When the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans last week, the team crossed a threshold for sports franchises: They joined 11 other teams in the National Football League to have won more than one Super Bowl in the 47 years the game has been played. It is a mark of distinction in sports, to be sure.
But long before the Ravens became Super Bowl XLVII champions, they crossed another threshold in sports, one that can be every bit as difficult to achieve as becoming a consistent winner on the field. This one is the "brand threshold" — when you cross from being just another name in sports to actually gaining elusive brand status.
In just 17 years, the Baltimore Ravens have become a sports brand, not just a franchise with two Lombardi Trophies. In the contemporary sports marketplace, it seems that everything and everybody wants to be considered a brand, from the players and coaches to media personalities and others. In other fields, a name, an identity, a T-shirt and a logo can make you a brand. The bar is higher — much higher — to become a brand in sports. A brand is also an identity, but beyond that, it's a set of values and also includes an image and a personality.
Since the franchise arrived from Cleveland in 1996, and the name "Ravens" was conferred on the formerBrowns, the leaders of the franchise have created, and then embraced, a collective attitude that has allowed for a brand to be built. To consumers, a brand stands for a set of expectations which the company will deliver on. In other words it's an "expected experience" imposed by their customers and followers. Whether it's UnderArmour and its "Performance" mantra, or BMW's "Ultimate Driving Machine" motto, there is a set of attributes or benefits that the customer expects to be associated with the product. For a sports franchise like the Ravens, winning, of course, is part of that expected experience. However, it's much more than that.
Carefully and steadily, the Ravens football and business operations have built a relationship with the team's fans and community that is inclusive, transparent and indeed a two-way relationship in which their supporters feel that they can contribute to the fullness of the experience of being a fan. From the original fan contest used to help select the team's name in 1996, through to fan engagement in selecting the adopted team anthem of "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes, the strategy and tactics have been carefully considered in order to distinguish themselves from other teams, as well as integrating their fans in various ways and creating a platform that supports the team's distinctive self-expression. On any given day on the streets of Charm City, you are more likely to hear the deep base toned chant "oh, oh-oh-oh, oh, oh" than you are to hear "Good morning, Hon" in local Bawlmerese dialect.
In the social media-fueled environment of the sports world today, the "conspicuous expression" of the Millennial market segment has replaced the "conspicuous consumption" of the boomer generation. Consumers want to curate their own experience with a brand and become part of the message. The Ravens have capitalized on this explosive opportunity and fostered the notion that to be a Ravens fan is more than just attending a game, or casual connection to the team. It's a connection to all those other fans, the result of which is building a "Ravens Nation" that allows people to self-identify in the way of their choosing. An illustration of this is "Purple Fridays," a day when fans and followers can self express at work, in school and throughout the region. Although this concept was initiated by the team years ago, the ownership for it now belongs to the community and has grown exponentially, to the point where to be spotted not wearing the color is to be out of step, both in form and fashion.
This is a hallmark of what the best brands in the world accomplish: They not only meet the measure of consumer's expectation of the product, but also, more importantly, they have the effect of enhancing the lifestyle of its customers. From Apple to American Express, and from Google to Gucci, they become a standard — not only in their respective product category but as a symbol of what others products and services aspire to be.
According to a recent report from Forbes Magazine, the Ravens have been valued at more than $1.1 billion. Apart from the costs associated with players under contract and a several other tangible assets, the remainder of that value — perhaps more than half of it — can be attributed to the Ravens brand. (By way of comparison, in that same survey, the Dallas Cowboys were valued at the top, $2.1 billion, the Washington Redskins at $1.6 billion and the New York Jets at $1.2 Billion.)
In less than the time it takes to grow old enough to vote or buy a lottery ticket in Maryland, the Baltimore Ravens brand has accelerated to a point that may soon have it exceeding the brand value of franchises in much larger markets.
Just as Edgar Allan Poe methodically crafted the classic narrative poem "The Raven" about an obsessive and undying devotion, so too is a relatively new name in sports emerging and informing us about how to translate that devotion into a long-lasting brand in sports.
Marty Conway is an adjunct professor of sports management at Georgetown University and a senior consultant for Way Forward Associates. You can follow him on Twitter @MartyConway.