Spalding Steps up the Game

By Leah Genuario

Spalding breathes new life into the sporting goods category with a complete rebranding that initially began with its basketballs.

When it comes to a basketball, there is no one-size-fits-all. Some basketballs are made for small hands while others are more suited for an adult-sized grip. Some are for casually shooting around the backyard while others are intended for more serious play. Some are ideal for the outdoors and some work better on inside courts.
To accommodate diverse players and the game that unifies them all, sports ball marketers offer consumers numerous choices. Market leader Spalding manufactures about 100 different basketballs alone.
The 130-year-old brand has long mastered products that are all about play. But what the Spalding team realized in 2005 was that the brand needed a re-assessment. “It was time to provide clarity to ourselves and our consumers,” says Christy Hedgpeth, the company’s director of branding and licensing.
Leading the charge
Hedgpeth arrived at Spalding in 2005 as the senior manager of consumer marketing and business analysis, just after the company completed a major consumer research study that looked at what Spalding “stood for” in consumers’ minds.
No stranger to marketing or to the world of sports, Hedgpeth came from Russell Athletic where, as the consumer marketing manager, she helped develop the company’s brand strategy. She also had personal experience, as a professional basketball player (in the American Basketball League), that would prove advantageous.
But the in-depth qualitative and quantitative research, which analyzed the way consumers shopped for sports equipment, proved most valuable of all.
It was a goldmine of information for the brand overhaul, led by Dan Touhey, vice president of marketing, and executed by a group comprised of a packaging specialist, the consumer marketing team and a market research team.
The results helped determine where the company could enhance the shopping experience and better communicate with its customers, and enabled the brand to develop a positioning—authenticity, performance and heritage—that resonated with existing customers.
The brand tagline, True to the Game, “captured who we were,” says Hedgpeth. “It was tied to our heritage, but [is] still relevant to today.”
The research also pinpointed shoppers’ largest challenge when searching for basketballs: finding the right ball amidst the numerous choices on the shelf.
For example, says Hedgpeth, not all consumers were aware of the different basketball sizes available. This finding provided a very specific area of improvement for Spalding—the packaging.
“Once you understand how a consumer thinks and who you are as a brand, it almost creates the packaging for you,” says Hedgpeth, who led that initiative.
Nuts and bolts
“Packaging is one of the most, if not the most, central marketing communication elements we have,” she says. “We do national advertising, we do public relations, but the impression of the brand is no stronger than at the point of purchase. For us, that’s why packaging is paramount.”
Packaging also has additional benefits over other forms of marketing because of its consistency, she says. “It’s also something we can control. That interaction with the consumer at shelf is a huge opportunity to make a connection and to make them feel confident with their purchase.”  
According to Hedgpeth, Spalding hadn’t taken full advantage of that opportunity. She says the existing packaging was not cohesive, offering customers a “weak brand message, no product segmentation” and “limited consumer guidance”. The last time a packaging overhaul had occurred was more than a decade ago.
That meant the team could lose no more time. Working with Hughes Design Group, a package design and branding consultancy located in Norwalk, Conn., the Spalding team moved from creative brief to finished basketball package in eight months.
The first category to receive the makeover was basketballs.
To begin, the new packaging was structured under a clear architecture that separates the product into four categories. Each category is differentiated at the bottom of the package with a colored swipe—yellow for performance, blue for advanced performance, red for maximum performance and black for professional.
To further ease consumer confusion, the new packaging also bears the size, surface usage and a recommendation on the ideal player, for example, “males and females under the age of nine.”
“The intent was to help consumers in their decision-making process,” says Hedgpeth.
The team did encounter some hiccups in the redesign; the first involved packaging shape. “Consumers want to touch and feel the basketball before they buy it. We needed to make the ball accessible while still placing it in a sturdy structure,” says Hedgpeth.
Deciding just what to communicate to consumers was also a test. As Hedgpeth explains, “Companies have a lot of things to say to the consumer. We had to prioritize what we wanted to say and simplify it on the packaging.”
NEVER FLAT stands out
Although consistency across the category was vital, Spalding’s most innovative basketball needed an extra boost in the packaging department. NEVER FLAT, which uses a special technology to keep the ball inflated 10 times longer than other basketballs, was the first product to go out with the new packaging.
A more upscale look was determined for the product, to highlight the technology and position the ball as a premium product. The company used the same blue color for its NEVER FLAT packer as it had with the other basketballs—to maintain the architecture—but it departed from the norm by placing the ball in a plastic tray to resemble the look of a trophy. Foil graphics and a special “Fast ‘S’” icon also point to its premium positioning.
“Because our reputation is built on innovations like NEVER FLAT, we go to great lengths to ensure those technologies are visible to consumers at shelf,” says Hedgpeth.
The significance of the new technology was also clearly communicated to shoppers via a color illustration on the bottom front of the packaging, as well as a “Stays inflated 10x longer” guarantee printed in large type.
Retailer benefits
Retailers were also top of mind in the package development process.
In the past, merchandizing at various stores had been haphazard. So the team worked with one of its largest retailers, The Sports Authority, to implement a brand blocking initiative that would re-energize the way packages were organized in-store. The effort ensured a more effective and eye-catching presence at shelf and an operational benefit as well.
“Because the communication is so clear on the packaging, it made it a lot easier for our customers to merchandize, to understand where the balls need to go,” says Hedgpeth.
Initial results
Already, the company has received good marks from. “Qualitatively, we have had exceptional feedback from our retailers that we’ve really taken the lead and that it really creates an improved impression on shelf,” says Hedgpeth.
The return on the re-branding investment has also been proven with quantitative results. Spalding realized a significant jump, currently commanding 55 percent market share in the basketball category, according to SportScan.
“Over a two-year period, we increased 20 points from mid- to upper-30s to mid- to upper-50s,” says Hedgpeth.
The increase was driven by NEVER FLAT sales, she says. (The product has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, a lengthy reign as the number one basketball in the sporting goods category.)
Only the beginning
A stroll around The Sports Authority or another Spalding retailer will reveal that Spalding has not stopped its rebranding and re-packaging efforts with basketballs.
Since the rollout of re-packaged basketballs, completed in February 2006, the company has also released new packaging for all of its inflatable products. Midway through 2007, Spalding commands the number one share in the inflatable product category, claiming 27.6 percent of the market.
Spalding has also issued new packaging for sports accessories, such as nets and whistles.
The final phase, currently in process, is the overhaul of packaging for backboards and basketball systems.
“That is part of the initiative,” says Hedgpeth, “to have consistency across the entire brand.”
Where to go for more information...
• Brand identity and package design. At Hughes Design Group, call 203.866.9696 or visit