Want to stage a comeback for your business? Take a page out of the Atlanta Hawks playbook. While sports teams often have brand crises, rarely do they rebound as quickly and as effectively as the Atlanta Hawks did after the summer of 2014.

That's when the Hawks were at the center of a controversy over racially insensitive emails written by their former general manager, Danny Ferry. The backlash from NBA players, the media and the general public, was intense.

But the real story is the way the team bounced back. For marketers and entrepreneurs, it's a brilliant lesson in crisis communications and brand revitalization.

According to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, companies in crisis fare better when they are proactive about exposing their own shortcomings before the press does it for them. This is precisely the tack that Hawks Chief Marketing Officer Melissa Proctor and her team took.

Rather than go on the defensive, they launched a marketing campaign that embraced Atlanta's diversity. They also hired a Chief Diversity Officer--the first in professional sports, Proctor says.

They also focused on the team's legacy and history. In celebration of the team's past accomplishments, the Hawks erected a larger-than-life statue of Hawks legend and Vice President of Basketball Dominique Wilkins. The sculpture was unveiled in a special ceremony at Philips Arena. Wilkins was also named Special Advisor to the Hawks' CEO.

"In the past, we were really trying to be all things to all people," Proctor admits. "We didn't embrace our past. Now, that has all changed. We gave people something to care about. I think when you ring the bell consistently, people can really start understanding what you are and who you are."

Proctor's experience can provide some practical advice to marketers and entrepreneurs trying to get real with their target audience. Here are four examples:

1. Use the F-word

Too many brands get caught up in what they want their customers to think without bothering to speak to them directly.

"The F-word in marketing is focus," Proctor says. "You have to try and build campaigns and initiatives for your target, not for yourself."

Invest in research. Figure out what's resonating with your audience. And be relentless in that pursuit.

"We are constantly thinking about what will be catchy, what will get picked up, what will be interesting to our fans?" Proctor insists.

2. Create a Brand Filter

You have to make sure what you are doing is "on-brand." Get everyone else in your organization on-board and singing from the same song sheet.

Above all, never forget who your audience is. Your focus should always be on them.

"It is important to remember, not to relate things to yourself, but to build your campaigns and ideas for your target audience," Proctor says. "Internally, we use our target audience as a filter to know whether something we come up with in marketing is or isn't on-brand or good for our business."

3. Think Bumper Sticker

Part of the challenge of coming up with great marketing ideas or concepts is finding the bumper sticker language: catchy language people can easily repeat and remember.

Once you find language that really works, stick with it. Don't be tempted to switch it just for the sake of change.

"For a while, I worked television at TNT in promotional sales and people would want to change the message," Proctor says. "They would say, we keep saying the same thing--maybe it is time for a brand refresh. I would say you work here--no consumer sees it at the same frequency you do. When you start getting tired of it, consumers are just starting to get it. You are hyper aware because you are so close to it."

4. Don't Overload the Pizza

Sometimes, a simple, direct approach to marketing communication is the most effective.

Proctor says Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin encourages his marketing team to "build it like cheese pizza--don't over complicate it. If you put too much on the pizza--it will fall in your crotch and burn you."

If you want to make a comeback, don't make excuses for bad behavior. You may wind up getting burned.

Be as transparent as possible with the changes to come, and explain how you're righting the wrong (even if you still think you're right).

Most importantly, invest in a campaign to turn things around. It may be the best money you ever spend.

Published on: Dec 2, 2016
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