Q&A: San Francisco 49ers CMO Alex Chang on the Team’s New Brand Campaign

    • After years relying on the glory years of the 1980s and 90s, the 49ers say they’re moving forward with a new brand campaign.
    • With the Raiders in Las Vegas, the Niners hope a commitment to the Bay Area can help draw in new fans.

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With the Raiders now in Las Vegas, the San Francisco 49ers will open the 2020 season as the lone team in the San Francisco Bay Area. Also coming off a trip to the Super Bowl, the organization is looking to stake a new slogan to provide a brand refresh.

Until recently, the 49ers leaned on “Faithful Then, Faithful Now,” but unveiled a brand campaign Sept. 8: “Faithful to the Bay.” 

The campaign has been in the works for more than a year and was planned to be revealed at the 2020 NFL Draft in Las Vegas. While the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on the original rollout, a teaser did appear on the side of the team’s New Era 2020 NFL Draft cap. Another sneak peek made its way into EA Sports Madden 21. 

Along with signage at Levi’s Stadium and marketing assets, the campaign will stretch through user-generated content, exclusive merchandise from Mitchell & Ness and Fanatics, and other limited-edition products from team partners Zenni eyewear, Federalist Bourbon, Mano’s Wine and Gold Bar Whiskey.

There’s also pop culture elements — like playlists of Bay Area artists on streaming services — and community initiatives including STEAM education program support and a $1 million commitment to social justice grants to organizations operating in the Bay Area. 

Front Office Sports caught up with 49ers Chief Marketing Officer Alex Chang to talk about how the Raiders moving, the COVID-19 pandemic and recent on-the-field success helped shape the new campaign. 

Front Office Sports: Was this an opportunity created by the Raiders moving? 

Alex Chang: It has nothing to do with them moving. It’s repositioning our team for the future and reuniting our fans with a new rallying cry. ‘Faithful Then, Faithful Now,’ has been a powerful campaign for a long time but it’s anchored in the past. ‘Faithful Then’ was speaking about the glory years, the 80s and 90s. Those were really special times but the next generation of fans, that was 30-plus years ago. That could be alienating for them, simply because they weren’t around. 

So this is more forward-looking and to celebrate the commitment to the fans, the team, and the community. Faithful, that’s what our fans are. And the Bay Area; one unique thing is we are home to fans from all over the Bay Area which is nine counties. So we’re faithful to the Bay, fans from all walks of life, some not from the Bay at all. But it celebrates them all.

FOS: How has the pandemic challenged marketing and fan engagement? 

AC: The pandemic certainly changed the timing. It was originally slated to launch at the draft. That was a month, month and a half into it and the time wasn’t right. It didn’t feel right to go out with a big branding campaign. Certain things were released, we’re now rephrasing them as a tease. 

New Era came to us for the draft hat concept, ‘We want a slogan, any team slogan.’ We put that on the side, it was there. It got picked up as a tagline, but kind of left it at that. 

There was a mural that we commissioned [in San Jose], we did it as an intentional tease. Some teasers, some planned, some not. Once the pandemic hit, we said let’s pause and refocus efforts on our tactics and make it as robust as possible, adjust for what’s going on in society. Make sure it works with what’s going on in the community and reflecting the entire fanbase. Refocusing on how to use it as a unifying cry and call for inclusion and sense of pride. 

FOS: Has there ever been a full Bay Area focus for the team? 

AC: From a [NFL] regulation standpoint, there was a 70-mile radius rule with the Raiders and you can’t extend beyond that marketing territory the league had set out. 

With them moving, that’s lifted and we can do more, particularly community outreach out in the East Bay and Oakland. The reality is we’ve always had fans all over the East Bay, including Oakland. So this presents an opportunity going forward in the entire Bay Area. Certainly yes, we will work to grow across the entire Bay and be more active, but what we’re not trying to do is come in and try to convert Raiders fans. We respect that, that is something we will always respect. It’s thinking about that next generation of football fans, the kids and people new to the Bay. 

FOS: How does the marketing budget change focusing on the Bay Area as a whole? How about knowing fans aren’t in the stadium because of the pandemic? 

AC: The biggest thing impacting marketing budgets is the pandemic and the loss of local revenue all teams are experiencing. It’s across all budgets, marketing, sales, IT, everything. So we have to get really efficient. In our case, this means really drilling down on social and digital. It’s not just efficient but it drives engagement. It’s been a big part of our playbook and just dialed it up. Things we would do live around game day, that’s all online now.

FOS: Speaking of fan engagement, how much more difficult is fan engagement in a time like this? 

AC: The challenge is you can’t have 70,000 people come to the building each week, those are the most avid fans, the ones most engaged with the brand. We can’t start the season with them in the building, so we have to refocus on how to keep them up-to-date, get to know players on and off the field, and find ways for them to support the team in virtual ways. 

Some are more modern ways, like a virtual fans mosaic you’re seeing with the NBA. Some are very tactile like fan cutouts. We’re experimenting, trying different things. Fans love the team with their heart and passion whether they can attend or not and then we have to realize most fans can’t and don’t attend games. We have 7 million fans that can’t attend games, so this is all about them. 

FOS: Was it difficult engaging partners in this campaign? How do you ensure they’re getting enough exposure without fans in the building? 

AC: We wanted to make sure it’s authentic and added value to the campaign and the brands. We put out an open call to all the partnerships, briefed them on the campaign and the strategy behind it, it’s intent. Doing something specific was important, to bring to life what our brand is all about, our voice. We’re proud to have several on board at launch, and it’s a concept we’ll stick with for a number years so we expect more as well. 

FOS: It’s a multi-faceted approach with pop culture, social initiatives and seems to go well beyond branding; how important was that?

AC: Any marketer — whether sports team, consumer goods, tech company, services — today has to go beyond a traditional channel mix. It reaches influencer marketing, cultural marketing, areas like film, music, entertainment, it’s generally all part of a marketing mix. We’re a sports team, but people who work in those entertainment spaces, they’re generally fans of our team. So other brands have to pay, but we have people reaching out to us, ‘I’m a lifelong fan, how can I get involved?’ 

So for us, strategically implementing, tactically it was very organic and easy to involve those aspects. 

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FOS: The franchise has had success on the field recently, coming off a Super Bowl loss, that probably helps build on the legacy of those glory days, right?

AC: Winning helps everything and helps reinvigorate a fanbase. I look at a blueprint of the Golden State Warriors. That team struggled for a lot of years, they’ve found success in winning, but it was also the personalities involved. Steph Curry became arguably the most popular athlete in the world.

I think about our team the same way, winning on the field is fantastic and help the fanbase get excited, but it’s paired with amazing personalities like George Kittle and Richard Sherman, who are so dynamic on the field but engaging off the field. That’s a great tool kit to work with building fans for the future.