Brand Loyalty: Lessons from the San Francisco 49ers

How does one of the most successful sports franchises in the United States cultivate a fan base that is intensely loyal and passionate? The Chief Marketing Officer of football team the San Francisco 49ers shares ideas on fan experience, brand intimacy, and customer engagement in professional sports.


Apr 22, 2022

For a great example of brand loyalty, look no further than the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers are famous for their passionate fan base, which is one of the most loyal in professional sports.

How does one of the most successful sports franchises in America cultivate a fan base that is so intensely loyal? The answer lies in business models that are heavily focused on fan engagement, treating customers as a relationship rather than a transaction.

In this episode, we talk with Alex Chang, the Chief Marketing Officer of the San Francisco 49ers, for practical lessons on brand loyalty that we can apply to our organizations.

The conversation includes these topics:

Alex Chang is in his third season with the 49ers and serves as chief marketing officer. In his role with the team, Chang leads all areas of marketing including brand strategy, creative, media, social, digital, content production, game presentation, events and corporate communications.

Prior to joining the 49ers, he served as the head of partnership marketing for Samsung. Prior to that, Chang worked at elite marketing agencies. He was vice president at Wasserman where he advised global brands on their sports and entertainment partnerships. He also served as vice president at IMG College. Chang became an industry expert while at American Express, where he spent 13 years in various marketing roles including vice president of sports and entertainment marketing and vice president of U.S. advertising. 


Michael Krigsman:  How can your business cultivate the kind of passionate, loyal fans that a major sports organization like the San Francisco 49ers is able to do all the time? Alex Chang, Chief Marketing Officer of the San Francisco 49ers.

Alex Chang:  The 49ers, we're the oldest professional sports team in the Bay Area. We're celebrating our 76th anniversary this upcoming season. Obviously, we play in the NFL, as I'm sure you know well.

We're one of the most successful franchises in NFL history with five Lombardi trophies. We've been in the Super Bowl the past three years, the NFC Championship Game two out of the past three years.

We are based in Santa Clara in Silicon Valley. It's where our stadium and our headquarters are, but obviously, we're lucky to have a fanbase that spans not just the Bay Area but the entire world.

On working in sports branding for the 49ers

Michael Krigsman:  What's it like working for the 49ers? Those of us on the outside, we see this. It must be so exciting.

Alex Chang:  I think being able to work in sports is a blessing in itself. It's an amazing industry. It's super dynamic, great people, a lot of great relationships. Obviously, it's something that's core to culture for not just the U.S., but the world.

The 49ers specifically, what makes it amazing, honestly, is the organization and the people. Not every professional sports team is the same (from an organizational standpoint) because they're really all just these family-owned, midsized businesses that happen to be in the billion-dollar industry of the NFL.

But we're a pretty small company when you look at just actual headcount; maybe 300-some-odd people on the non-football side. When you work in an organization that size, the culture matters, and it's going to vary from organization to organization.

I can tell you that the culture here is phenomenal. It's one that's grounded in innovation. It's grounded in collaboration, empathy, and is really progressive in terms of how we think about building out our team and the culture of the organization.

It's been awesome. This is my now fourth season coming up working with the team, and it's been incredible.

Michael Krigsman:  You mentioned that there's this very close family feeling. You've worked in a bunch of different industries, and so how is working in pro sports different from any other industry?

Alex Chang:  As you said, I've worked in large, global companies (in the past), so I spent a lot of my career at American Express. I worked at Samsung. I was at a couple of sports marketing agencies working on big clients like Verizon and Microsoft.

To me, I think, obviously, the size is just different. It's a small organization, which means it's much more close-knit. You kind of know everybody versus in a 10,000 or 20,000-person company. That's going to be impossible.

You know everyone. You work with everyone. It does have that, like I said, midsized company feel.

I think, beyond that, from a pure marketing perspective, this is my first time working for a team. Now, I've done sports marketing before from the brand side. I've worked at sports marketing agencies, so different parts of the ecosystem there, but this is my first time working on the team side.

I'll tell you this. As a marketer, it's really fulfilling because the team really has, I think, the closest connection to the fan or to the end consumer (of all the parts of the ecosystem). Certainly, sponsors and brands are part of that relationship, and media companies are part of it. Venues are a part of it but, ultimately, who has the closest connection to the end fan is really the team – in some cases, the players. To be able to be on that side of the table and be in that part of the relationship with the end fan is pretty amazing.

Michael Krigsman:  I have to imagine that one of the significant differences is the level of emotional connection that fans have with the team, as opposed to, we might have an emotional connection with – I don't know – our toothpaste, but it's so vastly different when it comes to sports.

