Interview: Blazers Marketing VP Lays Out 2013-14 Goals, Discusses New Ads, Hopes To "Earn Back Trust" From Fans

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Portland Trail Blazers marketing VP Dewayne Hankins lays out his organization's marketing and branding goals for the 2013-14 season, including "earning back" trust from fans.

It's been a few months since we've checked in with the Portland Trail Blazers' new marketing VP Dewayne Hankins, who has been busy since being hired in March.

This summer, the Blazers' business folks were busy. Not only did they roll out the "Moda Center" partnership and new food options at the arena, but they executed a comprehensive fan survey and a brand audit (which included interviews with employees, fans, and non-fans) to get an honest appraisal of the organization's standing among both diehards and the community at large. They also launched a website redesign.

What did the Blazers learn from that process? What are their goals heading into the 2013-14 season? What changes should fans expect?

Here's an interview with Hankins that lays it all out.

This conversation jumped around a bit so the order of the questions has been edited for clarity.

Blazersedge: This year, there's no "Rise With Us" type tagline and the Media Guide had a picture of Portland's skyline rather than any individual players. What's up with the "faceless" approach?

Dewayne Hankins: There's no go-to slogan and the Media Guide was faceless, but our TV campaign, which launched Tuesday, has two spots focused on Damian [Lillard] and LaMarcus [Aldridge]. Those are the guys we're hanging our hats on.

With Damian, we're playing into the underdog role. He had to prove himself to go to college to play there, he had to prove himself to play in the NBA, then he won the Rookie of the Year unanimously and now, of course, there are questions about him taking that next step. A lot of the theming is that he wants to take the next step, to keep proving doubters wrong. That's called out in his spot.

With LaMarcus, he's the captain of the team, he's the man. He's here, he's seen it all, and he understands the history and the expectations that are there for the team based on the past. He's taking that tone.

What we're really trying to do with our branding and theme this year is not really a tagline, it's wrapping up the history of what Rip City means to so many fans here, and honoring that, what it means to be a fan now compared to then. We also have some TV spots that are going to come out with former alumni who have done great things here. What it is about is Rip City, what it means here, and to the fans.

The important thing about that is that it comes out of our [marketing] research. This is what fans believe resonates with them. The history of what we've done here, good and bad, and creating new history. There's nothing scientific, or crazy, or a tagline that could sum up all of that. I wish it were that cute and easy, but sometimes it's not.

I don't know if we'll ever have a tagline again. I'll tell you that.

Blazersedge: You say that this approach was informed by this summer's research. Can you lay out that process?

Dewayne Hankins: We had the season-end survey which we got a ton of response on. We also did a full-throttled brand audit. We talked to internal stakeholders -- employees that have been here for years -- and season ticketholders who have been here for years, and new season ticketholders. We went to a Timbers game and talked to people outside the Timbers game to get a sense for what do non-fans think. We went outside of Portland to talk to people around Oregon. We went to people who live in displaced areas and probably don't come to [games] as often as they did.

The survey was one piece of information that helped us inform a lot of decisions about where to market, what things we need to do better and be better about. The brand audit was even more successful, at least from a marketing standpoint. We could have a cool tagline and a bunch of creative, but if it's not resonating with our fans it doesn't mean anything. What the brand audit gave us, it took all that data and it gave us key things to focus on as an organization so that they can love us again.

What we learned from it is that there are a lot of people who love the Trail Blazers and a lot of people who have negative feelings towards the Trail Blazers. There's not a lot of people in the middle ground or people who don't care anymore. That's really positive, because in other markets that I've been, there's a lot of people who don't even know the team exists and you have to work really hard to get people to notice you.

Here in Portland, everyone notices us. We might have done something to wrong you, but you at least know who we are and [have] told us ways that we can win you back. I think that's what our campaign is about: winning fans back. Doing things, if they're asking us to get local food in the arena, we're going to do it. If they're asking us to improve our game operations experience and make it less noisy in games, and have less music and have it more about the game, that's what we're going to do. That's the main overarching theme.

Blazersedge: What are the biggest issues that have left some people feeling "wronged" and how do you plan to resolve them?

Dewayne Hankins: The number one thing, far and away, is the TV contract. I don't think that should surprise you or anybody else. That's the one area where we have a lot of work to do to try to solve that. We're doing some creative things to help try to alleviate that, in a lot of ways, unfortunately, there's not a lot we can do.

It goes back to the "Jail Blazers" era -- that still resonates with people, people still talk about those years as the reason they don't come to Trail Blazers games anymore. [Blazers GM] Neil [Olshey] has made a concerted effort to get the right kind of players here, and that will help. We've lost trust, and we have to earn that back, and that's never easy.

The ["Moda Center"] naming rights deal too. A lot of people had a lot of negative reactions to that. That's something where we still have to build the business case for why we've sold the naming rights. That time will come. Certainly people are still angry about that. Hopefully over time they'll see why that happened but I don't expect them to understand it or believe it [immediately], and that has to do with the lack of trust they have, potentially, from past years.

Blazersedge: What were the major takeaways from the research and points of emphasis for the organization going forward?

