A Tale of Two Cities: Rebranding the LA Clippers

John Smith grew up a hardcore Detroit Pistons fan in the days of the ‘Bad Boys’ era when the team made consecutive Eastern conference championship runs and won back-to-back world championships. His fandom would wane in the following years when the team was rebuilding and the losses outnumbered the wins. That was until the Pistons began winning again and Marcus’ excitement in the team would be restored a decade later.

This narrative is not unique by any stretch. Fandom within the world of the National Basketball Association (NBA) can be magnetic, exhilarating, and often times, fickle. When the team is winning, fandom is high, and people shell out dollars for tickets and apparel. But when the team is losing, no one seems to care. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors were unmentioned in NBA chatter. Today, they dominate sports headlines and sell out arenas. Why? Because they win. Teams like the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat used to hold this coveted position, but they no longer do, because they no longer win. In the NBA, if you aren’t winning, no one seems to pay attention. That is except for a select few teams — the Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Boston Celtics. Even when these teams aren’t winning, they still matter in culture.

Three of these four teams didn’t even make it to the playoffs this past season, no doubt an empirical testament to a losing side. Yet they each held a position on the list of the top 10 highest merchandise sales and the top 11 highest game attendance in the NBA during their losing season. This happens year after year after year. Why? Because these four teams are more than just NBA franchises. They have transcended the sport and have meaning beyond the game. They matter in culture and, therefore, their significance extends beyond the wins & losses. This is particularly important because every year the team changes. In fact, the only consistent element of a team is the jersey itself. Players come and go, and often when players leave a team due to trades and free agency, the fans follow them (*cough* LeBron James *cough*). And the teams with meaning win, regardless of their record.

For our client, the Los Angeles Clippers, this truth is paramount. The team is anemic when it comes to ‘wins,’ and they lack the draw of a superstar player. But more importantly, the team doesn’t stand for much beyond its record and its geographic association. As a result, Clippers fandom, and subsequent revenues suffer with game attendance sitting at #22 of the 30 NBA teams.

Even the team’s geographic association is challenged, considering it shares the city of Los Angeles with the one of ‘the four,’ the Los Angeles Lakers. Much like the NY Mets are to the NY Yankees, and the Chicago Cubs are to the Chicago White Sox, without a doubt, the Clippers are the Jan Brady to the Lakers’ Marsha Brady. To make matters worse, the Clippers and the Lakers not only share the same city but they also play in the same arena. They share the same ‘home.’ This ‘hallway’ rivalry among the two teams has created a tale of two cities.

This is where things get interesting. To the outside world, LA conjures images of Hollywood and celebrities, sunny weather, glitz and glamour. This is embodied in everything the Lakers represent. They are, after all, the ‘Showtime’ Lakers. To the locals, the Los Angelenos, however, there is more to the city sparkle. As LA native, Kendrick Lamar, puts it this way, “There’s a part of town where you

can find the grit. The fortitude. The truth.” This is the real LA, not the veneer that outsiders see on TV and movies and, therefore, associate with the city. This is the tale of two cities.

To investigate this notion further, we partnered with the AI-powered, consumer insight tech company, Crimson Hexagon, to analyze Instagram photo metadata as a means to observe the behavior of LA tourists versus that of LA locals. We categorized photos in two fashions: (1) tourists - Instagram photos taken in LA by users with accounts associated with zip codes outside of LA and (2) locals — Instagram photos taken by users with accounts associated with zip codes within LA. After which, we mapped their photo behavior (as seen below) and color-coded the locations where these users’ photos were taken. The tourist locations are denoted in pink, and locals in green.  

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On the surface, the findings were unsurprising. The tourists took pictures in and around expected landmark locations - Disney Land, Santa Monica Pier, the Hollywood sign. The locals, not so much.

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But then something fascinating appeared. Among the tourist photos, we saw a disproportionate amount of photos taken at the Staples Center on the days that the Lakers played, which sparked an ‘aha’ moment for us. The glitzy symbolization of the Lakers doesn’t accurately represent the collective spirit of the city. The ‘Showtime’ Lakers are a veneer of Los Angeles, much like the tourist attractions we outsiders attribute to the city. But there is a ‘real’ Los Angeles that has gone unrepresented and uncelebrated in the NBA. And this will become the banner that the Clippers will wave. The Lakers will represent the glitz of the city and we, the Clippers, will represent the grit - the ‘real’ Los Angeles. We will be the receipt of identity for the ‘real’ Los Angelenos. We are the real home team.

This strategic approach set the stage for the closeout of the team’s 2017 - 2018 season and the start of a new chapter for the upcoming season. The Real Home Team provided the Clippers with a North Star by which the team could align its messaging, anchor its activations, and, most importantly, rally Los Angelenos who identify with the team’s POV. With only two weeks left in the season for the Clippers, we began a 10-day rollout which would put this flag in the sand for the team.

We started by promoting the team’s efforts to make the basketball court a sanctuary in every LA community, backed by a recent $10 million donation from the LA Clippers Foundation and owner Steve Ballmer to renovate 350 public basketball courts across the city. A proof point that the Clippers are not just a basketball team which plays in Los Angeles; we are the home team, and we take care of home. We supported the donation announcement with an anthemic film which captured an accurate and diverse view of the city, and its public basketball courts, to tell a story about their meaningfulness and the crucial role they play in the lives of locals – from families who play together on these courts every morning, to mid day leagues, and mommy boot camps. The film, and additional animated video complements, were distributed via the Clippers’ social channels and debuted during live fan events in Los Angeles.

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The roll out led up to the LA Clippers’ season-finale game on April 11, where they hosted their “hallway” rivals, the Lakers, on their home court at the Staples Center. To drum up excitement and attendance for the game, we took to the streets and literally rallied Clippers fans, far and wide, to capture their team allegiance in preparation for the big rivalry game. From salons who adorned nails with Clippers logos to cake makers and sign spinners, we helped the home team promote the home team. The film was then exclusively distributed by the most prolific, diehard Clippers fans who have supported the team through its ups and downs. We identified these people via Twitter and hand-delivered the asset to them so they could do what they do best, support their team. 

The results were quite impressive. Throughout our rollout we saw attendance intent, as demonstrated by Google Search, spiked by 2%, indicating purchase consideration throughout the campaign. The campaign received 3x the team’s average brand engagements that year, and 64% more video views — all without any paid media allocated to the campaign and only $10,000 spent on production.

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To conclude the season, we created a finale cinematic interpretation of “Grit and Determination,” an ode to the city and the team. “This city, our city, moves with a fighters’ pride,” the video says. “In the face of every naysayer.” It featured real fans – aka “The Home Team” — and debuted in-stadium, across LA Clippers social channels, as well as through Clippers influencers and local media celebrities.

While most people know LA for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood (as associated with the ‘Showtime’ Lakers), there’s a different side of Los Angeles — the grit, the resilience — which most accurately represents its people and this team. This is the real LA, and we are the real home team.