Alex Chang:  The relationship that we have, we talk about hearts, minds, and wallets. The heart is the thing you want to get to. As a brand, as a marketer, what you want to achieve is that really close emotional connection with a consumer. I would argue that nothing does that more effectively than sports.

I use these real-life examples all the time, but how many things will people choose to tattoo onto their bodies? How many logos would people choose to wear proudly on a hat or a sweatshirt or hang a flag in front of their house or put a bumper sticker on their car?

There are so many amazing brands in our world, and so many brands that have great brand loyalty. You think about the ones that people truly feel are a part of their identity. It's kind of who they are. It's how they think about bonding with their friends and their families, the community that they're a part of. Sports does that, and so it's really powerful. Again, as a marketer and as someone who is a brand steward for our team, I take that responsibility and that relationship very seriously.

Why is fan experience important?

Michael Krigsman:  You talk about this loyalty and the passion. Who are your fans? How do you think about your fans?

Alex Chang:  You think first and foremost about your ticket buyers, our season ticket members, our single game buyers, our suite owners, people who are coming to our games. We have about 70,000 seats here at Levi's Stadium. We have ten games a year here.

At the core, you have those folks who are coming in, seeing us every week, or every other week, on Sundays, to join us for those moments, that hero product for our team, the live games.

Outside of that, we've got tens of millions of fans who don't come to Levi's Stadium, who can't come to Levi's Stadium, who are really a big part of our brand as well. The strength of our brand isn't just in the 70,000 that physically come here for the games. It's also the tens of millions who are rooting for the 49ers, who follow us, who we're a big part of their lives and one of the things they're very interested in.

Then beyond that, I think about – like what you were saying – prospects (in a traditional business sense), potential fans, fans for the future. That's a really big focus as well.

Today, the number of things competing for those hearts, minds, and wallets of the next generation are literally endless. I think about my kids. I have three kids all under the age of 12. The amount of things that are competing for their attention now, when we think about social media, mobile apps, gaming, influencers, so on and so on and so on – the endless stream on content streaming platforms.

There's just so much out there versus when I grew up. All we had, really, was sports. And so, for us, as we're thinking about all of our different audiences, certainly those who help drive our business today (i.e., people coming to the games) are in the center, other people now who are actively engaged with us in the world are in the next ring, and then outside of that is going to be next generation who will continue to feed that funnel.

How do the 49ers create fan loyalty?

Michael Krigsman:  What do these fans want from you?

Alex Chang:  I think it's to help them be closer to what they love, the 49ers. When you think about those people who are rooting for our team, who want to be a part of our family and part of our 49er community, they want to get closer to that. I think we're really fortunate in that we have the ability, through social media and through digital and social content, to allow people to get closer, to feel like they have more information.

Again, you think about when I was a kid. You got information through a daily newspaper. You'd watch maybe Sports Center, and so you're getting things, but it's bits and pieces, and it's very filtered, it's very curated.

Now there's a lot more access, whether it's through the team itself or through the players and their platforms. I think the more people can feel like they're really a part of what we're doing here, that they're in the loop in terms of things that are happening here, I think that's what they're looking for.

When you think about people who are coming to our games, I think it's really about making that moment special for them. There's nothing like a live event and that feeling you get when you're in that moment with fellow fans, 70,000 people, cheering the team on. It's a pretty amazing thing, something you share with your family and with your friends, memories that will last forever. We want to make sure, for those folks, that we give them the best experience possible.

Michael Krigsman:  You said making the moment special. Is that the essence of the whole thing here?

Alex Chang:  It is. Yeah, you nailed it. Our "why" is about creating meaningful moments that inspire and connect.

You think about that, and those moments don't just have to be at the live game. Those moments can be when you're on our social media platforms or viewing a piece of content from us or you're at one of our community outreach events.

When you think about how the fans engage with their favorite sports teams like the 49ers, it's all about those moments (small and big), what those moments mean to them, and why they choose to spend time doing those things. Our job is to make those moments matter and make sure that they are meaningful.

Michael Krigsman:  The expression of the special moments, as you were saying, comes in many, many different forms, and it sounds to me, as you're talking, like you think about the expression of those moments in many different ways.

Alex Chang:  Traditionally in sports, there was a heavy emphasis (and understandably so) on live game attendance, getting butts in seats (from a sales perspective), and then customer experience from a live game perspective. That still is, again, very core and very central to what we do.