Dewayne Hankins: Our fans want us to make the Rose Quarter impossible to ignore as a destination. That's great news for us because we've taken on the arena management side of it which used to be outsourced to AEG. We've taken that on internally, we can know better which shows to bring here, whether there's events we should bring here. Our fans, they don't want to just see this place lively and exciting when there's Blazers games, they want this to become a destination.

Really putting our season ticketholders first. [Blazers president] Chris [McGowan] touched on this a bunch of times but our season ticketholders are the most important fans that we have. We've made a no-discounting guarantee to them. We're not going to sell tickets below the price that they receive, and one of the things we are going to do is explain to them how much they are saving by being season ticketholders. The only way to get the best price now is to have season tickets.

Fans want access. That's us trying to get behind the scenes. Videos in the locker room, entertainment, shots on social media, anything to let fans know more about who our players are on and off the court.

Bringing the flavor of Portland and Oregon into the arena, which is something we've done to some extent.

It's also really important that we become Oregon's team. That's one that resonated with me. I come from a market in Minnesota where I worked for the [National Hockey League's] Wild. They play in St. Paul but they were a state team. There's no reason, although Portland is always important, [the Blazers] can't be a state team and it probably was like that. Doing things like the summer tour, the Rip City Relay, all these cities are excited we're coming, the mayors are going to be there, they want to take part, they want to see Jerome Kersey in Coos Bay. They're really excited that we're opening back up and acknowledging these cities.

Authenticity and transparency -- it's hard to pull one over on people, especially people in Portland because they're much more in tune with things. That's going to be important for us. 'Here's what we're doing and here's why we're doing it.' A lot of these things are informed by things they are telling us. It's just putting our plans together and staying true to our word.

Blazersedge: Will you bring back the online streaming option to watch games that existed last year?

Dewayne Hankins: All of the ways Blazers content is delivered are interconnected, and we're looking at the whole menu right now. There should be more specifics to come.

Blazersedge: The Sports Business Journal reported this week that the NBA is close to reaching a deal with providers that would allow live local streaming of games for all 30 teams. When would this be available to Blazers fans?

Dewayne Hankins: They're looking at launching something, none of this is finalized, but they're going to start launching in markets in December. It's something that's exciting to monitor for the future. I think they'll start rolling it out -- this is the NBA and cable networks-- they intend to roll it out a market at a time, not all at once. Obviously this isn't in our control, but we think it's a great development.

Blazersedge: You have been excited about the new, updated Blazers.com and a new digital approach. What's changed and what else is coming?

Dewayne Hankins: Our new site, under the NBA's template, has launched. It gets us in line with the other teams in the NBA. There's probably nothing too shocking or different or crazy about it, but it has us in a more organized place than the previous site. It's updated, better for our search engine optimization efforts, it's better for organization, we're continuing to get better there.

Casey [Holdahl]'s new blog "Forward Center" has launched. That's going to be a good place for fans to check out his content. He'll be traveling with the team on every trip this year. He'll have an inside look at the team. He'll have a certain amount of autonomy -- to some extent -- on the things he can do and say. It's probably going to take some time for fans to start to trust him. I think when he came over from OregonLive, that was the intention, I don't know that that's what happened. Now that he's sort of back [writing] we need to re-launch him a bit. We need to let people know he has a certain amount of autonomy to write what he wants, which is good.

Sarah Hecht is leading our TrailBlazers.TV efforts. We're doing a lot of new things there. What we really want to strive to do differently is get into the players' personalities a bit more. Antonio Harvey, we're filming a proof of concept with him hanging out with the players and getting a sense of what they're like behind the scenes, which we think is important. These are the things that [owner] Paul [Allen] is excited about because he wants people to see the inside, the players, behind the scenes, what it's like.

That's what we are doing on the video side and with Casey on the print side. He's not going to be as focused on doing shows like "Just Casey." He may do some podcasts and some other things, but we're going to have him focused on the writing side.

Blazersedge: There have been updates to the ticket buying experience and the price structure too, correct?

Dewayne Hankins: There's a misconception that our ticketing options [are run by us] but we use a third party vendor to sell tickets, [even though] we've always made it look and feel like our website. We don't have a ton of control, once you start buying in that ticket funnel process, but we worked hard with our ticket vendor to make it as frictionless as possible.

We [rolled] out dynamic pricing, which is different than variable pricing. Variable pricing is where you say each game is a different value. Dynamic pricing takes the airline or hotel method, which says that the pricing is going to be based on the demand of each game. We've become really transparent about that. If you go to our single-game ticket page, you can easily see that it costs more to go to the Heat game than it does to the Hawks game. That's just the fact that fans are willing to pay more to go to those games.

[Dynamic pricing] also helps us fight the secondary market, which NBA-wide is a big issue. If we were to say that all games were created equal and every game was arbitrarily $50, then the secondary markets of the world are going to easily make tons of money by selling those games for more and also undercutting season ticketholders and selling other games for less, when we would never go below that number for our season ticketholders. It's our way to compete with the secondary market, to say 'We agree with your, the preseason games are not worth as much as the marquee match-ups.'

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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