Marketing Lessons from the NBA Playoffs

Posted on Posted in Marketing

Since we’re pretty much thinking of marketing 24/7 (seriously we’re nerds like that) watching the Cavaliers beat the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals last weekend made us realize that there are some takeaways from the NBA Playoffs that every marketer should take to heart.


Storytelling is Key

Which of these two descriptions of the NBA Finals is more interesting? 

Version 1:

“Last year the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors in a 7 game series to win their first NBA title.”

Version 2:

“Last year Cleveland’s prodigal son, LeBron James, delivered the city its first NBA championship while defying overwhelming odds by defeating the heavily favored Golden State Warriors.”

Obviously the second version is better. It’s more colorful, descriptive and dramatic. Storytelling is a powerful thing and the way we feel about a certain set of facts can be completely changed just based on how they are presented.

If you listen to an NBA broadcast for more than 5 minutes you’ll hear some type of reference to a storyline. “What’s wrong with Houston?” “What would another championship mean for LeBron’s legacy?” “Are the Golden State Warriors an unbeatable super team?” Are just a few of the countless examples of narratives surrounding the playoffs.

Marketing Lesson: 

The takeaway here is that sports are built on stories and we as marketers should take note. Look for narrative opportunities in all your marketing projects. What is the brand story? How can you take dry facts and make them into something fascinating?


Think Big Picture

The NBA is about a lot more than basketball. It’s about city pride, tradition, legacy and memories. Most sports leagues in the U.S. stand for more than just the product they put on the field or court. For example, the NFL uses the slogan “Family is Football” which resonates well with anyone who remembers growing up with their favorite team, or recalls time spent with loved ones watching the big game.

The NFL knows it’s selling entertaining memories and fun experiences that fans will remember throughout their lives. The NBA knows that it’s not just selling basketball, it’s selling city pride. Winning a championship isn’t about LeBron James or Kyrie Irving it’s about the city of Cleveland.

Cleveland’s “Defend the Land” playoff slogan is a great example of the element of city pride in the NBA.

Marketing Lesson: 

So what’s the bigger picture with the brand you’re trying to establish or promote? Do people visit your hotel because it has a pool or because they expect to have a certain experience? Are people buying your car because it has the best fuel efficiency or because they identify as a Ford person or a Chevy person? While your customer’s motivations are often obvious, don’t be afraid to step back and look at the bigger picture now and then.


Do you learn anything about marketing from watching sports? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below and until next time, be well.

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