This Modern Brand (S1E1) with the Kansas City Chiefs CMO Lara Krug (PODCAST)

This Modern Brand - Lara Krug Wide

Certain brands dominate both the markets and the hearts of consumers. This podcast is all about finding out why, one brand at a time.

Welcome to This Modern Brand . . . the podcast where we go behind the scenes with some of America’s most influential brands to break down their strategies, values, and innovations — finding takeaways for the everyday marketer.

S1E1 of This Modern Brand features Barkley Chief Growth Officer Jason Parks and Director of Content Jen Mazi as they dig into the heart of the Kansas City Chiefs’ rise to global fandom with CMO Lara Krug. They explore the strategies and values that have made the Chiefs a standout sports brand.

Brand battles are back as Barkley’s Dave Gutting weighs in on the age-old rivalry between Nike vs. Adidas.

Jason Parks:

We all know certain brands dominate the market and hearts of consumers. At Barkley, we're obsessed with discovering why, one brand at a time. Welcome to This Modern Brand, the podcast where we unearth the strategies, values, and innovations of some of America's most beloved brands. I'm your host, Jason Parks, chief growth officer at Barkley.

Jen Mazi:

I'm Jen Mazi, a career storyteller and content director at Barkley. This is the pod where we explore what a brand's success means for the category, the competition, and you, the everyday marketer. Come for the insights, stay for the brand battles, and leave with actionable ideas for your own influence and impact as a brand builder.

Jason Parks:

And before we dive in, let's level set on this. In today's marketplace, your brand is more than a logo. It's every action your organization takes, from how you treat your employees and nurture your workforce to how you show up in the world.

Jen Mazi:

That's the foundational mindset we see from leaders of the world's top brands, leaders like Lara Krug, the Kansas City Chiefs EVP of marketing and chief marketing officer, and one of the most powerful women in sports, according to Adweek. Welcome.

Lara Krug:

Thank you for having me. I know it's a big title. Hopefully, I live up to its words.

Jason Parks:

Oh, I'm sure you will. But no, seriously, we're really excited to have you here and to give us a peek into the Chiefs Kingdom, not only one of Kansas City's most beloved brands but one of the most loved brands in all of the NFL. And I do have to insert here, I am a Dallas Cowboys fan from birth, a legit one, not one of those bandwagons, so please forgive me.

Lara Krug:

I love the announcement early on so that we can level-set.

Jason Parks:

Perfect. Thank you very much. We're all-inclusive here. So, Lara, you were hired to help make the Chiefs a global brand. Can you tell us about your background and brand marketing and how you came to your position at the Kansas City Chiefs?

Lara Krug:

Sure. So, I've been with the Chiefs now in this role for over two years. Before that, I spent all of my career in marketing, branding, and experiential media, and my most recent career before joining the Chiefs was about 10 years at Anheuser-Busch, where I worked in a variety of different roles, the last one being the head of marketing for Stella Artois, which if anyone's a beer lover out there, it is the best in the world and is still one of my favorites. But before that, I was at L'Oreal and Avon on their digital side and e-commerce business. But I also started my career at an agency on the media side. So, it's come full circle in some ways, but it has been quite a ride now to be at the helm of the Chiefs and in this amazing moment that the organization is in.

Jen Mazi:

Inquiring minds also want to know what it's like being a woman in a largely male-dominated industry.

Lara Krug:

Yeah, many industries I've been in have been male-dominated, even in the beauty space. Obviously, beer comes to mind as a male-dominated industry, but beauty and the business side of beauty are actually fairly male-dominated as well. So, I guess I will say I've gotten used to it and hopefully have thrived in it. But I think sports have been an interesting change, too, just because men play your core product and a majority of the leaders on the team are men. But on the business side, I think I was well-received with open arms, and I think a lot of new ideas have been considered or actioned because of a very different perspective. So, so far, it's gone pretty well. I wear pink a lot, so I just try to make sure that everyone knows that there are women in sports as well.

Jen Mazi:

Before we started recording, you also mentioned that you didn't grow up as a NFL fan. Are you surprised that you are now working for an NFL team?

Lara Krug:

Yes. No, I grew up in Connecticut. We weren't a big sports family, and certainly not an NFL family. I grew up outside New York City, so I knew it existed with the Giants and the Jets, but it was just not a big part of my life. My husband's from Kansas City and is a die-hard Chiefs fan, so I think he's probably more shocked than anybody. But I think about it a lot in being in beer, beauty, and sport. It's always, for me, been more about the brand and what it can do with consumers than an extreme obsession for a specific industry. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, but I've kind of always thought about it more on who we are trying to reach, how do we reach them, and what are really amazing ideas to grow the business. And it has led me to sport. And here we are in Kansas City with the Chiefs-

Jen Mazi:

And here we are.

Lara Krug:

It's a pretty good day.