But we have to remember that the strength of our brand isn't just hinged on those people who can come to the games. And so, when we start thinking about broader audiences who are engaging with us, that is part of the experience too, even if there isn't a live component to it, even if that's someone who is always just going to see live games at home or they're only going to follow us on social. That's okay. That's still part of the experience in terms of how people engage with us, and we have to be thinking about that just as much as we're thinking about those who are here, live.

Create customer loyalty by building customer relationships

Michael Krigsman:  I think this question of how we reduce the distance between our fans and our customers with our brand is fundamental to many organizations. What lessons are there in this that those of us who are not in sports can learn from your example?

Alex Chang:  No matter what industry, whatever product or service you offer, you're a part of people's lives and you mean something to them. They're choosing to invest their time or their money in your brand.

I know it's hard because there are, again, tens of millions of customers that are out there, so we're not talking about necessarily having to develop one-on-one relationships with every single customer that you have. But understanding them on that level as a relationship and not as a transaction is critical because, ultimately, if you think about it that way, as a relationship versus a transaction, I think it allows you to up-level a little bit in terms of how you think about that relationship and what that two-way street looks like.

If you think about it as purely transactional, then you take the emotion out of it. You take the empathy out of it. I think that's going to show when it comes to customer experience.

Michael Krigsman:  We had as a guest on this show Jonathan Becher, who is the president of the San Jose Sharks. I'm struck because he made the exact same comment that you just did. He was very emphatic. He said, "We treat fans as a relationship, not a transaction." The fact that you're both saying this tells me that, out there in the general world, we do tend to treat our customers as transactions rather than as an ongoing relationship. Any thoughts on that?

Alex Chang:  I think that's right. You can't generalize. Obviously, every brand is different. I do think you're seeing brands of all shapes and sizes start to understand the relationship a little bit stronger.

I think they're starting to understand transparency, starting to understand expressing brand values, starting to understand purpose-based marketing and branding. All of those ideas are starting to percolate across all industries. You start to see a lot of brands talking about not just what they do but why they do what they do, the purpose behind it, and how they're making a difference.

Ultimately, yeah, when you think about certain sized companies, I've worked with some really large, global companies, and when you're out there selling hundreds of millions of smartphones, televisions, or appliances every year, it can become transactional. It comes down to a spreadsheet and numbers very quickly because of the scale of the business. That's something you have to really fight against and really think through (no matter how large your business is) how you ultimately think about your strategy and how you build out customer experiences. Think about it at an individual level.

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How to use data and analytics to cultivate loyal customers?

How do you then keep that focus on the customer relationship as opposed to the transaction, because I have to assume (somewhere in the 49ers' organization) somebody is counting revenue, and you have the same pressures as anybody else that's running any type of organization or business?

Alex Chang:  Yeah, for sure. Look, we're running a business like anyone else, and it's a successful business. But in running that business, one of the key things that we focus on is understanding the customer and getting customer insights.

We have a really robust team here in-house called our business strategy and analytics team. One of their core missions is to help us really understand the voice of the customer.

On top of that, the NFL (at a league level) provides us a ton of insights as well. This is through primary and secondary research with our fans, NFL fans, and sports fans at large.

Then we hear directly from our fans quite a bit, and we engage and encourage that conversation as well.

I think we have a lot of different data sources that we take into account when we're making decisions about our business. Ultimately, we'll make sure that our business is healthy, and we'll make sure that our fans have a great experience, but we want to make sure we balance both.

Michael Krigsman:  What are the kind of lessons that we can take away? Let's talk now about understanding our customers. We were talking about data and analytics. How do we understand our customers? How do you understand your fans?

Alex Chang:  A lot of it is just getting first-hand or secondary research and information and looking at what kind of feedback we're getting as it relates to the experience they have with us. I think we're looking at engagement – in my world with marketing – across different channels to understand: how are people engaging with us; what's compelling them to be a part of the conversation when it comes to the 49ers; what are the things they're most interested in and want to learn more about?

We're talking all of that information in, in real-time, and figuring out how we adjust our approach based on that. That approach might be something that's related to our ticketing, our concessions, or our live game entertainment. It could be related to the type of content that we're focusing on from a social media standpoint or how we're optimizing our mobile app.

Everything that we have out there today has to constantly evolve. We can't just say, "Well, we've built something. It should work fine. We're the NFL. It'll be great," and just let it go. Everything has to be a constant iteration and improvement.

Michael Krigsman:  There's a combination of research, data, as well as actually speaking with your fans.

