COVID Puts Agility to the Test for Brands and Their Marketing Teams
It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. This idea attributed to Greek philosopher Epictetus and oft-quoted by sage parents and teachers was put to the test in 2020.
Consumer brands and their marketing partners that took this to heart through the shocks, false starts, bad predictions, and lost expectations that characterized 2020 did best.
With the dismantling of the pro and college sports seasons, Mitchell & Ness, a purveyor of authentic throwback team apparel, replica jerseys, snapbacks, fitted hats, and branded apparel that relies on winning seasons and star players to drive in-store sales, faced a dire set of circumstances.
The continuous bobbing and weaving by their internal team and marketing agency, DMi Partners, allowed Mitchell & Ness to re-evaluate what its customers were looking for in a world that had been turned upside-down. It resulted in a swift plan modification, creative development, and tenacious execution, which helped reclaim Mitchell & Ness’ year.
Like practically all businesses, Mitchell & Ness was markedly affected by the pandemic. On March 11, 2020, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely, the first domino to topple across the sports world.
For a business as interlaced with sports as Mitchell & Ness, this unprecedented scenario could have had devastating consequences. Without live events compelling fans to adorn themselves in their favorite teams’ gear and no foreseeable end to the crisis, merchandise sales were hit predictably hard.
This adversity would only escalate as the pandemic worsened, and Mitchell & Ness closed all retail locations on March 16, 2020.
Historically, the brand relied heavily on the allure and atmosphere of its retail locations, which feature the jerseys of hall-of-fame players hanging alongside iconic throwback memorabilia, blending shopping with the experience of a visit to a sports museum. It drew in sports fans eager to browse and treat themselves or the fanatic on their shopping list.
While e-commerce had grown steadily for Mitchell & Ness in recent years, brick-and-mortar, via its own stores as well as wholesale partners, was categorically the primary engine driving revenue.
Shift to E-Commerce
With stores temporarily shuttered, the largest revenue contributor of the business was suddenly dropped to zero and e-commerce took on vital importance as it became the sole source of revenue overnight.
Mitchell & Ness' website needed to shoulder new responsibility, and the circumstances served as an impetus to introduce new features to better serve customers online.
A pre-order option was conceived to allow customers to reserve and purchase merchandise, so they are among the first to have access to hot items when they become available. Additionally, Mitchell & Ness launched e-commerce gift cards in 2020, allowing shoppers to digitally send gifts to loved ones that they couldn't see in person.
To address COVID-related delays in manufacturing and the supply chain, the team quickly developed out-of-stock notification signups, which allow shoppers to receive a notification when the product they want is available again.
Further complicating matters, warehouse operations were pared down for safety purposes, slowing shipping. To accommodate the sudden prominence of e-commerce, the back-end inventory needed to be shifted away from Mitchell & Ness' brick-and-mortar locations and allocated to the web channel as traffic quickly climbed.
The Power of Nostalgia
As we all recall, in Spring 2020 the world was firmly in the pandemic’s grip. It was a period of great uncertainty, with lockdowns and quarantines in effect. Minimal new entertainment content was being released and live sports remained indefinitely on hold.
Mitchell & Ness and DMi took note of behavioral trends from an anxious, but captive, public eager for distractions and escape. Data pointed out trending videos on YouTube of past sporting events. TV stations were replaying old games and audiences were tuning in. There was a deep-seated demand for sports, even if they weren’t live. The marketing team theorized that the history, memories and nostalgia inherent in them were what mattered.
That sense of nostalgia is central to Mitchell & Ness’ brand even during the best of times, and the marketing team posited that turning up the volume on their messaging around these ideas and harnessing the power behind such a powerful emotion could tap into the prevalent collective sentiment. For sports fans, the Mitchell & Ness experience could offer solace and comfort, acting as a conduit to a simpler, happier time.
To achieve this, Mitchell & Ness amped up its email program significantly. Using both campaign-based messages as well as automated flows, the DMi and M&N teams sent 150 percent more emails in 2020 than 2019, which translated to an even larger increase in revenue attributed to email marketing. Messages varied from new product release announcements to promotion launches to nods to famous anniversaries from sports history.
'The Last Dance'
One example of how the team rallied around the emotion of nostalgia was an ambitious marketing campaign around the ESPN documentary, "The Last Dance," which retold the story of basketball icon Michael Jordan and the 90s era Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls dynasty, Jordan, and the USA Olympic basketball “Dream Team” checked all of the nostalgia boxes and meshed impeccably into Mitchell & Ness’ identity and product line.
The program was on the Mitchell & Ness radar since it was announced in 2019, but by its airing in May 2020, it had taken on new importance within its revamped marketing strategy. Mitchell & Ness anticipated that the documentary would resonate with sports-starved audiences, and by marketing it aggressively it would find an audience keen for throwback Bulls gear.
This prediction proved correct as the 10-part documentary series was immensely popular, garnering a critical rating of 96 percent positive on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The show ranked fifth among adults 18–49 in the Nielsen ratings during the 2019–20 television season, averaging a 2.9 rating and 15 share. It also placed 55th in total viewership, averaging 6.7 million viewers per episode.
Predicting this popularity, the marketing team readied a campaign to take full advantage of the opportunity. The show was released in the traditional format of weekly episodes (vs. all-at-once, which has become prevalent with the advent of streaming services and binge-watching), providing a 10-week window to make fans aware that Mitchell & Ness was the gold standard for NBA throwback attire and their Bulls itch could be scratched with authentic merchandise.
This was accomplished by creating multiple touchpoints via email and retargeting ads. Importantly, it was performed in real time, with messaging released as each episode aired.
As the shows aired on Sunday evenings and into Mondays, the Mitchell & Ness website experienced consistent and significant traffic linked to the marketing touchpoints. This translated to noteworthy conversions — April 2020 and May 2020 revenue more than doubled the sales volume for those months in 2019.
Here’s to ‘21
Agility has always been a must-have attribute for marketers, but as demonstrated in the above examples, the past year has underlined its value. 2020 brought numerous other challenges forcing Mitchell & Ness and DMi Partners to demonstrate agility, such as the cancelation of the summer Olympics, the tragic and sudden death of Kobe Bryant (which drove masses of fans in search of memorabilia, causing a surge in demand that required a rescaling of e-commerce servers, rapid inventory configuration, and shipping priorities) and the Washington Football Team name change (posing a philosophical question for what to do with the branding on throwback jerseys), to name a few.
In a year when well-laid marketing strategies have been unceremoniously scrapped before being urgently amended and best practices have been turned on their head, a sense of agility has been necessary to emerge intact. 2020 has mercifully reached its conclusion, but the lessons learned will remain — keep on your toes and stay agile!