How an NHL Team Built and Executed its Brand: ‘You need to have a vision and a north star’​

I remember my first social media job in major pro sports. I was an entry-level, one-man content band for social, among other platforms. And nobody told me what content to create.

Early on that often meant piggybacking off the beat writer stories until I got more comfortable talking to players and coaches. And, looking back, I had some strategy in my head — stories to tell, events to amplify, and my interpretation of the ‘brand’ of the team on the marketing side and how that should manifest on social media.

Social media has grown up since then. One-man bands in major professional sports are no more; social channels are powerful and they command more resources and efforts now. Strategy is now table stakes. The best teams have social media leaders collaborating with the rest of the organization, carrying out a thoughtful, cohesive brand through content and social media activity.

The content and social strategy starts with the brand, not the other way around. That’s an important distinction that can be the difference between engagement and connection, short-term results that can set up long-term wins. A strategy built out from a strong brand foundation stands the test of time. I recently spoke to the New Jersey Devils’s Senior Manager of Content Strategy Chris Wescott about the team’s success in building a distinct, relatable, objectively successful cross-platform content practice that effectively activates the team’s brand.

“You need to have a vision and a north star for your brand,” said Wescott, who has been with the Devils since 2019, the third National Hockey League (NHL) team with which he’s worked. “And then you kind of build your content plan around that, build your marketing around that, and you kind of build your voice around that.”

One reason that’s so key for social media, too, Wescott explained, is because the voice should not be the voice of the person on the keys. It’s the voice of the team and it should remain so even as key pushers change.

“The whole point of having a brand identity and voice is so that you can survive turnover at the creative level, too…,” he said. “You have to invest in [social and creative] positions. So that’s where you’re going to get a little helter-skelter in terms of brand voice and then you’re gonna see things that don’t necessarily make sense coming from that team.”

It’s just as integral to realize that a brand is more than the copy and memes on the team’s social media channels. It represents and manifests from the organization as a whole. And because brand is always the first brick laid, upon which the strategies and tactics are built, it’s vital that everybody works together and works out from the same foundation. That everyone has the same north star. Wescott talked about how this process played out for the Devils as they sought to reinvigorate and define the team’s brand in recent years.

“Our social media team does not operate in a bubble; we operate alongside marketing brand strategy…,” said Wescott, who previously worked with the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers before joining the Devils. “We all kind of sat in a room and started [asking] what are the Devils? Who are the Devils? Who are we gonna be five years from now? Who are we gonna be 10 years from now?

“There were a lot of meetings and discussions that went on with this evolution of our brand and how the voice should not only complement who the brand is, but really work in tandem with it to grow brand affinity.”

Think about one of your own favorite teams or athletes. How would you define their brand? Then consider how the content they post, what they talk about, how they talk about it, how they interact, and whether it all lines up with this overarching ‘brand.’ The word brand gets a lot of play nowadays (I hope you’re not playing a drinking game for use of the word ‘brand’ in this article), but less discussed is how you go from the strategy to tactics, how you put into practice what is put down on paper. As Wescott and his colleagues defined the brand of the New Jersey Devils, it was up to him and his team to activate the brand through their social media.

“We are Jersey’s team and there’s a certain pride and toughness that comes with New Jersey…,” said Wescott, describing a bit of the team’s brand. “We wanted to reflect that pride, that toughness, that roll off your shoulders kind of mentality in our voice. There’s kind of an attitude and a bit of a swagger with it…if you come at us, we’ll swing back. We’re not gonna take it from anybody, we’re gonna dish it back.

“And I think that plus a little bit of irreverent humor really kind of blends together with that attitude and toughness to create who the Devils are on social media.”

One of the best parts about social media, too, is that it offers both quantitative and qualitative feedback on whether the brand, strategy, and tactics are working. Wescott noted that the team has seen largely positive results since they adopted the more ‘Jersey’ brand. And what’s cool is that it’s not just social media. That brand north star really permeates throughout the rest of the organization in a lot of ways.

“There are certain times where you kind of hold off on integrating it,” Wescott cautioned but also noted, “But I think for the most part, like game presentation (for example) — everything should have that tone to it because you’re the Devils and everything that you do should have that tone to it.”

Tone, voice, and personality are important parts of a brand. But they’re not the only parts. Particularly in recent years, what a brand values — and how they actively demonstrate they hold those values — is of utmost importance. Remember, the Devils are ‘Jersey’ and that means not just representing the personality and tone of New Jersey, but showing that they really do love and support the Garden State. Wescott discussed how that well-rounded brand plays out through the team’s content — the team and the brand are more than their tone and voice.

“I think that there are some people [that] just think ‘Oh, the Devils are rude or they’re always roasting [people]’ or something like that,” he said. “But if you see what we do in the community and the amount of social justice initiatives, the amount of helping different underserved parts of our community and what we do for [the] ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ [program] and all those initiatives; it’s also welcoming people into our family, and once you’re in our family, you’re family…”

A significant part of forming an emotional connection is getting to know someone. It’s hard to form a relationship with someone inconsistent, to understand a disparate collection of interactions. The same challenge persists when sports teams don’t know who they are and who they want to be — if they don’t know, their fans certainly don’t know. The end result is often weaker connections, perpetually chasing short-term engagement day-to-day. A brand north star changes that. It creates a gravitational pull around which everything else orbits. Things just make sense and fans can get to know you, to appreciate you, and to fall in love with you. That’s how relationships form that will stand the test of time.

LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS WESCOTT

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