Alex Chang:  Yeah, absolutely. A lot of it also is looking at best practices. It's interesting. I didn't realize this because I come from the brand side where everyone is competing with everyone.

On the sports side, it's a lot of collaboration, even within the NFL, and so a lot of it is working with my colleagues at other NFL clubs or working in other sports teams or leagues to understand best practices and what they're seeing as well. There's a lot of comradery when it comes to that and a lot of best practices sharing that I find really valuable.

Building a mission and purpose to drive customer satisfaction and create happy customers

Michael Krigsman:  Alex, you mentioned purpose. Can you elaborate on that? Mission, tell us about that aspect of it.

Alex Chang:  It's what a lot of brands are doing today, which is really thinking through the "why," the "how," and the "what." I think "what" is very simple for most, which is what product or service you offer. But why you do what you do and how you go about doing it, this is all Simon Sinek stuff that you guys are all super familiar with.

I think those questions are important to answer, and it's not just in terms of informing how you go to market and how you present yourself to consumers. It's also about your employee base and thinking about what's motivating them.

If someone coming to work here is only motivated about their goal is to sell as many tickets as they can tomorrow, well, that's only going to get them so far. But if you can elevate that to say, "You know what. It's not really about selling the tickets. It's about providing these moments for people that they'll never forget, and these meaningful moments that inspire and connect," well, that's a higher-level purpose.

I know sometimes, for brands, it can be hard because sometimes the higher-level purpose can feel like a stretch. "I want to make the world a better place," these very vast, vague statements.

But we're fortunate. We know that what we do creates moments because we see them every day, every moment. Every Sunday, I see people. I see the moments we're creating. I see these families and the memories that we're making for them.

Every day on social media, we see people engaging with our content. We see people encouraging us or cheering on our team or our guys, so I know that these are moments for people in their lives. I think if we can really establish that for everyone in our organization, no matter what role they play, I do think gives them a higher-level purpose.

Michael Krigsman:  I can see how you relate everything back to those moments and those moments are very personal. It sounds like that's the lens through which you're viewing all of this.

Alex Chang:  Absolutely. I think we can all draw from our own personal experiences. I grew up in North Carolina. All we really had was ACC basketball, but sports was a huge focal point in my life.

Now I have three kids, as I said before, and I've been fortunate enough to share a lot of experiences with them through sports. We've been to so many events and so many games. Those moments are ones that I'll never forget, they'll never forget, and those are things that we'll carry forward and they'll pass on to their kids and to their kids.

To me, I think us being able to play that role in people's lives is something that we really have to cherish, really have to make sure that we hold that on a pedestal, and that we really take care to make sure those are the best experiences possible.

Michael Krigsman:  Alex, let's take a few questions from the folks watching. We have a question from LinkedIn. Joel White asks, "How big of a role does IT play in terms of getting access to good quality data, or is it a separate group that deals with that?"

Alex Chang:  Technology and having tools and platforms at our disposal is critical. We have a lot of different partners that we work with that provide us resources, both directly as the 49ers but also, as I said before, through the league. And so, we're ingesting a lot of data from a lot of different sources. We have a great team here who can really cull through all of that, pull out key insights from that, and allow us to really inform our decision-making.

How the 49ers segments customers in their football marketing

Michael Krigsman:  We have a follow-up question from Joel, and a similar question coming from Arsalan Khan on Twitter. Arsalan is a regular listener. He asks the best questions – great questions.

I'll combine these two together. Joel White says, "What challenges do you have getting access to data?" Actually, let's do this one first, and then we'll go to Arsalan. What challenges do you have getting access to data?

Alex Chang:  To me – I feel like I've talked about this before – I'm thinking about these three buckets of customers:

  • The game attendees or the ticket buyers, season ticket members.
  • Those who follow us more broadly in social media and other places that we normally engage with.
  • Then the prospect, kind of the future potential fans, is probably that outer ring where I feel like there's probably the most challenge, to be honest with you.

We know a lot about our customers, our ticket buyers. I think we know a good bit about the behaviors and engagement trends that we see within those who are already actively engaged with us through email, social, or digital.

That outer ring, so people like my kids, for example, I think that's the challenge is to understand, okay, if we want to continue to build the next generation of faithful, what are they interested in today? How do they view NFL in their priority of things that they want to care about? Are the 49ers cool to them?

Those are questions that I definitely have and it's hard to get that information because we don't have that direct connection with them. There are obviously also age and privacy issues to think about.

As you think about (for any brand, whether it's sports or otherwise) your next generation of customers, it's harder to get direct, clear information. You can look at general trends that are happening in the marketplace or things that are happening. But for you specifically as a brand, or at least for us, I find that probably to be the biggest challenge.

