A look at the hits (Golden State’s “Strength in Numbers” campaign) and misses (Toronto’s angry beavers) of the four remaining teams in the Conference Finals.
When the Warriors first hired Steve Kerr, Chip Bowers, the team’s chief marketing officer, wanted to get an understanding of the new head coach’s philosophy, in order to find a phrase or term that could be used as a team slogan. Something authentic. Not too corny.
At Kerr’s first training camp with the eventual champions, the rookie head coach spoke about the need for everyone to commit to the greater good, and in particular the need for "strength in numbers." For Bowers, that’s when it clicked—and a new multi-million-dollar marketing campaign was born.
As the Warriors continue their title defense in the Western Conference Finals this week, you will notice the free, usually gold T-shirts the team is handing out to the raucous home fans at Oracle Arena. All of them read “Strength in Numbers,” which perfectly describes Golden State’s magical two-year run. They speak to the lightning-bottling powers of the playoff tee, which has become a staple of the postseason experience in most sports, but especially so in the NBA. For a team's marketing arm, it's a primetime opportunity to promote the brand and can help crystallize a team's larger identity on the road to a championship.
In Oklahoma City, Brian Byrnes, the Thunder's senior VP of sales and marketing, has worked to establish a theme for each home game of every series. “My Thunder” in round one; “Bring Your Thunder” for round two. Against the Spurs, the Thunder handed out “shirts with a distressed feel,” a design intended to make the tees seem like something you wear to the gym on a Saturday morning. “By the second home game of the round, there’s a notion of ‘been there, done that,’” Byrnes said.
The Thunder went on to upset the Spurs 4-2. Hey, maybe it worked?
A Clash of Color Palettes
Of course, who you end up matching up against can dramatically influence your T-shirt designs. For the Thunder, overlapping with opponents' color schemes is inevitable. Dallas, Denver, and Memphis all use blue and white, so OKC sticks to its basic color set, no matter what the other team is doing.
The Cavs, on the other hand, take a slightly more considered approach. When Tracy Marek, chief marketing officer for the Cavs, started reviewing the color schemes of all the team's possible playoff opponents, she realized there were a handful of potential clashes. The Pistons had red and blue as primary colors, which were similar to some of the Cavs’ main colors. (Cleveland chose white T-shirts to match their home uniforms.) Then, in the second round, the Cavs faced the Hawks, a team that wears red and white, which took red out of the equation.
So the Cavs decided to go with gold, which they plan on sticking with when the Eastern Conference Finals began Tuesday night against the Raptors. Mind you, this could all change again should the Cavs make it to the finals and play the Golden State Warriors. “There are only so many colors,” says Marek, laughing.
We the North
There's a 2007 game against the New Jersey Nets that still makes Toronto head of marketing David Freeman cringe. That year, the Raptors handed out red T-shirts at home against the New Jersey Nets (and a prodigal Vince Carter!), who played in their red road jerseys. “It looked like they were playing a home game on TV,” Freeman said. (In his defense, Freeman was not with the organization at the time.)
Since Freeman joined the team, the Raps have gambled big on the team's free T-shirt designs, to mixed reactions. As Freeman describes it, the graffiti-heavy ones are meant to be "urban, intimidating, and transferable" across the country. Sometimes the designs are inspired. See: “We the North.” (“We like to look at ourselves as different,” Freeman said. “We’re outsiders.”) Other designs have made references to “The 6ix”— a term coined by Drake, the team's ambassador and enthusiastic presence on the sidelines. There’s also a cartoony maple leaf; a shirt that reads “YYZ” (a local airport code); and, more divisively, two shirts in the first round against the Pacers that featured an angry snowball and an angry beaver.
I asked Freeman to explain the team's perplexing logic behind the snowball and the beaver.
“We look at what people say about Toronto that are negative,” Freeman said. “We wanted to take those things, acknowledge that they are true, and be proud of them. That’s where the angry snowball turns into a T-shirt. Yeah, it’s cold here, the climate is not going to change in our lifetime, so let’s embrace that cold and make it a positive rather than complain about it.”
The backlash doesn’t really bother Freeman, though. “Our jobs are to create a reaction,” Freeman said. “I would rather have a negative reaction than no reaction at all.”
The Art of FOMO
Regardless of the immediate feedback, teams are recognizing the value of the playoff T-shirt as a keepsake. Since the Warriors tickets are such a hot item in the Bay Area these days, Bowers believes that taking a photo with a playoff tee—which he calls “armor” for the Warriors fans—creates what he calls “location envy” (or, you know, FOMO). He argues that wearing a Warriors playoff tee in public is an instant conversation starter among Dubs fans. It's a wink. It says, “I was there.”
T-shirts create cohesion, a unified identity in a loud arena. They're fun! But what happens if you don't put on a free T-shirt at a game?
Each team has its own unique strategy for dealing with curmudgeonly fans. Half an hour before tip-off at Raptors home playoff games, those fans who have arrived at the arena will be put on the Jumbotron and will be booed until they comply and put their playoff tee on. (A victory for peer pressure.) Then there's Drake, who frequently appears courtside at Raptors games and has not put on a shirt this season. He doesn't get booed.
“Drake’s got his own style,” Freeman says with a laugh.