How the Phoenix Suns Built a Championship Brand – Off the Field


There were 0.9 seconds left in Game 2 of the 2021 Western Conference Finals last June, and the Los Angeles Clippers faced the Phoenix Suns 103–102. The Suns had a baseline coming in – and a tiny bit of a chance to steal the win. Suns forward Jae Crowder had the ball. But instead of taking the expected and found star player Devin Booker to take that final shot, Crowder threw the ball to the Clipper backboard — and right into the waiting hands of jumping Suns center Deandre Ayton.

The piece was soon labeled the “Valley-Oop”, playing the Valley nickname for the greater Phoenix area.

DEANDRE AYTON FOR THE WIN ????

INCREDIBLE GAME WINNER!! pic.twitter.com/tcHwtzUcty

— ESPN (@espn) June 23, 2021

Eighteen hours later, the Suns sold Valley-Oop t-shirts and moved in less than a week for over $100,000. Crowder, Ayton and coach Monty Williams deserve credit for the game. But the T-shirt’s branding moment, name and success belong to Suns’ marketing team and the years of work that led to their winning dunk. During the post-game press conference, a Suns social media producer asked Ayton what he thought of the phrase Valley-Oop, and the Suns center replied, “I love that.” Cue the surf of a big game moment.

While Williams and general manager James Jones have rebuilt the Suns on the field, chief marketing and communications officer Dean Stoyer and his team have methodically restored a brand that had roamed the desert for nearly a decade. As the Suns kick off the 2022 NBA playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the West after a record year on the field, it has also transformed itself into a leader in ticket and merchandise sales, the latter of which has risen 50 % on an annual basis. Meanwhile, social media stakes have been boosted across the board in the past year, with Twitter up 74%, Facebook up 587% and Instagram up 298%. How did Stoyer crack the elite of sports marketers? And what does it mean for any brand that knows it needs a makeover? I’ve been following Stoyer’s moves for almost a year. Here’s how he took the Suns’ brand to the fore, reflecting his team’s rise in the standings.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Suns were a perennial Western Conference powerhouse, both as a team and as a brand. You had your Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson era, right down to the run-and-gun Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion teams. Even if you weren’t a fan of Suns, you were a fan of how they played, which made the team’s brand one of fun, stylish and likeable stars. But from 2012 to 2019, the team lost its big names — and winning ways — and just became another name at the bottom of the standings.

Jones started as general manager in 2018, current head coach Williams started in 2019 – the same year Stoyer transitioned from a career with brands like Nike and Under Armor to his first NBA team. “When I got here, our fan base was shattered at best,” Stoyer says. “This was a brand that had really lost its identity. It has a rich heritage, had some great runs, a few trips to the final. But it went from that to a lot of changing coaches, GMs and players, little continuity and really no steward for the brand. †

FIND THE VALLEY

In one of Stoyer’s first conversations with Jones, they talked about the fanbase. Jones told Stoyer that these were indeed the Phoenix Suns, but that the team represented much more than just one city. It was the first professional sports team in the state of Arizona, since 1968. There isn’t another basketball team for thousands of miles—north to Denver, east to Texas, west to California. That’s a lot of miles for a fan base. Stoyer began spending time with fans, colleagues, and brand partners, just to get a sense of the Suns’ place. “I kept hearing the phrase ‘The Valley,'” Stoyer says, referring to the city’s nickname as the Valley of the Sun, and its place as part of central Arizona’s Salt River Valley.

So when the team got the chance to redesign its shirt for the NBA’s City Edition in 2020, the Suns decided to expand its tent beyond the city limits and go for The Valley.

We support The Valley.

We play for The Valley.

Now we’re reppin’ ???????????? †

City edition 2020-21: https://t.co/t1l2nEvmiF#WeAreTheValley pic.twitter.com/2BeZ720Day

— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) November 12, 2020

“I’ve lived in other markets — Portland, New York, Boston — that have a really strong sense of pride and that who they are is really informed by where they live,” Stoyer says. “The brand strategy was to boost our fan base, give them something to be proud of and rebuild trust in the organization. This move was to give them something that everyone could embrace and be proud of.”

PROXIMITY AND ACCESS

An important aspect of the Suns’ approach to brand strategy is that everything is led by the North Star to bring the fans closer to the players and together, as a fan community. “We talk a lot about access and exclusivity,” Stoyer says. “We have a great relationship with our coaches and staff and make sure we never exceed that. Fans everywhere want to get closer to the players, know more about them. We are committed to bringing our players’ insights and what they want to share with our fans.”

That comes to life in different ways. One of these is the team’s ongoing content series, Courtside, which gives fans an inside look at how the players train, as well as the facilities and staff that help them do it. Another way is to let Suns players play NBA2K against other teams and stream the games on Twitch. That started in March 2020, just days after the NBA announced it was shutting down due to the pandemic, and grew to 7.9 million views.

The team also introduced Road Game Rallies for the playoffs last year, and this season too, where fans flock to the Footprint Center when the team is away to watch the big screen together and enjoy all the bells and whistles of a home game. During home games, there is Rally Beach, 12,000 square feet of arena parking, which is covered in 126 tons of sand, where fans can hang out and watch the game on a 10-foot screen, surrounded by food trucks and drink stations. In the arena, the Suns are one of only two NBA teams to use Fanatics’ new mobile checkout technology, which allows fans to walk into the team store and scan and pay for items directly from their phones.

“The Suns brand has been hotter than it has ever been in recent years, and it has been an incredible opportunity for Fanatics to be a part of their story and create unique opportunities to connect with their amazing fans.” said Ed O’Brien, Fanatics’ senior VP of business development and strategy.

The team has now gone even further in building on its merchandising success, launching a player-designed clothing collection called Valley Threads, featuring hoodies created with individual players to give them a chance to express themselves in a different way. The first was Suns guard Cam Payne, who debuted in February with a hoodie featuring the phrase “Don’t Wake Up, Keep Dreaming” and imagery representing his long, twisty journey in professional basketball on his way to Phoenix. The Suns sold 500 on the first day.

“He’s not Devin Booker or… [star point guard] Chris Paul, but he has a following here, and this gave him the opportunity to interact with them,” Stoyer said. †[Veteran forward] Jae Crowder is next. It’s all about trusting and connecting with our players to create content and products with them.”

This weekend, the Suns enter the 2022 playoffs after setting a record for the best regular season in the league. As a team and a brand, Phoenix hopes they don’t wake up anytime soon.


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