Issues and challenges when using data and analytics to drive fan engagement

Michael Krigsman:  We have a question now coming back to Arsalan Khan who says, "In regard to collecting data for personalized experiences, how much is too much when it comes to collecting data? And, oh, what about privacy?"

Alex Chang:  For us, obviously, privacy and compliance is top of mind. Our data collection strategy, I would argue, is pretty light-touch. A lot of it is really inbound.

Again, we're in a different dynamic here where we already have a pretty large fan base. And so, I think, for us, giving them opportunities to engage with us in a more personalized way or more direct way is something that we offer to everyone.

But remember, that first step, that initial outreach, that initial handshake has already happened (usually initiated by them because they're 49ers fans).

And so, you already have that common ground. You already have that connection. And so, really, talk about data collection or personalization is taking the next step in that conversation, but the first step has already been taken and is mutual.

Michael Krigsman:  That's a really core part of this as well is that you know these people. They want to give you the data because they're looking for something in return.

Alex Chang:  Yeah or, at a minimum, we know that they want to be in a relationship with us in terms of them being a 49ers fan. The question is, how deep in that relationship do they want to go? But that's something, again, we leave up to them.

We'll offer them opportunities to do that, but if it's as light as, "You know what? I'm just going to follow you on social media and leave it at that," okay. If it's more than, "I want to be on your email list," or "I want to buy tickets from you," "I want to buy merchandise from you," okay, then we can do that as well.

I think there are different ways to engage, and we really want to allow the fan or the consumer to choose that path.

Michael Krigsman:  Arsalan is also wondering, "How do you know when it's too much? How do you know how much data to collect? You can't collect everything in the world, so how do you decide? How do you prioritize?"

Alex Chang:  I mean some of it is kind of like thinking about if you ever move. You have a bunch of stuff packed in boxes. If you haven't opened up a box in a month or two, you probably didn't need that stuff to begin with. [Laughter]

I think about data a little bit the same way. It's like, let's get as much information. But over time, if you're not really using it to drive any sort of insight or drive any sort of action or decisions, then that data may not be that useful. But there could be other questions that you have that you don't have data to inform that you want to get.

I think it's, again, this constant optimization that has to go on. But really, a lot of it, to me, is based off of real-life usage.

Ultimately, it's the "So what?" Great. I have a piece of information. I got a piece of data. So what? If there is no "So what?" if there's nothing you really would do about it either way and don't really help you in any meaningful way, then maybe that's not necessary.

Michael Krigsman:  That's a very pragmatic way of looking at it. You're very practical, focused, and organized, it sounds like.

Alex Chang:  I would like to think so. As a chief marketing officer, I do have to balance art and science.

To me, yes, of course. In the world that we live in today, data and analytics are critical, and they're at our disposal. We have the information, so why not use it?

Marketing and the data available to us – in my career, I've been working 20+ years – has evolved a ton. When I started my career at American Express, the most effective marketing channel for a new customer acquisition was direct mail. Okay, and so what we would do is we'd sit there and literally send out hundreds of thousands of pieces of direct mail.

We'd vary, okay, on this envelope we're going not have a gold foil. On this one, we won't. On this one, we'll put a fake card inside. On this one, we won't. We'll put unique source codes on there and see what comes back.

That's very limited data that you're getting at that point. Basically, you're saying, "I'm going to change variables in this marketing test and see what comes back, and that's all I'm really going to know." I'm not going to know why. I'm not going to know really who responded and what made it different for them psychologically or rationally – very little information.

Today, we have exponentially more information, and – to the point that was made by the listener – sometimes it could feel like too much, but we have to use that. At the same time, there has to be some art to what we do. From a marketing standpoint, there has to be some gut, some feel, some instinct that comes into play. You have to be able to balance those two things.

Michael Krigsman:  We have another question that's come in from LinkedIn from Peter Jones who asks a really good question. He says, "What are some examples of changes the 49ers have made in working with fans based on the analytics and the data?"

Alex Chang:  I mean one of the biggest things we did, and we launched this this past season, is something called Member Inclusive Menu. What it really is, is all-inclusive concessions. When someone comes to our game, concessions are already included. They don't have to go out of pocket to buy additional concessions.

It seems pretty simple, and we've seen this model happen in smaller instances at things like sporting events and premium club spaces or suites, for example. But doing it in mass for an entire stadium, including general admission, hasn't been done before.

