Super Bowl LV: The NFL’s Authenticity Challenge

Superbowl 55

Two years ago, I wrote about Superbowl Sunday, Super Meh Sunday, and my bland response to the day. My sentiment to this year’s event is mostly similar. The game wasn’t particularly engaging, and the commercial breaks weren’t wildly entertaining. No ad stood out as a single winner; many fell flat (not least flat Matthew), with only a few ‘oh that’s fun’ moments (M&M’s nod to mansplaining did bring me a giggle).

In the blog from Super Bowl LIII, I also wrote about the challenges facing the NFL:

It’s no secret that the NFL is a behemoth brand with a lot of cachet and a lot of challenges… Off-field, it’s been two seasons since Colin Kaepernick took the knee (he remains unsigned), and all too frequently, we hear of players embroiled in some form of violence.

With George Floyd’s death in police custody last May and the subsequent spotlight on systemic racial injustice together with the gathering pace of the Black Lives Moment, the NFL clearly felt compelled to take some visible steps to keep the brand in line with this cultural movement.

From the outset, there were many nods to a more inclusive lineup – H.E.R. signing America the Beautiful, the joint performance of country singer Eric Church and R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan as well as the awe-inspiring National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman.

At half time, the NFL aired its Inspire Change commercial that included a pledge of $250 million to help end systemic racism.

On the surface – fantastic, they are taking necessary steps. But – it doesn’t feel right. The u-turn feels incongruous to the brand, not least as there was no reference to Colin Kaepernick, who still hasn’t found a home in the league four seasons later. In short, authenticity is missing.

A few years ago, we ran a study looking to understand people’s sentiment on media representation of the LGBTQ community. One of the key takeaways from the survey is the need for brands to be authentic in any social and environmental responsibility statements that they make. Brands need to be ‘all-in’ when making the statement. It can’t just be messaging or paying lip-service but embodied throughout their organization. As we concluded then:

Consumers expect that when brands support the LGBTQ community or any social issue, it must permeate through the company’s overall belief and mission. Corporate social responsibility isn’t a platform for making a company or product pitch but a way to truly align with a cause you believe in.

Maybe the NFL is genuinely making those changes from the inside out. But it’s a big ship to turn, and, judging by the Twitter commentary, their Super Bowl LV effort left many unconvinced by their intent.

So what can the NFL do to change that perception? Ask (or continue to ask) their fans and their players. Understand how they think and feel about social injustice. What big and small actions they would like to see the NFL take to be a more inclusive organization. What role the NFL can and should play within the movement. How they can tackle it from the inside and the outside. Furthermore, the NFL needs to be open and transparent about their efforts. It will take time, but if they are genuinely seeking change, the journey can be a shared one between the brand, the fans, and players alike.

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