How CSR Has Helped the NFL Overcome Scandal

David Rader
January 22, 2016
With the NFL playoffs in full swing (and my Giants sadly eliminated), I have found myself thinking a lot about the NFL’s brand. Regular readers know that I am particularly impressed with brands that, despite significant setbacks, are able to remain relevant for years and years (Star Wars is a favorite recent example). As I watch this year’s playoffs, I have thought a lot about the turmoil the league has faced this year – has any organization gone through so many self-inflicted hardships in one year? 2015 started with the league’s most successful franchise of the last fifteen years being accused, yet again, of cheating. It ended in December with the movie Concussion describing the league’s ongoing cover-up of the long-term dangers of the sport. In between, multiple players were implicated in domestic violence charges, the leadership was openly questioned, and serious injuries befell a number of football’s brightest stars. Talk about a long year!     With all of this negative publicity, TV ratings were higher than ever before and the Super Bowl is, as always, expected to be the most-watched broadcast of the year. By any financial measure, the league is doing just fine. So, we must ask, how have they managed to so successfully fight off their image problem? One method has been through an ad blitz for their “NFL Play60” initiative. While this campaign alone cannot single-handedly counter all the negative attention that the league has received, I would argue that their Corporate Social Responsibility (or CSR) message has played a major role, and its execution has been about as close to perfect as can be. In this blog, I'm addressing what makes it a good program, and what your business can do to emulate their approach. I count three key lessons…

Make sure that your initiative is relevant to your brand

The most critical question to ask about any CSR initiative is whether it actually relates to the company running it. Starbucks’ focus on fair trade coffee is one of the most successful CSR initiatives of recent years – largely because it is immediately obvious why Starbucks cares about how coffee beans are grown. Other Starbucks CSR efforts (remember #racetogether?) have been less successful because they don’t directly relate to the core of the company. For the NFL, Play60 works because the goal is to get kids to run around and play – and their product is perfect for that. In some of their best commercials, NFL stars like Cam Newton or Todd Gurley throw the football with kids and joyfully run around with them. The fit between football and an active, fun lifestyle is perfect.

What’s the lesson for your business?

Always think of CSR as an extension of your own brand. If your brand has nothing to do with, say, the environment, think hard before you make global warming the focus of your CSR efforts. Instead, use CSR to demonstrate your commitment to your mission and the elements of your products that make the world a better place.

Don’t try to do too much

There are a lot of good causes out there – far too many for even the richest organization to solve all of them. The NFL tries to do a lot with their CSR efforts: breast cancer awareness is a major focus in October, and supporting our veterans is an ongoing theme throughout the season. Make no mistake, these are both extremely worthy causes; but for CSR purposes, the league only focuses on them at specific times and keeps its year-round attention (and most of its CSR advertising) on Play60. If I were advising the NFL, I might reduce their focus to just Play60, but it can be very difficult to stop supporting a certain cause once you have started. The NFL has enough money to spread its efforts, but I would caution them not to go too much wider.

What’s the lesson for your business?

Once you find a cause that resonates with you and your brand, try to limit yourself to that primary cause. One of the best uses of CSR is to help customers identify with your company and your mission, so don’t make it too complicated for them to do so. You want your customers to think “That company deeply cares about X,” rather than “That company cares a little about X, a little about Y, a little about Z…” Like with so many other branding initiatives, focus is critical to your CSR efforts.

Make sure you actually make a difference

Customers can often see through campaigns that don’t generate a true impact. The term “greenwashing” has become a popular way to describe brands that tout their environmental sustainability, often while dramatically overstating it. A great way to show that you are truly making an impact is to partner with respected organizations – something the NFL knows well. Play 60 has been a joint effort between the NFL and the American Heart Association (AHA) since 2006. The endorsement of such a well-known and well-respected organization helps ensure that Play 60 is an unassailable force for good, making a true impact.

What’s the lesson for your business?

If you’re going to use CSR to improve your company’s image, be sure that the impact you are making is real. There are many ways to validate this, but perhaps none more effective than partnering with a successful charity. If that partner can help to publicize the effort, as the AHA has done for the NFL, that’s even better.

In the end, CSR is not solely responsible for the NFL’s success in the face of a trying year. Nothing beats a compelling product, and the excitement of the football season is about as broadly appealing as a product gets. But a relevant and focused CSR campaign that truly makes a difference has absolutely helped the league to overcome the challenges they faced in 2015. By following their lead, you can build your brand as well, while also helping to make the world a better place.

About the Author

David Rader

I am a former Management Consultant who loves tackling new and interesting business problems, regardless of industry. I consider my strengths to be in creating win-win business development partnership strategies and growth strategy. Given my consulting background, I am also very familiar with Microsoft PowerPoint and Excel. Lastly, I love to work on corporate social responsibility initiatives and consider this a major interest

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