D.C. United CMO Doug Hicks Discusses Marketing Strategy and Successes During 2013

In an interview with D.C. United Chief Marketing Officer Doug Hicks, Business of Soccer discusses the club’s marketing strategy during the 2013 season and the success stories resulting from those efforts. 


D.C. United CMO Doug Hicks

D.C. United found success off the pitch with its marketing efforts during the year. The season was a learning experience for all involved as the team has established its own formula for bringing fans to RFK Stadium, despite issues with performance on the pitch, while balancing that strategy with the budget.

Advertising, grassroots efforts, and promotional development are the core areas focused on by the front office. The renewed efforts meant changes and experiments with the advertising strategy. D.C. United’s Chief Marketing Officer Doug Hicks mentioned that the team had not been “advertising in all the right places” and the message “could be a little more targeted” in the way that the club spends its money. Not surprisingly, the club shifted its advertising efforts towards digital means. Hicks added,

Given the affinity of our fan base, the age of our fan base leads to more digital access. We felt that was ideal; we felt that was a good target.

The shift meant more re-targeting. For many users, viewing a product via an online merchandiser likely meant that same product would be included in advertisements on websites the user visited later on. D.C. United took a similar approach to keep the brand in front of potential customers.

READ: MLS Season Attendance Remains Flat in Week 33; Up Just 0.03% to 18,462.

D.C. United has found success with two companies who serve their ads – AdReady and Quantcast – as web traffic increased alongside the click through rate and return on marketing spend.

Marketing efforts are not solely the responsibility of each club; the league provides assistance with those efforts in order to both benefit the individual teams’ budgets as well as provide campaigns for the teams to leverage and participate in. Hicks added,

With the summer months quickly approaching, D.C. United prepares for seven home matches in the DC heat as well as eight matches on the road. But don't let the humidity slow you down, cool off with a beer shower with our supporters. Tell the kids to put down the orange slices and take a break at the VW Garage. Everybody is invited to spend their nights under the lights at RFK this summer. This is soccer.

With the summer months quickly approaching, D.C. United prepares for seven home matches in the DC heat as well as eight matches on the road. But don’t let the humidity slow you down, cool off with a beer shower with our supporters. Tell the kids to put down the orange slices and take a break at the VW Garage. Everybody is invited to spend their nights under the lights at RFK this summer. This is soccer.

We’re working a little more closely with the league than we ever did. For long periods of time, we really set ourselves apart from the league and that was primarily driven on branding because we really wanted to be authentic. We wanted to be true to the game. We had a different model for how we wanted to serve our brand than the league and some of the teams in the league as a whole. As their advertising and branding measures more closely fit with ours, I think we looked at this year and they put together a great toolkit with the ‘This is Soccer’ campaign.

The club was keen to build on the success of the early season campaign with a summer campaign of its own – “Summer of Soccer.”

It allowed us to focus on the feeling of summer and getting out and the experience of the game. It allowed us to talk a lot about those things when talking about the team on the field wasn’t necessarily moving the needle. So we moved to that in the summer and saw a lot of success through the summer and that did really well for us. The improved messaging, the real targeted message, the continued optimization to where we were serving ads and as to how we were retargeting people that were coming to our site – all that really provided a lot of positives that we’ll look to build from as we look into 2014.”

The success of the campaigns is measured in multiple ways. Most important is the return of marketing spend and to have a positive impact on the bottom line. Ticket revenue and attendance is a telling statistic that the club places emphasis.  Despite ranking seventeenth in both stadium capacity at 70.1%  and attendance with 13,641 through week 33, the club has found success in its marketing campaigns to counteract the performance on the field. The current strategy has proved to work but the constant about marketing strategies is that they are always changing and adapting.

We feel for D.C., in this market, that magic elixir starts with a new stadium, a championship level product within, and accentuating and encouraging the unbelievable atmosphere that our fans are able to bring. You package that, you’ve got something special for sure. We’re working towards getting all those pieces together.

