How the Harlem Globetrotters Upped Its Game With Gen Z

The legendary basketball stars take fandom to a whole new level

The Harlem Globetrotters have revamped their approach to attract younger audiences.
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At Brandweek’s inaugural event last week in Palm Springs, Calif. attendees heard from several startups that innately know what it takes to cultivate a strong bond to young consumers. While many of these challengers, from Casper to M.Gemi, have a direct pipeline to millennials and Gen Z, legacy brands like the 93-year-old Harlem Globetrotters are busy reimagining everything from how they engage with fans to navigating an omnichannel approach to growing globally while at the same time preserving its beloved heritage. Here, Holly Duncan, Globetrotters’ director, brand marketing shares her playbook for drawing in future generations of fans.

What has had to change in recent years to maintain the Harlem Globetrotters legacy while updating the brand for Gen Z?
Holly Duncan: The Globetrotters are a 93-year-old brand, and our height of popularity was in the 1970s and ’80s when we had a presence on prime-time television. One of our challenges today is that with the fragmented and diverse media landscape, we are not as well known to a younger audience. We know that in order to have relevancy to Gen Z, we have to be a brand that they first of all know about and then are wanting to engage with. In 2016 we started with contemporizing the brand’s look and feel by changing the logo to be more streamlined and our creative followed suit. Over the past three years, we’ve strategically become more engaged with the Gen Z audience on our social media platforms by offering content that is specific to their interests. We post about not only the basketball skills and trick shots for which we are well-known, but also provide a closer look into the lives of our stars as well as their interactions with fans. We do our best to respond to the fan comments on social media and periodically post some of their photos and videos on our platforms. Even something as simple as liking a fan’s comments goes a long way! As a result, we have an enthusiastic and interactive fan base that continues to grow.

How, if at all, does the Globetrotters engage in cause marketing?
Cause marketing is a major part of what we do as a brand. Known for decades as the Ambassadors of Goodwill, the Harlem Globetrotters extend that ambassadorial spirit beyond the court, touching lives through our many community outreach programs. Throughout the year, we visit schools and hospitals to spread our unique brand of smiles and sportsmanship to those with whom we come in contact.

What big swings have you taken to bring you closer to Globetrotter fans?
If it weren’t for our fans, we wouldn’t be where we are today. This year, we are celebrating our fans with our all-new Fan Powered World Tour, where our fans have more opportunities to interact with our stars more than ever before. In fact, there will be over 20 occasions before, during and after our game where fans have the opportunity to directly interact with Globetrotters Stars. We offer a Magic Pass interactive event prior to our game where fans can meet Globetrotters Stars and learn some of their skills. During the game we bring audience members out on the court or we make them a part of our show through our well-known popcorn-stealing or water bucket/confetti tricks. And after the game we offer a free autograph session for everyone in attendance. No other sports team offers these many opportunities to fans interact with their Stars.

In what way does data play a role?
We use market studies and post-event surveys for feedback on our live events, asking our fans what they did or did not like about the game and what we can do to improve. Fan favorites are kept in the game each year and those that do not fare as well are removed. We also closely monitor real-time data during our digital advertising campaigns, to determine what resonates the best with our intended audience and adjusting accordingly throughout to ensure that our campaigns are maximized.

What type of partnerships help fuel global awareness?
We recently announced a partnership with the YMCA as their Global Ambassadors of Basketball. This partnership aims to bring more people together to experience basketball through a campaign and ambassadorship that focuses on the power of sport and community. Throughout our history, the Globetrotters have showcased our iconic talents in 123 countries and territories on six continents, often breaking down cultural and societal barriers while providing fans with their first-ever basketball experience. The YMCA, existing in 120 countries worldwide, is a symbol of youth empowerment and community as well as the birthplace of basketball (basketball was invented at the YMCA in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith). It is a perfect fit for a partnership that will expand awareness globally for both brands.

So, I have to ask, how good is your game?
Let’s just say I’ll leave the basketball tricks and skills to our Globetrotters Stars.