Unite, or die, you shall. The Sixers are rolling back out their wildly popular “Philly Unite” campaign for the second year in a row this playoff season.
For those of you who don’t know, “Phila Unite” was a take on Ben Franklin’s 1754 political cartoon, “Join, or Die,” depicting a severed snake which represented the individual colonies. In the 18th century, the severed snake was thought to possess the ability to be resurrected if its separated pieces were put back together before sunset.
Today, it represents something much larger for the Sixers.
I spoke with team president and branding guru Chris Heck about resurrecting the snake and what it means to the team.
Planned from the beginning
While from the outside it may have seemed like the campaign and popular snake logo were a one-year effort that lasted not nearly long enough, Heck says it was always the plan to use it on a recurring basis as the Sixers are in the midst of what they feel is an impressive run of consecutive 50-win seasons.
It may seem obvious to incorporate historic elements of the city when your team name is literally derived from its most significant moment, but for the Sixers and Heck it goes deeper than that.
It may sound like marketing speak – and a good bit of it is – but Heck walks the talk– he is the sort of guy who will give you a tour of the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden and spend more time talking about the color palette and thought behind the retired-number banners hanging in the rafters than he will about the multiple NBA All-Stars who routinely walk those halls.
So, naturally, the snake logo has its own backstory.
“We want to re-tell the story of the severed snake, the myth of the severed snake coming back together and stronger than ever. The story has started, of course, with Ben Franklin and the American colonies. We adapted it to being the Philadelphia neighborhoods last year. But we think it has another leg– just like the makeup of our team, there’s representation from different continents all over the world. As we become a global brand, it resonates throughout the world, this concept of bringing everyone together for a common cause.”
The international angle should not be overlooked. The NBA is China’s most popular sports league, according to a CNBC article from last year that cited the league’s massive social media following. Sixers (and Devils) CEO Scott O’Neil was quoted in the article as saying China literally changes the way the Sixers market themselves.
Heck, when he’s not talking up the piping on the banners at S. Front Street in Camden, is quick to point to the new Chinese characters (I had no idea what they said) on the baskets, which are part of a marketing partnership, obviously.
The Sixers say they are one of the top three most popular NBA teams in China, and this sort of storytelling branding, while it may get glossed over by local folks who are vaguely familiar with our uniquely rich tapestry of iconic American moments*, is important to growing a global brand.
*Save for the folks who were quick to point out last year that the snake wasn’t connected.
The Sixers take very seriously the “Brotherly Love” aspect of their marketing campaign. It’s no accident when Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins show up in a luxury box with Carson Wentz, or when the latter is spotted courtside with Nick Foles-favorite-target Alshon Jeffery.
“This city was the sports city 30 years ago… close to 40 years ago,” Heck said. “We’re knocking on the door right now again. This is an unusual time and we’re going to do anything we can to let the world know about it.”
Heck says local teams and players now reach out to the Sixers to inquire about tickets. In the case of Harper, who rang the bell emphatically and with great gusto before the Bucks game, the Sixers were all over that one, reaching out to the Phillies back when he signed in early March and offering up essentially any game should Harper have come to Philly for a press conference.
It took a month, but the Sixers wanted to get him in before the playoffs, as the Phillies’ schedule will put them on the road for Sixers’ early-round playoff games.
Wentz wanted to come to the Bucks game as well, so Heck and the Sixers considered it a no-brainer: “Let’s put these guys together.”
It’s not always that easy. Heck says some players prefer to maintain their privacy when they come to games, but the vast majority are eager for the cross-sport bro-joining camaraderie.
Apparel, uniforms and courts
Of course, this isn’t just about appealing to a broad international audience. “Phila Unite” was insanely popular locally last year, partly because its symbolism… and partly because it produced some kickass merch, which you can soon find on Michael Rubin-owned Fanatics. Full disclosure: The Sixers sent me a Phila Unite hoodie last year, which I loved like one of my own. Also, they say they’re sending me another one this year, proving that I will write any 1,000+ word story for a well-fitting, seasonally-appropriate garment.
Cynically, one might wonder if the Sixers are bringing back the campaign because they have a lot of this stuff lying around, along with a custom center-court logo that was used for only a handful of games.
It doesn’t sound like that’s the case, as the plan was to make “Phila Unite” a bit of a tradition. In fact, there’s actually a slight modification to the center court logo which Heck says most won’t even notice– so there goes my theory on an underused court logo.
I can tell you that anecdotally we saw affiliate-related sales of “Phila Unite” apparel go through the roof at the start of the playoffs (yes, we get a kickback when you use our Fanatics link, and yes, this is taking content marketing to the next level). More concretely, Heck says the Sixers were the number one team in the NBA in apparel sales “by a country mile” during the early rounds of the playoffs last year.
What about the uniforms? Last year, the Sixers wore their parchment-colored City Edition uniforms for “Phila Unite”, which I loved, but they had to retire them this year as the league mandates the number of kits a team can have. They were replaced by the Rocky-themed jawns.
Heck says the Sixers will wear mostly their regular blue home uniforms during the playoffs, though it sounds like they are free to deviate from this plan as jersey-specific win-loss records dictate.
A first of its kind
Heck says the Sixers are the first NBA team to do this on such a large scale, and that they are the only ones to ever have their playoff-themed logo on the court.
“[We] lobbied the league hard for this, which was more difficult than you would imagine to be the only team to actually have a playoff theme integrated into their court– no one else has ever done it,” he said. “We will do it again this year.”
“This playoff campaign enhances our brand so much and gets everyone to raise their eyebrows, and it is only for a limited time during the playoff season every year.”
Those are fluff quotes, I’ll concede, but there is no lack of thought and effort on the Sixers’ part, and it is a drastic departure from where they were a decade ago as a Comcast-backed afterthought.
More important, they believe they are the marquee team in the NBA, or at least the East.
And one of its top TV draws.
“With the Lakers not being in the playoff picture and us being in the East, in this city, in this time in sports, and with this team, we’re the number one draw,” Heck noted with more than a hint of pride.
“We expect to be the number one focus for the NBA during this playoffs and I think it’s probably parallel paths with the Golden State Warriors.”
Of course, locally the Sixers are pretty heavily scrutinized, and Heck lamented to me the treatment the team had gotten on local sports talk radio that day, after a loss to the Bucks.
“The reality is that we’re gonna be a 50-win team for the second year in a row, and you would think we’re a 5-win team sometimes,” he said. “[But] we’re pretty excited about going into the playoffs.”
In that way, the severed snake coming together is more immediately appropriate, and with a starting lineup that has only played 10 games together, necessary.
“I think the city will be completely behind us and we’ll be doing this together,” Heck said. “So this is a great time to be a Philly sports fan and certainly a Sixers fan.”