Orlando is a city that craves a definable identity. Much like the sprawling landscape of Los Angeles, “Orlando” is often more of a broad term used for a large swath of Central Florida, arms reaching from Downtown to Winter Park, Oviedo to Sanford. Unlike L.A., however, we lack a definable “it” thing; call it a vibe, feel or scene. In a way, Orlando has become a slave to its world-renowned attractions, too young and too divided to earn its own identity in the way that New York City, Miami, or Nashville has gained over the years. If you don’t agree, give me two words to describe Orlando that don’t involve an anthropomorphic mouse.
That being said, this town is often unfairly assumed to be an artificial-lawn-laden, cheap-souvenir-peddling tourist trap of uncultured, fast food casual restaurants and strip malls. We tend to get the short end of the stick because of our world-famous tourism appeal. Speaking as a Central Florida native of 27 years, I feel like we do have much to bring to the cultural table, but are just missing one “it” thing to unify our ever-expanding community of snowbirds, longtime natives, college students, and Orlando newbies, whether from Tampa or Timbuktu. But then Phil Rawlins brought Orlando City Soccer to town and, along with a booming tech corridor, a growing foodie culture and increased economic diversity, helped change the face of The City Beautiful. By following this organization’s example, you’ll find tactics that may just help you score a goal for your own brand.
Professional soccer: it’s a divisive sport in the United States, and one that has historically gone underappreciated. Sure, you may have been aware of names like Pelé and David Beckham (the guy that married that Spice Girl, right?), but by and large, American football, baseball and basketball ruled the day for the average American sports fan. Orlando, however, is far from average. Through tourism and international immigration, Central Florida is a veritable collage of South and Central Americans, Europeans and others who are born watching and respecting “fútbol.”
Pair this soccer-hungry, built-in fanbase with the thousands of kids who have grown up playing the sport recreationally, those who continue to play in dozens of local leagues across the state and would-be fans who simply need to see the sport for themselves, and it makes perfect sense why Phil Rawlins, founder and president of Orlando City Soccer Club, and company decided to move on from their venture with the Austin AzTex to create the Orlando-based soccer club that, in 2015, boasted the second highest attendance in all of Major League Soccer (MLS).
If you’re anything like me, Orlando’s soccer fever came out of left field. I never actively disliked soccer but, like so many, I simply never had exposure to it beyond an occasional game of FIFA on the Xbox. But while I remained unawares, Orlando City Soccer Club was planting its roots in the community. The club came to our fair city back in 2010 as a USL PRO team and set its eyes directly on the prize of joining MLS. In three short years, they became the 21st franchise to join this prestigious league and, soon thereafter, updated their branding, acquired the beloved and brilliant Brazilian attacking midfielder, Kaká, and secured a contract renewal with veteran coach, Adrian Heath.
To say things were looking up is an understatement. The team enjoyed its inaugural season in a freshly renovated Citrus Bowl with plans well-underway to have a soccer-specific stadium built within Downtown Orlando by 2017. Attendance was high, sales were good and fans were excited by that new-franchise smell. But why? What made the Orlando City Lions such a roaring success? We can take away a few strokes of genius that helped nourish the growing groundswell of excitement and sense of community that this city was sorely missing before the team came to town.
Masters of the Market
If nothing else, Orlando City Soccer Club could not have done much better than picking Orlando as the home for an MLS franchise. Orlando City has become a glue, a common ground, that our other home teams haven’t been able to provide. How did they decide on Orlando? Did Mr. Rawlins don a blindfold and chuck darts at a map of the contiguous United States? No; despite the sheer entertainment provided by that mental image, this was a strategic choice and one that continues to pay off in ticket sales, merchandising and unquantifiable goodwill.
Any brand can take Orlando City Soccer’s lead by, before all else, researching and identifying its audience and market. As a copywriter, before I put pen to paper (OK, finger to keyboard), I have to allow myself time to deeply consider the reader for which I’m writing in the first place. The importance of knowing your audience extends to every level of an organization. Even a top-ranking CEO must be knowledgeable of the health of their industry and market — factors intrinsically linked to knowing their audience or client base. Orlando City Soccer Club’s investors identified the strong Latin American and European presence in Central Florida, with much of this built-in fan base already invested and well-versed in the sport of soccer.
These investors also understood that many families were priced out of other local professional sports options, leaving a night out with the kids as a prime opportunity to pick them up where sports with higher salary burdens left them. Identifying Orlando as a city that wanted soccer, whether it realized it at the time or not, was a vital step on Orlando City Soccer’s path to the success they now enjoy. Your brand would be wise to evaluate (or re-evaluate) its target audience and market in order to ensure that it’s kicking goals in the correct net.