The challenge faced by teams in Major League Soccer is that each market in the United States and Canada is unique. The atmospheres within the stadiums are different and so are the customers and supporters. The location of the stadium and the market’s demographic plays an important role in determining the message for advertising. Hicks defined D.C.’s target market,

“It’s definitely an 18 to 30 [year old] mix is our primary [audience]. We’ve got that triple threat when we have that core audience that is a young exciting demographic that everybody wants to sell to as far as if you’re talking corporate partnerships and bringing on partners – that’s our core – but do we have families, soccer moms? Yeah. Do we have the Hispanic and minority multicultural aspect of our fan base? Yeah. That provides us a very valuable and attractive fan base for marketers. It’s just a matter of how we segment and help them reach what specific group they’re looking for.

Defining the target market and winning the target market is a process, one that Hicks and his team leveraged grassroots efforts to achieve. With more than 300 events during the calendar year and a customer database of over 30,000 contacts, the efforts have been successful based on the initial investment from the advertising budget.

We found that we were turning over more revenue by speaking to people, talking to them about the team, being in front of them rather than just serving ads that they may or may not see, or putting an ad in the paper. We’re at more things. We’re talking to people.

Aside from the advertising and grassroots efforts, the third core component of the club’s marketing strategy included promotional development. Working with both local colleges to have brand ambassadors and create partnerships with local bars, D.C. United has opportunities to be in front of more potential customers through its target age range. The team worked with 41 different bars in the D.C. metro area to show every D.C. United game throughout the season.

DC Brau

DC Brau Brewing Company

The club expanded beyond its bar program and partnered with local brewery DC Brau Brewing Company to create their own beer. The club’s own beer brings together the D.C. bar scene and the craft beer craze. Hicks expanded,

We had a multi-platform program with them this year that was a huge success. There were PR elements. There were marketing elements. There were corporate partnership elements. It accentuated our relationships with our bar partners and I don’t want to get into details about 2014 but you can expect big things from that for the year to come – and we’re talking new stadium extensions with them as well. There’s a lot of exciting things to come with that relationship and all of that feeds back into our core audience.

Despite all the efforts included in the marketing strategy, the current season was not without challenges to maintain ticket sales and drive revenue in a season that has the team looking to quickly forget 2013 and look towards 2014. The marketing team has conducted in-stadium surveys and focus groups to better understand who their fans are, what they want, and why they bought into D.C. United.

It cemented that we were headed in the right direction in a lot of different ways with the things that we were providing them as a product and customer service.

That research provided an understanding and the reasons behind people not coming to MLS matches, as well. Hicks suggested,

It depends on who you’re talking about. If you’re talking about a fanatical soccer fan that follows teams in Europe and isn’t really engaged with the MLS product then you can have that as an issue. There are families out there – they love soccer but they’re favorite team is their child’s team; they’re not interested in coming out or they go to the Verizon Center or Nats Park or FedEx Field and this doesn’t provide the amenities that they might like or that cozy feeling inside the stadium. We know those roadblocks; what we’re trying to do is focus on accentuating the positives and things that do draw people to the game and as we can continue to grow, then we’ll focus [on those other fans].

Those other fans are part of an estimated 30 million soccer fans in America that are not ‘in tune’ with Major League Soccer’s brand; the total population of soccer fans is estimated to be 60 million.

The league is going to – in the coming years – there’s going to be a big push at the league-level to help transfer those 30 million fans that are soccer fans in America that aren’t really engaged with the MLS brand. They’re going to be working on turning over that number, which is a great help to us because that’s a large expense.

D.C. United has a lot to look forward to during the 2014 season after the success had in this year’s U.S. Open Cup and challenges faced throughout the regular season. An expanding regional broadcast partner in Comcast Sports Network and a new stadium estimated to open in 2016, the club is moving in the right direction to take advantage of additional revenue streams while capitalizing on its expanding market in Washington, D.C.

What do you think about D.C. United’s future success in Major League Soccer? Let us know in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.