The Rise of Men in Blazers: A Case Study in Authentic Positioning

Once limited to a faithful collective of podcast fans in the United States, Michael Davies and Roger Bennett—better known as “Men in Blazers”—rose to mainstream status overnight thanks to ESPN, and perhaps more poignantly, a clever positioning strategy.

The crossover from digital to broadcast media is a pipedream for many YouTube and Podcast hosts, but the tightly-branded Bennett and Davies have captured Millennials with their casual banter and creative vocabulary. A subset devoted to authenticity and story-telling according to a recent Iconoculture study, twenty and thirty-somethings in the US have responded well to the cultural context Bennett and Davies provide to build affinity for the sport, rather than the average sideline report.

Men in Blazers seeks to spawn an American “soccer culture” with tabloid-esque commentary on the World Cup’s protagonists, and cupcake taste-tests to predict match results. They carved a unique niche within ESPN’s whopping 290 hours of original programming, generating buzz that brought the English duo mainstream spotlights from CBS News to The Hollywood Reporter.

Harnessing cultural undercurrents to tell a compelling story worked well for brands at the World Cup; the Adidas Brazuca match ball, for example, donned a whimsical persona and tweeted a recap of its adventures to nearly three million followers. One million Brazilian soccer fans chose the name of the ball, and its social presence was intended to behave as a backstage pass to generate a connection for new fans.

In the traditional media sphere, Banco de Chile scored big with their “Nothing is Impossible for a Chilean” campaign; the television ad layered a montage of the famous Campamento Esperanza miners who escaped a brush with death in 2010 over visions of the national squad rising from the ‘Group of Death.’ No stranger to the ambush-marketing frontier, Beats by Dre launched its chill-raising “Game Before The Game” short film that highlighted emotional superstitions associated with sport.

What lessons can be learned from the brands that embed themselves in our psyches and social fabrics after world sporting events? Bennett and Davies offer up several by power of example:

  1. We may socialize in a world of Photoshop and well-cultivated Instagrams, but authenticity still reigns supreme. Brands that have vision and can articulate it in two sentences or less are easy to connect with, particularly in the over-saturated broadcast media sphere. Bennett and Davies state their purpose outright: “Men in Blazers is driven by the belief that Soccer is America’s Sport of the Future. As it has been since 1972.” It is so much easier to establish a niche when you believe in it, and can boil it down to a single goal—no matter how audacious.
  2. Own a credible connection with the event you sponsor. When audiences do not understand your function in the larger constellation of sponsors, they tend to disengage. It’s not enough to slap the World Cup or Olympic rings on a banner in order to establish mental association. Men in Blazers stepped into a starring role having already established credibility among the sport’s toughest critics, and brought a thorough understanding of the unique opportunity American soccer presents. Similarly, headphones and sport lack meaningful connection until Beats tells the story of their integral role in the pre-game ritual. It’s up to brands to guide an audience to the nexus.
  3. There is a big, blue ocean out there. MBA textbooks frequently cite Kim and Mauborgne’s “Blue Ocean Strategy,” a framework that prefers the creation of a leading edge over the entrance to a busy landscape filled with cookie-cutter competitors. This notion of ‘going out on a limb,’ or finding untapped audiences seems moot in a hyper-connected world, but Bennett and Davies continuously prove that creativity pays dividends. Finding a clear space in the market—often through provocative, untested brand strategy—can render competition obsolete; there are still uncharted waters in the market, but only if you’re brave enough to sail there.
  4. Keep the market on its toes, but establish a motif. Half the appeal of Men in Blazers arrives in the surprise element—you never know what they’ll say about Cristiano Ronaldo, or which cupcake will reign supreme. Although they are unpredictable, certain pieces of the brand are always the same—whether it’s the humor, the structure, or the blazers—engendering a warm and familiar connection. Figure skating commentators Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski scored big during their NBC primetime Sochi coverage; the motif of crazy outfits and headpieces, combined with an expectation of intelligent, colorful commentary, drew audiences back in generally inconvenient viewing timeslots. We never knew what Johnny would be wearing, but we always knew it would be spectacular. It’s a delicate balance, and well-worth mounting the tightrope.

The success of Men in Blazers is perhaps no surprise given the pedigree of its founders. The pair come from illustrious media backgrounds—Davies is a television producer of hits such as Wife Swap, and Bennett is an ESPN reporter—and their conscious decision to frame World Cup culture is a best-in-class example for others to follow. The methodology is rather simple, and harkens back to a piece of advice our parents gave us in middle school: when taking inventory of what stirs the collective imagination, sometimes it can be just as easy as being yourself.

 

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