Jen Mazi:

They're doing all right.

Lara Krug:

A pretty good year.

Jason Parks:

They're doing all right.

Lara Krug:

Yeah, exactly.

Jason Parks:

This is a great transition to the next question I wanted to ask because it is unique that you talk about the Kansas City Chiefs, the brand. And when you look at sports marketing, a big chunk of it is, are you winning? Are you losing? But if you set that aside, you really do have to think about the brand. I would love to hear your take on that. Besides wins and losses, what makes the Kansas City Chiefs brand special?

Lara Krug:

The list is long. I will give a context to answer your question. When I joined the organization and was recruited for the role, one of the things that intrigued me most was that the Kansas City Chiefs had never had a marketing team. They had never had a CMO. And so, the fact that this organization, this sport, and this club had become as relevant and large and authentic as it had been was the thing that was exciting to me to think, "Wait, they haven't even had a marketing team yet and a CMO." So once I've been in the world and seen it, I mean the brand has a lot of uniqueness. I think the fact that our ownership and our founder, Lamar Hunt, really started so much of the National Football League and of American football has allowed for authentic storytelling, which I know is way easier to market a brand with an actual story to be told.

I think the connection with Kansas City and the uniqueness of Kansas City versus other places; it is a big city but a small town; I think there's the sense of people always say the flyover, which I still have not accepted because I just feel like it's actually more of a golden area that has so much opportunity. And then, certainly recently, but years in coming, I mean having a coach that we have, having generational talent that we have, those ingredients plus a really solid foundation of a well-run win with character, that's one of our mission statements, the organization has kind of just become the absolute perfect storm of a really strong and loved brand.

Jen Mazi:

Speaking of flyover state, many Americans probably haven't given Kansas City a second thought until Taylor Swift flew directly here to see some games. And all of a sudden, America's talking about Kansas City. How do you decide when to participate in those cultural conversations, and how much is too much?

Lara Krug:

It's a great question, and I will tell you, it has been a lot of the conversation we've been having, certainly within the marketing team, but the organization in general. Because it's funny to say this, Travis Kelce is my coworker in some capacity. I think our perspective and process up until this point has been it's part of the cultural zeitgeist right now. You can't turn on the TV, open up your phone, or or look outside without some sort of conversation around it. I think we have tried to be really thoughtful around to be supportive of it and lean into the fact that Kansas City and the Chiefs are getting, and Travis Kelce, but are getting as much love as they are.

And smile when we're seeing fans come in and numbers growing on organic social channels, that just doesn't happen in this day and age for 99% of the brands. But then, just trying to be really conscious of our conversation or our perspective in it is we are the Chiefs, we are the Chiefs Kingdom of fans, so if new fans are coming into the family, we will welcome them, we'll welcome them with arms. And so, we've tried to keep content or anything kind of in that world more on them becoming part of the fan base and less on their personal life, which we would like for them to keep personal for their benefit.

Jen Mazi:

Good answer.

Jason Parks:

That's great. So, you mentioned, I love this, "Win with character." Would you call that one of your brand strategy pillars? And if so, tell us about those pillars. What other ones exist? Talk to me a little bit more about that one.

Lara Krug:

Yeah, so that's one of our four, what we consider our mission statement. So, "Unite the community, honor our tradition, win with character." Those are part of literally what is on the wall of the stairs going up in our offices. And I actually think that the "Win with character" when Clark Hunt, our chairman, and CEO, took over, it was very intentional to make sure "Win with character" was up there. Because I think a lot of sports clubs, in my opinion now coming in, can look somewhat different shades of the same color. It's about bringing people to get butts in seats for the stadium, and there's a game that is played. Certain elements are pretty consistent.

I think the differentiating factor that we have in terms of our legacy and story is how we do things. The reference that is always made is the Raiders, and they're a wonderful organization, but theirs is just, "Win, baby," and we're, "Win with character." And so, there's a very different perspective on a brand of not only do we want to win and we want to continue to be champions, but we do it in a way not only on the field, but that in business, or partners, or in branding that has that ethos of doing it with character and doing it with the type of humble respect that we believe our organization is about.

Jen Mazi:

So, at Barkley, we also believe in brand rituals or treasures. And a brand treasure is like a singular manifestation of your distilled down to one iconic artifact. So, if you think of the Dairy Queen red spoon, that is a brand treasure. And then, a brand ritual is that singular repeatable experience that the brand is known for when it comes to representing the brand. At DQ, this is also a Barkley client and beloved to us. So, when you go in, and they flip that Blizzard upside down, that's the brand ritual. So, in terms of the Chiefs, do you have anything like that as part of the experience that really has just become a brand ritual or treasure that has made the Chiefs what it is?