Fans are Fundamental
Orlando City Soccer was a gamble. As ambassadors of the entire sport to thousands that may have never seen a soccer match, the hefty weight of responsibility on their backs must have felt something similar to Atlas’. They never faltered, however, confidently doubling down on a key principle that so many brands push to the back burner: treat fans like you actually give a damn. It’s a simple as that. Treating fans with care, speaking to them on a human level, taking time to give back to the community and maybe even sharing a pint at the local pub have all worked wonders to make Orlando City “our” team.
“When we arrived in Orlando the City was craving an identity, something to latch onto. I think we have provided that. One overwhelming comment we always get is that our fans feel like we “get them” and we “care about them”, something we always endeavor to do. I think that’s what helps make it a symbiotic relationship between club and fan.”
– Phil Rawlins, Founder and President of Orlando City Soccer Club
Through efforts like the Orlando City Foundation, which promotes health and wellness in children, frequent public appearances, meet and greets, and general handshaking and baby kissing around the town, everyone from upper management to the stars of the team are genuinely grateful to the fans and the Orlando community as a whole. This face-to-face, human connection is something that many brands can benefit from by taking small steps, such as donating time to local nonprofit groups or staying connected and coherent in your messaging to customers via social media, all of which can add a much-needed authenticity to people’s perception of your company. Though audiences and brand “vibes” vary, staying connected to your fan base and showing that you are both listening to and valuing your community’s opinions (yes, even the negative ones) are deeply important traits.
In simple terms, Orlando City Soccer Club became part of the Orlando community by becoming part of the community. This is a clear-cut case of “you get in what you put out” in action — something many brands can learn from when it comes to building a loyal fan base.
Simply Outside the Box
Orlando City Soccer Club flat-out owns the color purple in Central Florida. In an almost Pavlovian sense, the moment anyone even remotely familiar with the team sees the royal hues of an Orlando City Lions scarf or banner hoisted overhead, they think Orlando City Soccer Club even before seeing the crest or reading the name. With a bold color choice, this team truly stands out in their market, a feat so many brands struggle to achieve. Though we’re more than too familiar with the “think outside the box” cliché, it’s powerful to see it in action. Before the club’s rebrand, the club’s logo and coloring were less cohesive, with more colors and a busier, three-headed lion design. The current crest sports a single lion’s head, mane emulating a shining sun, and only the colors white, gold and that unmistakable purple — a perfect example of simple, effective design.
Now let’s talk magnets. Holy cow, whoever thought up the guerrilla marketing idea of covering any and every magnetic surface in Central Florida deserves a handshake and a cupcake immediately. With something as simple as a magnet of the team’s crest, Orlando City was suddenly visible across the entire sprawling expanse that is Orlando. Through this effort, Orlando City effectively overcame the issue of this city’s 30-minute-drive-to-get-anywhere nature. Stuck on I-4? Orlando City’s there too. Grabbing a craft beer in the Milk District? Boom, Orlando City is right there with you. Perusing a swanky boutique on Park Avenue? Yep, that’s an Orlando City magnet on that Mercedes.
The magnets became a phenomenon, and one that people didn’t resist. Because Orlando City Soccer Club did their due diligence, proving themselves as a team and brand that Orlando could be proud of, these magnets ceased being an advertising tool and became a badge of pride. By showing that you believe in Orlando City, you became part of the Orlando community; we finally found our “it” thing, and it is a soccer team. It’s often the simplest ideas, or the boldest, that end up paying off the most in the end. Though magnets may not be the answer for your brand, the concept of taking a chance on new marketing efforts (backed by research and strategy) is a lesson from which we can all learn.
Orlando City Soccer Club exceeded expectation by maximizing the effectiveness of their marketing and brand as a whole. Through a thorough analysis and understanding of its audience, real connections fostered with their fans and bold-but-simple branding choices, Orlando City Soccer Club has done what nothing else could: united our city under one (purple) banner.
- Find a market that is hungry for your product.
- Always ensure that your product is accessible to your customer base.
- Find a theme and identifiable calling card for your brand.
- Network and truly live and breathe within the community in which you operate.
As we now sit on the precipice of the club’s second season as an MLS team, the future’s looking brighter than the golden mane that adorns the team’s crest. With new talent, continued momentum and the support of thousands of local soccer fans, Orlando City will be roaring on for years to come. With the marketing lessons that we can glean from their success, our brands can score a few goals too.