Technology & Innovation in the Field of Football
Football is one of America’s favorite pastimes, originating in North American colleges in the late 19th century. The long and esteemed tradition of the game traces back to an evolution and history of national pride, and it has grown into arguably the most popular sport in the country. Riddell also has a longstanding history tied to the game of football, being founded in 1929 by John T. Riddell, a coach of high school football in Evanston, Illinois.Over the past 92 years, Riddell has become a brand synonymous with the game, and it has become a favored equipment outfitter and supplier to NFL leagues across the country. Most recently, they have begun to modernize even more through the growth of technology. They have greatly improved on-field protection with innovations that have solidified their brand, most especially with their continually ground-breaking helmets, such as their Precision-Fit technology.Today, Riddell prides itself on this long standing history and their continual evolution in technology to help improve the sport. DCKAP is proud to have partnered with their internal teams on a progressively ground-breaking path in the past few years, having been a part of their innovation into the digital space by helping to improve their website and optimize the online user experience. This is just one more way in which they have continued to stay ahead of the game.Erin Griffin is the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Riddell, and she recently sat down with DCKAP’s Founder and CEO, Karthik Chidambaram, for a conversation that touches upon this colorful history and their most recent evolution into the world of online sales through digital transformation. From the importance of women in leadership, to the support of brand ambassadors like Peyton Manning, and the effective marketing and communications between departments that have helped them to remain competitive and continue to innovate, their conversation helps bring the story of football and technology to life.
“While data’s great, it doesn’t always have to be a data-driven result that you’re trying to achieve.” – Erin Griffin
A Conversation With Our Client
Karthik: Hello, Erin! Great to see you, and thanks for joining us.
Erin: Hey, Karthik! So wonderful to be with you. I love your headgear. Looking good there.
Karthik: Thank you so much, Erin, and thanks for this headgear as well. I appreciate it. I really love this. And, talking about Riddell. Riddell has been in business for over 90 years and you’re best known for on field equipment, and especially helmets.
Karthik: And a lot of people also keep these helmets as souvenirs, and you also give out these little ones. I have one on my desk.
Karthik: So, it’s pretty cool. And this really helps in community building and brand building. Was this planned? And also, can you tell us about how the Riddell brand got to where it is?
Erin: Sure. So, you know, we’ve been in business (as you said) over 90 years and we pride ourselves on, I think, you know, two product lines, right? Which you referenced. So, we have the on-field head protection and other products that are worn by athletes that offer protective capability, right? And so that’s, kind of, one channel that we work in. We also have our collectible helmets that are on display in people’s homes or offices and really demonstrate your fandom, whether it’s a collegiate team or an NFL team.
And so, you’re right. It does create kind of an affinity to the sport and specifically our brand as a result. Because you see that Riddell logo or that Riddell style helmet so frequently attached to the sport. And so, we’ve been fortunate that both the on-field equipment, as well as the consumer products and licensed products, have really helped us really be ingrained in the DNA of the sport. And of course there’s a, you know, brand strength that’s tied to that.
Karthik: You also keep innovating with new products, speed helmets, Speedflex, and more. And you’re also creating a precise 3D scan of an athlete’s head and customizing the helmet, advancing athlete production. This is amazing. And what is the process of communication with the engineering team? What recommendations do you have to bridge the gap between marketing and engineering?
Erin: Yeah, no, that’s a great observation, and just a little plug for the product line and technology that you mentioned. It’s called our Precision-Fit technology, and we’re actually able to build a truly custom fitting helmet for an athlete.
In fact, over 50% of NFL players wear our Precision-Fit line, utilizing the Speedflex helmet platform. So, really excited about that. But as far as the dynamics between marketing and research and product development. You know, both teams have their objectives, right? They, you know, the research or product development are going to be cautious around the claims that they want to make and really want to be focused on what the product can and cannot do.
I think on the marketing side, we’re of course, going to try and push the boundaries a bit, in promoting the features, advantages, and benefits of the product. And so, I think it requires really good communication between both teams and understanding of perspective on both sides. And then, I think my advice is to always look for some common ground and we’re fortunate to have great colleagues on that side of our business. And we always seem to find a way to meet in the middle and find some compromise there.
Karthik: Thank you. When is a good time for companies to hire brand ambassadors. Riddell works with Peyton Manning. How long does it typically take to see a return on investment on such branding endorsements?
Erin: Yes. So, I mean, we’re very well established, right? We’ve been in this business for decades. And so, we were fortunate to engage Peyton in his, you know, once he’s retired from the NFL. It was an authentic relationship, meaning he wore Riddell helmets and equipment throughout his playing career. So, it was a natural extension for him to remain involved in the game, but also to kind of do it post, you know, on-field playing days.
So, for us it was about, kind of, taking our kind of brand credibility to the next level. And I don’t think it gets any more true to the game or the sport of football than the Manning family, and certainly Peyton. You know, two time super bowl winning quarterback and all the other accolades that have come along with it.
You know, we have some unique objectives in terms of our evaluation of his role as both brand ambassador and strategic advisor for us. A lot of it has to do with connection to the football community. So, less metric-based but more just, you know, making sure that Riddell is really reaching the football community at a grassroots level. He does a lot of work for us around that.