That whole project was really driven by insights about what people are looking for when they come to a live game. They want convenience, they want value, and they want a little bit of certainty in terms of, like, what is this whole experience going to mean for me from an out-of-pocket standpoint? This allows us to do that for them.

Again, it's small, it's simple, and you would think, "Yeah, why wouldn't everyone just do that?" But it's a heavy undertaking. It involves a lot of financial analysis to understand how you make this work from a P&L standpoint.

Operationally, it's a huge lift to say, "How do you get this thing off the ground? How do you change a process that people have been used to for decades and really turn it on its head, and do so efficiently, making sure that you're getting 70,000 people in and out of those lines as fast as possible?"

Things like that are things that we're looking at all the time just to understand what are people looking for, what are some pain points they might have or areas that we can improve, and then what can we do about it?

Michael Krigsman:  I love the questions. If you're listening out there, you should be asking questions because, man, when else are you going to ask the CMO of the 49ers whatever you want to ask? And we'll answer.

Arsalan Khan comes back, and he says, "Okay, so how did you convince folks inside the organization that all this needs to be data-driven, given the heavy lift that you just described that's necessary to make it all happen?"

Alex Chang:  Luckily, in our organization, which is again pretty small, there are not that many layers to get through. I report to the team president. The team president reports to the owner. That's it.

When you think about the conversations we're having, it's with a small group of people, and it's people who understand the value of data. Then that's a byproduct of the talent they hired here. It's talent of the ownership that we have here and the way they've approached running this business.

It's not consistent – I'll tell you that – across the league. It's just different because, as I said before, people don't really realize – I didn't even realize it before I started here – these are really just family-owned businesses. Most major sports teams, the majority owner is a single-family, and so each family is going to be different.

Each owner is going to be different in terms of how they make their decisions and what they prioritize and what they value. We're lucky to be in a position here with our ownership where they understand the value of data and analytics and how those can really help drive a business forward.

Michael Krigsman:  Peter Jones, on LinkedIn, comes back, and he says he's finding this very interesting because he's never heard of concessions included in the ticket price. When you talk about innovation, that's the kind of innovation that you're referring to. Is that right?

Alex Chang:  It's an example of one. I know it seems a little bit basic because we're talking about chicken fingers, hotdogs, and ticket prices, but it's all part of the experience.

It's one of those things, when you look at the things for us, for example, for a live game attendee, things that drive satisfaction or dissatisfaction, concessions is pretty high on the list. That was something that we saw. The reason that people can be satisfied is obviously the quality, value, pricing, or those can also drive dissatisfaction.

Yeah. It's something where, again, conceptually it seems pretty straightforward. Really, it's about operationalizing it and making it work financially.

What is the relationship between brand promise and customer experience?

Michael Krigsman:  Tell us about the brand promise. It's a term you used early in our conversation.

Alex Chang:  Yeah.

Michael Krigsman:  And where does brand promise figure into all of this?

Alex Chang:  To me, it's everything because it sits on top of everything that we all do as an organization in terms of how we engage with fans and how we engage with our employees. Those meaningful moments that inspire and connect can also apply to how we work with each other internally as well.

To me, it really drives the entire organization because, again, as I said before, I think that higher-level purpose is necessary in order to really give everyone (in all roles in the organization) an understanding of why they do what they do. Why do you get out of bed every day? What's going to make you want to be here and do the best you can do for your fellow 49ers' family members or for our fans? It's about those moments, and they're hard to replace.

I started in April of 2019, right before the NFL draft, and so we held a draft party in San Francisco on Embarcadero in a ferry terminal. I was struck by the thousands of people that lined up all the way down Embarcadero to get into this draft party.

Now, we were picking number two in this draft. Everyone pretty much knew we were picking Nick Bosa. There was no suspense or surprise of what's going to happen. Football season isn't starting for another five or six months after that. Yet, people were lined up thousands deep to be a part of this experience. That's a moment for them.

I think about that, how special that moment is for them and how much fun they're having, how excited they are to get back to football, be fellow 49ers fans. That's exactly it, that's what we're trying to focus on.

If we really think about why we do it, the why we did it wasn't just to throw a big party. We did it to create a moment for those 5,000+ people so that they could really feel that connection with our brand and with their fellow 49ers fans.

Michael Krigsman:  As you're making the many operational decisions that one makes during the course of a day, week, month, how does this alignment with your brand promise figure into the actual nuts and bolts of, well, we're going to do this as opposed to doing that? That might be more profitable for us, by the way.

