While many American sports fans (and brands) are currently absorbed in the annual ritual that is March Madness, marketers should instead be paying attention to the story of Connor, a 16-year-old former Seattle SuperSonics fan. After losing his hometown team to Oklahoma — but not his unwavering passion for the NBA — he has been in search of a new team to root for. So he did what any young consumer trying to make a decision would do: he researched his options. Then he took a step that is relatively new in the consumer journey, one that is being driven by young people who have unprecedented access to brands. He asked the franchises (brands) directly if he should support their teams (products). Connor wrote personalized, hand-written letters to each of the 30 current NBA presidents, telling them what he admired about their teams, but also asking them to tell him why they feel he should become a fan.
It’s no secret that teens expect two-way dialog with brands considering the relationship they have formed with them on social media. But while they enjoy hearing from brands’ social media teams about the brands’ interests and occasional commentary on cultural happenings, such as The Dress, they would be even more appreciative of responses to their own questions and direct messages. Though this is the case, it’s hardly surprising that Connor didn’t hear back from all 30 NBA franchises; in fact, it’s a surprise that he heard from one at all. Big brands can seem unapproachable, which is just another reason young consumers’ demonstrate a preference for boutique brands. However, to teens who have become full-fledged consumers in the era of “corporations as people,” not getting a response to their inquiries is equivalent to a personal acquaintance not responding to an email.
When Connor received a single letter in response to the 30 he sent, delivered from the Minnesota Timberwolves along with a basketball signed by the players, it was clear which team he would support for the years to come. It didn’t matter that the letter had a few typos and mistakes, it made the Timberwolves brand seem more “real” and personal. They even cared enough to ask him to follow up and let them know which team he picked.
Teen consumers are seeking meaningful connections with brands. From feeling like a valued member of their fan tribe to finding brands that align with their personal identity, they want to know they’re not just a number, not just dollar signs in the eyes of the companies they support. According to our recent findings, a third of 14- to 18-year-olds (33%) say its important that a brand makes them feel like they matter rather than just trying to sell them something.
It’s true that most brands can’t afford the resources to respond to every consumer inquiry in the way the Timberwolves responded to Connor; however, even small actions have a significant impact on making fans feel personally connected to their favorite brands. And when they do go above and beyond, they also benefit from the ripple effect. In true digital native fashion, Connor posted about his project on Reddit and soon his story spread to mainstream media. NBA fans from various teams took notice, and as one Miami Heat fan on Imgur put it, “Not gonna lie, I like the Timberwolves a little more right now... This is really cool of them.”
As brands grow more humanized through their digital interactions with consumers, customer expectations of being treated as people rather than as buyers is also growing. Brands can no longer expect to simply sell to young consumers, but must engage them on a personal level, as friends and companions.