And also there’s some internal considerations. We utilize Peyton as far as interacting with our sales organization and, you know, being a morale booster in terms of sharing his perspective on the game. And then also advising us on research and product development too, as you know, only a player at the elite level can. And so our criteria is a little bit different, but as far as advice for someone considering a brand ambassador? I think you just have clear objectives when you’re going into it, identify someone that would be a seamless addition to your team and then have some guardrails in place in terms of evaluating what success looks like on the other end. And while data’s great, it doesn’t always have to be a data-driven result that you’re trying to achieve.
Karthik: That’s very interesting that you get them enrolled in sales and other functions in addition to marketing. That’s actually a great learning.
Erin: I mean, I think that something that’s sometimes lost is that, you know, the people that are most important in terms of communicating your brand or your vision are your employees. And sometimes you get so focused on the external use of someone like him versus really, you know, looking inside first and then trying to use your team to really galvanize what you’re trying to do. So, I think that was time well spent for Peyton speaking to our team on the occasions he has.
Karthik: Cool. How do you see a shift in terms of e-commerce? How has moving to digital benefited sales? Is there any specific advice you’d like to offer to other businesses who are on the road to digital transformation?
Erin: Yeah, and I think, you know, our transformation is certainly a unique one based on our business model. So, just a little perspective on that for those that might be tuning in. We do most of our business through what we call our institutional channels. So, a sales rep works directly with a high school or youth organization, or even an elite college or NFL team and addresses what their needs are as far as protective equipment, as well as the reconditioning of equipment needs.
That’s the majority of our business. We have folks located across the US and Canada to do that. However, as you know, the shift to digital is here and really was accelerated significantly during the pandemic. Even we saw it in our business, even though football was disrupted to some degree. And so, I think what we’ve done is invest behind digital resources, including a brand new website that your team helped us get up and running and continues to help with last spring.
And so, we just have really tried to make the sales process as seamless as possible for customers that choose to work with us through a website purchase as opposed to a direct sale. And we’ve seen the results actually to back it up. It’s an easier, you know, move through the purchase process, which was one of our objectives in that line. And I think, pretty much, no matter what your business or industry is these days, having a strong digital footprint is extremely important not only for brand awareness, but I think, you know, as well as a sales capability too. People want to– You need to reach people where they want to reach you. And most people are moving online for some element of the purchase process. And we’re seeing that, and we’re no different in the football industry.
Karthik: Great! Essentially creating low effort experiences. So, make it easy for your end users to make the purchase online. Erin, can you talk about one of your failures? What you learned from it, and something you could have done better? And how did it change your perspective?
Erin: Yes. So, you know, I pride myself on being a very collaborative executive leader and peer to those that I work with. And I received some advice one time about always having my colleagues back. And I found at times for being, trying to be quick about something, I sometimes sacrifice some of the layers and steps to the communication process in terms of working with my team members. And it could have been perceived maybe as, you know, throwing them under the bus a little bit. And so the feedback I received was too always kind of have your team members back, try and give them a little bit of advanced heads up before, you know, firing off that email or making that phone call.
And it’s really served me well, I think it’s helped build some really good rapport with those team members. And I think, just like I am taking that extra step for them, they would be certain to take that extra step for me. And so, that advice has really proved well and it’s helped me in my leadership journey as well.
Karthik: Great! You guys work really well as a team, and I’ve actually seen that in person, where you get your team together and get them in the same room and ensure that everybody’s on the same page. And that’s something that we learned and we also copied at DCKAP. So, thank you.
And can you also share about some of the biggest marketing campaigns you’ve carried out and what kind of challenges in carrying out those marketing campaigns? And how are you measuring the effectiveness of these campaigns?
Erin: Sure. So, a couple, you know. In the spirit of time I’ll feature one, kind of, in the on-field realm and then one on the, kind of, collector’s realm. So, one of the big ones we do each year is called our Smarter Football campaign. And it’s a grassroots program that recognizes and rewards football programs that are really playing the game the right way. And they might not have all the resources, but they are committed to, you know, player health and safety, coaching certification, trying to deploy equipment, the best equipment that they can for their athletes, doing things in the local community, those types of things.
And so, we started this program several years ago.In the last couple of years, Peyton Manning has been kind of a big asset in terms of the promotional support of this program. And it’s not only an application window that programs apply in, but then we actually select, review and select these applications and select winners and go out and actually award this equipment to these organizations. And so, it’s a big undertaking on both the front end and the backend. And there’s a significant layer of, you know, media mix tied to the promotional support.
What I highlight about this is it’s more of a Goodwill campaign versus a revenue driving campaign. And so, you always have to evaluate the investment you’re putting behind something that’s not necessarily tied directly back to sales, though it’s tied to, you know, brand Goodwill and brand prominence in the football community. And so for us, you know, the investment is certainly money well spent. But, you know, with the Peyton component and all of the different elements to a campaign like that, it is complex, but it’s super rewarding when you actually see the equipment worn by the athletes that really could use it. And, you know, it makes all that hard work that goes into it all worth it.
