How Sports Teams Can Craft a Strong Brand Narrative One Social Media Post at a Time

Think about one of your favorite sports teams to follow on social media. How would you describe them? Which traits do they embody as an overall brand, which adjectives come to mind, what are their values, and what differentiates them from other sports teams?

In a time when consumers care what the brands they patronize and support stand for and how those brands come off, sports fans are also cognizant of whether their favorite teams and athletes mesh with their personal identities. And social media, in all its forms, is the most powerful mechanism teams have to develop and activate an identity. Every one of the hundreds of touchpoints teams have on these platforms with fans each week, every graphic and word — it all coalesces into how fans perceive the personalities and values of the team.

By the time Kurt Gies arrived at the Philadelphia 76ers, the team knew who it was and how to express it on social media. Luckily for Kurt, the brand of the 76ers was ‘Philadelphian’ and Kurt just happened to be a born and bred Philadelphian. So when he took over the keys (the social media posting) for the Sixers, he appreciated what his predecessors had built and sought to grow it further, along with the emerging personality of the team as embodied by its charismatic players.

“That [Sixers] account is not talking in just this plain voice, it’s talking as if it’s a Philadelphian, and Philadelphians appreciate that so much,” said Gies, who today is the Director of Social Media and Influencers for the LA Rams. “You look at the makeup of the team too…Joel Embiid especially in his early days was such a personality and it was like how do you take that huge personality and try and replicate that? Because at the end of the day, if you’re a sports brand account, you probably want to take on the voice of the people on your team…

“So having somebody like Joel Embiid is a huge piece of that and [the Sixers social media managers before me] did a great job emulating that and it just really opened up the doors for me as he started to play and become even more popular of like, ‘Hey, Joel is trolling people, we’re going to troll people too’ or we’re going to take on that similar voice.”

The Sixers were (and still are) one of the more distinct voices in social media and sports, and their originality and success continued, whether it was people named Max, Sandro, Kurt, Alli, Andy, or others behind the keys. It felt so organic for the Sixers when Kurt was there, and having guys like Embiid fueling the fire only made the direction all the more logical, sensible, and almost facile. So it was a new challenge when Gies left the comfy confines of the city of brotherly love to head to the LA Clippers, which had its own distinct brand identity and goals.

The Clippers were in the midst of a reinvigoration. The brand had been ascending, but with the arrival of newly acquired NBA stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George coinciding with Gies’s arrival, there was a salient opportunity to mold the brand and perception of the Clippers and its newly bedazzled roster. But to seize that opportunity meant paying attention to every detail, to ensure those hundreds and thousands of fan touchpoints all furthered an intentional narrative, Gies explained to me.

“When [his Clippers colleagues Sandro Gasparro and Charlie Widdoes] started they didn’t have Kawhi and PG [Paul George], but they did an incredible job of crafting that narrative and sticking to that narrative to help build that brand up from what it used to be,” said Gies, who had connected with both Gasparro and Widdoes from their time at the Sixers. “And then, you know, you get somebody like Kawhi and PG and you’re title contenders and everything was very calculated.

“That was probably one of the biggest I learned of many things from working with those guys. But that’s something that I always go back to, just there’s always a why behind what it is that we’re posting and what it is that we’re creating, and making sure that it’s achieving what that narrative is.”

Gies went on to describe what, exactly, that narrative was the Clippers sought to build. The ‘why’ to which every piece of content and post should connect.

“For the Clippers, it was, ‘Hey, we’re a blue-collar team. We’re a gritty team. We’re not this superstar team,’” he said. “So we want to show that we’re always putting in work. We want to show that we’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves and here are the specific players that we want to highlight and the keywords — so just really calculated and determined what it was that we were highlighting in the content that we were creating.

“We weren’t just creating things to create them. We were creating things and crafting copy — there are so many things that go into it. But we were doing all of this with meaning behind it.”

 Thoughtfully crafting a brand doesn’t always equal virality. Sure, it’s great for every post to hit big numbers and social media teams will always try to convey the desired meaning or value in the best way possible. But when it comes to activating different aspects of the brand, it may mean not every post will ‘blow up’ on social. If every post were to go viral, it’s probably a sign that the narrative is not well-rounded, the full brand picture is not being presented. Gies talked about the importance of balancing trying to win the internet with content that connects back to organizational goals, and did so more eloquently than this author ever could.

“Focusing on engagement, that doesn’t necessarily mean that can’t hit both [goals],” he explained. “Saying something that’s like, ‘Hey, this is a meme, but that still ladders back to a goal,’ which could be engaging in internet culture because that’s going to help hit fans that aren’t fans of the Clippers; or the complete opposite of that of like, ‘Hey, community is really important and showing what we’re doing in the community is really important for our narrative,’ but that stuff might not necessarily perform that well. There are ways to make it more creative, but that’s still really important to our narrative. 

“So understanding that sometimes things that you’re doing might not necessarily be for the engagement or for the impressions but are still really important in telling that story.”

Our reputations and personalities are the sum of every micro-interaction and impression we have with others. A perception is neither formed nor changed with a single engagement, let alone a single social media post. Over time, everything adds up and it’s integral that every word, each creative piece, and every post has purpose and precision. Brands aren’t built in a day, but they can last a lifetime.


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.