience, no nothin’. When you lose your fans, your sports property ceases to exist. 

So you need fans, and the more you have, the better.

Trouble is, there has never been more competition for your fan than right now. In North America, the average sports fan can pick and choose from professional football, baseball, hockey, basketball (both men’s and women’s). Professional soccer is on the rise, both North American and traditional European varieties. There are college sports, there are minor league teams, semi-pro teams, and amateur clubs. There are motorsports and extreme sports. There are emerging sports, like lacrosse and eSports. And oh yeah, high school sports are absolutely bigger than ever.

But you know the competition for your fan isn’t just other sports. On any given day, your fans may decide to go to the beach, or go to a concert. They may choose to not leave home at all, instead staying on the couch and binge-watching Netflix all night.

There’s a lot of noise out there, and a million different ways to distract your fans. If they get distracted enough, they may forget you even exist.

And that’s where the power of sports branding comes in. 

Sports branding is about creating connections with fans. Deep, powerful, emotional connections that will carry your fans through winning seasons and not-so-winning seasons. 

This podcast series will take a look at the process of sports branding and how you, the front office personnel, can use it for the benefit of your sports property. Namely, how sports branding can help you attract, and keep, more fans.

In this first episode, I want to start with the basics and lay down a couple of definitions that are important to the sports branding process. The title of this episode is “What is a Brand?” But before we can answer that question, we need to start with what a brand is not.

We’ve all probably heard a team executive, when unveiling a new logo, say “We’re so pleased to introduce to our fans our new brand!” In doing so, they use the words “brand” and “logo” interchangeably. This may seem like no big deal, but it is, however, incorrect.

So the first thing to understand about sports branding is this: A logo is not a brand.

I’ll say it again: A logo IS NOT a brand.

It may seem like splitting hairs, but the difference between a “logo” and a “brand” is important.

Paul Rand, the Godfather of American graphic design, defines a logo as an identifier. A logo’s purpose is not necessarily to sell in a direct fashion, but instead to function as a flag or a street sign, clearly identifying the thing it represents in a sea of competitors. A logo helps you understand where you are in the marketplace, and whose flag you want to follow.

This definition of a logo as an identifier is universal, and applies to all markets, including sports. 

Consider one of the most popular consumer markets today: coffee. If you’re driving down the road and see a sign with a green, circular, split-tailed mermaid logo, you know that brand of coffee is different from the shop across the street with the square double-d logo. 

Neither of these two logos tell you anything about coffee. I mean, one’s a green mermaid, for crying out loud. What they do, however, is organize your thoughts, and more to the point, your feelings, about what each logo represents. And based upon your preferences in regards to those feelings, you’ll make a choice as to which flag to follow for your daily caffeination.

The same is true in sports. If you’re a fan of NFL football, a blue star logo will trigger either an intensely positive, or an intensely negative reaction. That reaction will depend upon how one feels about what that blue star represents.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. What a logo represents, what it identifies, is a brand. And now we can answer the question, “What is a Brand?”

If you do a quick Google search for “What is a brand,” you’ll be met with a wide variety of definitions. For our sports market purposes, I’ll suggest this as the definition of a brand:

A brand is your story.

Well, that’s kind of abstract. What do I mean?

Remember, branding is about emotions. For instance, Sir Richard Branson is quoted as saying that it is feelings — and feelings alone — that account for the success of his Virgin brands. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz asserts that “the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart.”

We align ourselves with our favorite brands because we want to be a member of that tribe. Whether that tribe is Apple, or Nike, or Harley-Davidson, we adopt them, we give preference to them, we trust them, because of how they make us feel.

This is especially true in sports. Fans don’t become involved with a team because of some dry, bean-counting, cost benefit analysis. No, fans attach to teams because of how that team makes them feel.

So how do you tug on the feelings of your fans? And better yet, how do you use those feelings to attract new fans?

You do it by telling a compelling story.

What is that story? It’s the values, the vision, and the character your sports brand represents. It defines who you are, and why you matter.

That story may be rooted in the sense of place your team represents. It may be rooted in tradition, or in the virtues of a specific person. However that story is defined, it becomes the foundation for the emotional connections you want to form with your fans. 

The more relevant, the more engaging, the more authentic those connections can be, the more you give your fans, and your potential fans, reasons to care. And you want them to care. You can have fans love you, you can have fans hate you, but if fans don’t care about you, then you’re invisible. If you’re invisible, you don’t matter. And if you don’t matter, you’re done.  

So it’s your brand story that lies at the heart of your sports branding efforts. It creates the blueprint for how to engage your fans in ways that matter most to them.

Your logo, then, will come from that blueprint. It’ll be informed by the unique character and engaging personality of your story. Your fans will get involved with your story if it’s a story worth telling. If it’s not, then even the coolest, most wicked-awesome looking logo in the world will be nothing more than an empty, meaningless pretty picture that will be easily discarded once the novelty of the thing wears off.

So how do you create a story worth telling? I’m glad you asked. That’ll be the topic for our next two episodes, in which I’ll walk you through some of the framework for developing a brand story that connects you with your fans, and wins you the new ones you need.

Thanks for listening to this inaugural episode of the Hartwell Studio Works Sports Branding Podcast. I hope you found it helpful, and that you’ll be able to use it in your efforts to win more fans.

If you would, subscribe and leave a 5-star review in iTunes and help other sports professionals find this podcast.

If you’d like to talk about any of the information I presented in this episode, reach out to me by email at john - at - hartwellstudioworks dot com. You can also follow me on social media, on Twitter and Instagram using the handle “hartwell studio,” and you can check out my entire portfolio of sports branding work at hartwellstudioworks.com.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

John Hartwell