The other type of campaign that we do often is in launch of our on-field, or excuse me, our collectible helmets. And we have been working with the NFL through the last couple of years around alternate lines of helmets, which are kind of special designs. There’s been any number of creations, but it kind of flips around the NFL helmet colors and decals sizes, and comes up with unique designs that are really appealing for collectors and fans. Great for autographing and really just stands out in any way. And so you can imagine when you’re working with a partner the size of the NFL, as well as other retailers and, and the NFL clubs themselves to promote it, there’s lots of layers to these campaigns.
What we found to be really successful in doing this, is giveaways of these items, as tied to some of the promotional posting support that we’ve seen. But I think, also, learning is just really good communication across to all the different parties, because we’re all working towards a common objective. And so, those programs are really high-profile and really fun. It’s awesome to see the NFL post to their social media accounts, you know, our creations of these helmet designs.
And in fact, this is really timely because the NFL just shared via a memo to clubs recently that they are going to allow teams beginning in 2022 to wear alternate helmets. So each team can have one alternate helmet, which means either a throwback helmet or special helmet design could actually find its way onto the field. And so, we’re really excited about that potential and seeing where this goes.
Karthik: At DCKAP, we take a lot of pride in empowering women and many are in leadership roles. You are one of the women leaders at Riddell, and we also have Sharon Manson who is the CIO. You are also very passionate about sports and even played soccer in college. Can you talk about the significance of women in leadership roles, women in sports, and women in football?
Erin: Absolutely. Well, first of all, I commend you and DCKAP for having this important take on women in leadership and women advancement opportunities that, you know, speaks to just the team that you’ve built there. And that’s awesome work.
You know, we’re at Riddell, being a largely male dominated sport of football, really lucky that we have three women on our executive team, that are women who are passionate about the game of football, but also through their lens of their professional journey too.
I am very interested in women’s football, whether it’s flag or tackle. It is actually a growing demographic. As far as competition, both in the U S and globally, there are more and more women playing each day. And I love seeing that and hearing that. And at Riddell, we are fortunate to support the Women’s National Team through our work with USA football, as well as the Women’s National Football Conference, which is a professional league that continues to grow, of really passionate women. You know, these can be moms, career women, you know, people that just love the game and like to be athletic. And, I think it’s really all about opportunities, right? Opportunities and access. And I think there’s been a considered effort around those two things recently, and we’re really excited that we can advance that approach through the work we’re doing at Riddell.
One word for folks that might be interested in pursuing a career in sports, especially if you’re a female, there’s a great LinkedIn community called ‘A Seat at the Table’ that was started by a couple of folks at the NFL. And I’ve been really pleased to be part of this group, because not only is there a lot of knowledge sharing about the different professional journeys women are taking in the game, there’s opportunities to continually learn and get educated. And also a lot of opportunities to mentor people, and I’ve taken an opportunity to actually mentor a young woman who, I just found out, received an internship with an NFL club, so I’m really excited about that. And I think, again, opportunity is an access and that continues to grow these days.
Karthik: Talking about the NFL. It seems that the last Super Bowl was the least watched since 2007. Riddell rides on the success of the NFL. If the NFL was to ever be in a state of decline, is there a strategy in place to target the next big industry? What are your thoughts here?
Erin: Well, I think part of a role as an executive leader at a company like Riddell is to anticipate, you know, what the future could hold. I do think that the Super Bowl viewership might’ve been a bit of an anomaly related to the pandemic and maybe even in the clubs that were involved in the game. But, I don’t think the NFL… I think, I guess, I would put it this way. I think the NFL has a very bright future, and I’m not sure that the scenario you presented is one we’ll need to worry about.
However, what I will say is, Riddell prides itself on support of the game of football across all levels. So, we don’t place any sort of extra emphasis on any level of the game. We work with the youngest levels of players just starting out in the game, to high school players where, you know, you’re playing and Friday night lights across the country to, you know, college. And there’s all types of levels of college football, with the most prominent being the elite division one on Saturdays and televised, and then certainly the NFL level.
But I think because we place, you know, equal kind of emphasis on all levels of the game, and are proud to support all levels of the game, I don’t worry too much about what might happen down the road with the NFL. And I think they have a very bright future ahead like I said.
Karthik: Well said. Thank you, Erin. And, one last question. I’m currently watching and enjoying The Crown. And it’s really interesting to watch the queen and learn about the history of the United Kingdom. What are you currently watching or binging at the moment that you would like to share?
Erin: Yes. Well, I concur with you on The Crown. I was never really into the monarchy before, but after watching this program with my husband, I really do find it interesting and keep up on the current events relative to the monarchy. But, as far as what I’m watching, I have really enjoyed The Outsider, which is a program on HBO Max. It’s one season long and it’s based off of a Stephen King novel. So, you can imagine the different twists and turns the show will take as a result. I won’t give it away, but I think it’s, you know, 10 episodes or something like that. And it’s been really a fun journey, each night to tune into the next episode. So, I highly recommend it.
Karthik: Thank you so much, Erin. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. We thank you for your time, and also thanks a lot for all the learnings today. Thank you.
Erin: Thanks, Karthik! Thanks for your partnership.