Alex Chang:  Again, you have to think through it in all your decision-making. As you lay out the strategy of how we go to market – either from a sales standpoint, a marketing standpoint, community outreach, game day, or operations – I think it kind of factors into all those approaches.

Ultimately, you're thinking about keeping the customer in the center, the fan in the center. You're thinking about, what is the end impact on the fan going to be?

Ultimately, as you said, we're still running a business, and that's absolutely part of the consideration set. But you can run a business and still be fan-first at the same time. That's what we're always trying to achieve.

Michael Krigsman:  You said it earlier. We have a very noisy environment, so how do you compete against the fact that I can get a great seat in my living room with my 80-inch HDTV? In fact, I'll see a better view than I can in the stadium.

Alex Chang:  For us, honestly, we don't view live game ticket buyers or live game attendants in competition with at-home viewing. Again, we're fortunate enough that we're sold out, and we have a massive waiting list. Our renewal rate on our season tickets is 99%.

I think, for us, we feel confident that people understand the value and what's special about the live game experience and what that means to them. I think anyone who has been to a live sporting event, a live concert, there is a difference there because you feed off the energy. You feed off the community. You feed off of being in that environment and the buzz that goes on.

Frankly, 2020 showed us that (more than anything else) when it was taken away, when people realized, "I can't go to a concern. I can't go to a game," and in that moment when you came back and how that felt for the first time.

For me, the first live event I went to after the shutdown happened was a minor league baseball game in New Jersey where my wife's family is from. It's called the Bridgewater Patriots. This is an AA team with – I don't know – 5,000 seats, maybe.

It felt amazing. I felt like I was at the Super Bowl, honestly, that buzz and that feeling of people walking up to the stadium, everyone happy to be there and kids are there, and the smells and the sounds, and all of that.

To me, that experience holds up, and I don't see that in direct competition with the at-home experience. To me, the at-home experience is really critical too because that's how the vast majority of people consume our hero product, which is the live games. And so, we do want to make sure, as we're working with our broadcast partners and with the league, that that's an awesome experience too.

To me, I never see them in direct opposition. I don't think we're competing with couches when we're talking about a live game.

How can people outside the sports business take lessons from the 49ers’ loyalty programs?

Michael Krigsman:  How can the rest of us that are in more pedestrian businesses (selling services or software, whatever it might be), how can we cultivate that connection in the way that you do?

Alex Chang:  I think, ultimately, there's still a reason someone has chosen to invest in your product or service. And so, you have to go back to that reason of why they chose to pick your business, your product, your service to be a part of their life. There is something to that, no matter what, no matter how big or small the choice might seem.

I know we can talk a lot about getting tattoos, flags, and all those things. Yes, it's true. The way that people express their connection to us is going to be a lot more overt, a lot more public, a lot more obvious than they might with other brands in their lives. But all brands are still a part of someone's life.

I think that's really the key message is that the choice has already been made or the choices are being made, and so it is establishing a relationship. It might not look the same as it does for other industries, but it's still a relationship and you have to respect it as such.

Michael Krigsman:  Beginning with really understanding why they chose you because they did choose you.

Alex Chang:  Yeah, absolutely, 100%. There's a reason why that conversation and that relationship has started or why you're trying to get it started, and you have to always go back to that.

Michael Krigsman:  We're having a hard time knowing, say, why they're coming to us, but we think we figured it out, more or less, even though it's maybe still fuzzy for us. What should we do next?

Alex Chang:  I would say make it less fuzzy. Ask the questions. Take the time to understand.

If you don't understand the fundamental reason of why someone has chosen to be in a relationship with your brand then that's a huge information gap because you're going to have a hard time retaining that relationship or you're going to have a hard time establishing new ones if you don't know what's starting it to begin with.

What makes that relationship special? What's the special sauce that they've bought into? What's the idea or the mission that they believe in? What's the core product feature that really attracted them? You've got to understand where the starting point is, and you can grow it from there.

It might start with a very rational connection that you can then bridge into an emotional one. Or maybe it's very emotional, but you then want to balance out with more of a rational reason for being.

But I think, if you're not clear on it, I would suggest starting there to figure out how you can make it clearer. Do the research. Ask the questions. Take the time to really understand that starting point.

How can marketers build an emotional connection with existing customers?

Michael Krigsman:  Now, we have taken your advice. We have a good handle on why people are buying from us. But we don't have that emotional connection. How do we now build that connection?

Alex Chang:  You have to do this within reason to understand how much of it do you need to be emotional and what's really realistic from an emotional standpoint.

Certain things, certain transactions are going to stay more in that rational space, and that's okay too. You can strengthen that and build on it. But if something has an opportunity to be more emotional, you can truly pay it off, then do so.

