Kempner: Braves push our buttons to sell SunTrust Park

The Atlanta Braves are spending a chunk of change to welcome you back to the place they’ve just moved into and you’ve never been. They’re hoping the pitch pays off by making regulars out of casual fans. And they expect to get a younger crowd.

You’ve probably seen or heard ads from the team’s “Welcome Home” marketing campaign, a sweeping effort that includes everything from TV spots to how you’re greeted at games. At the heart of the push is getting you to visit and adore the brand new SunTrust Park in Cobb County, whose debut this season marks the first time the Atlanta Braves team isn’t in the city of Atlanta.

So how does that make SunTrust “home”? Hey, it’s figurative. Not literal.

It’s an odd marketing contortion. But maybe it comes off as warm and inviting if you don’t overthink it.

With the help of Atlanta-based marketing firm Moxie, the Braves studied what entices fans to games and what positives distinguish the team from other pro teams and sports options in metro Atlanta and the rest of the Braves’ five-state media territory.

The standout differentiator they focused on: Friendliness. The team notches about three times the friendly factor of its local competition, Braves marketers say.

“That is an enormous competitive advantage for us,” Adam Zimmerman, the team’s advertising vice president, told me.

He talked about tapping into themes of Southern connections and hospitality, of making the stadium feel like your home. A billboard will say something like “Grab a seat in the yard and watch the kids grow up.”

Like we’re all part of a family, a non-dysfunctional one.

Oh, the irony

But didn’t they worry that many consumers would focus on the irony of being welcomed home to the place that the Braves moved to when they left their old home behind?

Zimmerman didn’t bite on the question. “I don’t know if I follow the irony.”

I asked a couple folks schooled in the power of words and images what they thought about the campaign.

“My first thought was they are trying to convince me to drive to Cobb County,” said Bob Hope, a DeKalb resident.

He’s a long-time pr guy who in the Ted Turner years was the Braves’ vp of public relations, promotions and ticket sales and served as senior vice president of the Atlanta Hawks.

The Braves’ new campaign is probably “as gracious and as warm an approach as you can take,” Hope said. But he’s a tough grader. “It lacks a little bit of personality. It doesn’t have the zip.”

“Their biggest challenge is (that) the whole concept of going to Cobb County bucks a 50-year tradition.”

Beth Cianfrone, a Georgia State University professor who specializes in sports marketing, sees the campaign as a way to build a sense of nostalgia and comfort, a feeling that “this is our Atlanta Braves even though this is Cobb County.”

Cobb concentration

The Braves fanbase is particularly concentrated in and around Cobb County, according to the team. Which means the Cobb stadium is geographically closer to home for them than Turner Field was south of downtown.

Cianfrone said Braves games probably represent a stronger generational tradition for more people than do Atlanta Falcons or Hawks outings. And by focusing on the new stadium, the Braves avoid highlighting the current batch of young players who have a hard time winning.

SunTrust Park is a big investment for the Cobb community, including, unfortunately, the county government that invested public dollars. The Braves are paying upfront for less than half the stadium’s construction cost. But the team and its partners are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to create The Battery, a walkable hub of action beside the stadium, with restaurants, bars, shops, offices, apartments, a music venue and hotel. That itself could be a powerful draw for new fans.

Braves’ marketers say they expect to see a sharp shift in the makeup of who is coming to games.

Justin Watkins, the team’s director of business intelligence, said he expects the average age of fans at games to drop from 48 or 49 to about 42 this season.

I asked about the expected racial and ethnic makeup of fans. The Braves folks mostly sidestepped the questions, but said they’ll soon make a new marketing push to reach Latino fans. They call it “Los Bravos.”

Regional appeal

And the newness of the park with fresh amenities and the promise of surrounding activities is expected to pull in more visitors from elsewhere in Georgia and out of state. The team predicts the percentage of attendees who come from outside metro Atlanta will jump to more than 35 percent (up from 30 percent at Turner Field).

(Home game attendance the first few games this season has averaged more than 30,000, which is middle of the pack for the league, according to ESPN.)

The Braves haven’t spent more than normal on the “Welcome Home” campaign compared to past marketing efforts, Zimmerman said. But the team’s partners and sponsors, like SunTrust, Delta Air Lines and Papa John’s, are working the “welcome” marketing angle, too.

“It is the most comprehensive campaign we have ever done,” Zimmerman said.

Coming up an escalator at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport? The Braves and the USO have welcomed home soldiers.

Welcome mats were placed at entrances to SunTrust Park stadium. Front-line workers were trained to greet fans with those two key words.

Then there were the nice extras, like recognizing legendary Braves on opening day and encouraging fans at the start of each game to say hello to the people around them.

Yes, it’s marketing gymnastics. But I’m a sucker for emotion and encouraging a little more humanity in the world. That feel-good stuff might be worth the cost of a ticket, even if we’ve already helped pay for the place.

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