You think about an old example now, and it's probably dated, but when TOMS came out, for example. It was about a quality, affordable pair of shoes. But for every pair you buy, they donated a pair.

They were able to find a mission within their organization to bridge a very rational decision. "Okay, these are stylish, comfortable, relatively low-cost shoes," with an emotional reason, which is, like, "Oh, cool. When I support this company, I'm also supporting people who need shoes and are needy."

To me, there are certain companies like that that can find a natural connection and truly pay it off in a way that's credible and is meaningful. That's great.

I think there could be other instances where it isn't really a true payoff that can bridge to the emotional side of it. Then don't try to force that bridge because, in today's world, it'll be obvious (in two seconds). Now you've kind of spoiled the entire relationship because you now destroyed that trust.

Michael Krigsman:  Can you connect for us the trust that you just mentioned with the authenticity that you just alluded to?

Alex Chang:  We have these wise statements, these mission statements. We talk about them internally. But you have to really not just talk about the words and communicate them. You have to live them, and people have to believe them. That's something that's, again, super important.

It sounds simple, and I don't mean to be preachy about it, but I feel like if you're going to make a statement about why your brand, your product, your service, or your company exists, what your role is in society, make sure you can truly pay that off because if you can't, then it's going to fall down. It's going to fall down with your employees. It's going to fall down with your customers. And, ultimately, your brand will fail as well.

It's something that has to be real, and so part of is not just coming up and trying to figure out, "Okay, what's our mission?" and coming up with something that feels inspirational. Make sure it's legit. Make sure that you can actually say, "Yep, we actually do that, and here are the ways that we do it (not just in one part of the organization, but across the organization)."

Michael Krigsman:  We have another question from Twitter – actually, a few questions. I'll ask you to answer these pretty quickly because we're almost running out of time.

Alexis Macias says, "Given that the NFL season is 18 weeks, how important is it to create moments when the season is over?"

Alex Chang:  Yeah, it's critical. We are fortunate that interest in the NFL continues even when the games conclude.

We have things like next week the NFL draft is coming up. It's been announced now in mid-May or scheduled to be released. Then we'll have a little bit of time off for players. Then training camp begins.

That entire cycle is one where NFL fans are already engaged, they're interested. You see how many mock drafts have you gone through or how many scheduled analyses have you gone through or free agency trackers and things like that. It's pretty incredible.

I would say that the appetite is certainly there for people to continue to want to engage with NFL and their favorite teams during the offseason. And so, our job (as a league and as clubs) is to continue to help meet that demand.

Michael Krigsman:  Arsalan Khan comes back. He's a technologist. He says, "Any thoughts on using artificial intelligence on your data and analytics, any aspect of your operations?"

Alex Chang:  I think AI is something that we're certainly playing with and working with the league on as well to understand how that can help us. A lot of it we've already been using when we look at things like crowd movement at an event, for example, and understanding throughput and things like that. There are certainly aspects of AI that are going to be important to what we do in the future.

Michael Krigsman:  How can those of us in pedestrian, ordinary businesses develop that emotional relationship so that we can cultivate maybe not the kind of loyalty where our buyers tattoo our brand on their arm, but the kind of loyalty where they come back and, frankly, where they love us and they talk about us?

Alex Chang:  Yeah. I don't think there's any industry, product, or service that's necessarily pedestrian. I think it's all a matter of perspective. I think it's just different.

As I said before, it's still a relationship. The relationship is something that's there or can be established no matter what, and so treat it like that: a relationship, not a transaction. I think if you can think about it that way, no matter what product or service you're in, I do think it makes a difference and it will show.

Michael Krigsman:  Alex, any final thoughts or messages for us before we wrap up?

Alex Chang:  Go Niners!

Michael Krigsman:  [Laughter] Everybody, thank you so much for watching. We've been speaking with Alex Chang. He is the chief marketing officer of the San Francisco 49ers. Alex, thank you again for sharing your wisdom and your experience. I'm very grateful for you taking the time to be with us today.

Alex Chang:  No, thank you. I appreciate you taking the time.

Michael Krigsman:  All the folks watching, thank you, especially to everybody who asked such excellent questions. Audience questions are the lifeblood of CXOTalk, and we have shows every week.

Before you go, please subscribe to our YouTube channel. Hit the subscribe button at the top of our website so we can send you our newsletter and keep you up to date. Hope you have a great week, everybody, and take care. We'll see you next time.

Published Date: Apr 22, 2022

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 749