Lara Krug:

In the most tangible one, it's the sound or the loudness, if that actually is the right word, of fans in the stadium, right? We are the loudest stadium in the world. And that, I would say, ritual at every live game has become known to us. People try to say they're the louder stadium, and we have that to stand on. I think the loudness of physical sound in the stadium has started to translate into the intangible ritual of an incredibly passionate amount of fans. They are so all in on the Kansas City Chiefs that you're starting to see what was tangible and is tangible in the stadium start to proliferate into social media or in other events. The draft was here, and things happening in culture. We just played in Germany a few months ago. So, that has now shown a tangible ritual, certainly into a loud, real one.

Jason Parks:

So, I'm no sound engineer, and I assume you're not either, but since I've got an insider, I have to ask this question. How in the world is it the loudest stadium? I mean, it's got to be just all the fans because it's a big bowl. There's nothing to contain the sound. I don't understand it, but I've been to several games, and yes, I think it's the loudest-

Lara Krug:

According to Guinness, we are the loudest at 142.2. But yeah, I think it is the combination of a lot of elements together, one of which is the actual shape of the bowl and the stadium and the way it's set up. But I don't know if you've been to a Chiefs game this year, in the past, I mean, it's loud.

Jason Parks:

Oh, it's deafening.

Lara Krug:

Yeah, deafening loud. So, much so that refs sometimes get a little off-kilter because it's so loud. So, it definitely has effects not only on the fan experience but oftentimes in a positive output for the game.

Jason Parks:

Gotcha. Brand a question for you. How does your specific role with the Chiefs shape how you look at brands?

Lara Krug:

That's a great question. It shifted so much for me. I came from a world where, up until this point, I was marketing physical consumer products. So, a beer in a beer bottle, lipstick, or even at my time at a media agency, like Enterprise Rent-A-Car, they're physical objects. Once I've come over to the Chiefs, you realize it's not really a physical... You can watch the game, but the product we're selling and marketing is not just one thing. And so, I've had to pull a lot of experience from the past to try to relate it to the opportunity here, but it also honestly opened my eyes to thinking very differently as well in the sense that we are a brand, we are a game, but we are also a media company, we're also an entertainment company, we have cheerleaders that are female athletes, we have a mascot, we have a community.

There's a lot of other pieces. We have events that happen at the stadium. There are a lot of other pieces of the business that have challenged me in the best of ways to rethink what it means to build brands, but also, the importance and probably the doubling down of the importance of still really knowing at the core of who the Chiefs are, so that as you grow and as your product offering continues to grow, you stay true to who you are authentically. You don't really lose yourself in some new flashy product that may not be who we are at the core.

Jen Mazi:

Well, and then how do you apply that mindset to taking the Chiefs to global brand status?

Lara Krug:

(As) someone who didn't grow up as an NFL fan, the thing that I think has been exciting also coming in has been because I didn't have a pre-designed, pre-love for something I've been able to have. My team's been able to have a pretty open mind on; it's not necessarily they started from the beginning like you, but that we can get more fans because of the number of products or the amount of way that fans are coming in. Certainly, our athletes are a huge part of that, right? Players are bringing in... We've done a ton of research. The way the players continue to have their own brands and social followings, they're a key element for bringing fans in now.

And so, all of those ingredients really were clear. When I first joined, again, our chairman and CEO and president, Mark Donovan, saw the opportunity for the league to push internationally and grow the game. Do we want to be one of the first-mover clubs? And we felt like we could see all the ingredients on the table. And the moment was now because of not just the past few months in the cultural zeitgeist, but the snowball was starting to roll way before that. And that gave us really the proof points to believe that we could take what was really special happening here in the US and even nationally to try then to export it internationally and focus on certain markets that we knew were going to have an appetite easier than others.

Jason Parks:

You have fans and super fans as a sport. So, oftentimes other brands talk about their fans, but since you, I think, in the NFL and with the Chiefs specifically, you take that to another level. What should other marketers consider and consider how to treat grow and retain their super fans?

Lara Krug:

Yeah, we are very, and I'm very grateful to have loyalty, which is for most brands in the world we live in now is very hard to find and keep. So, one of the things though that I think advice or thoughts of, even if I could go back in time on other jobs, is trying to, one, meet the fans where they are and being willing to flex your brand muscle, knowing that not everyone can come to the stadium, right? We will never be able to get millions of people around the world to come. So, how do we take our brand to them and not be afraid to move out of the comfort zone of our core business?

But that also while meeting them where they are, bringing them into a bit of the, and I don't want to say design process in the sense of what do you think our social posts would look like, but they have a lot to say and many of the fans and the super fans, the ones with a good rationale, they actually can be really great soundboards in terms of new ideas that we may have for events or seeding an idea for a new piece of content. So, I wish we, and we are doing more of it, but we talk about the Chiefs Kingdom being this collective of fans, using them more to affect the decisions in a positive way. I think there are a lot of other brands where they may not be pre-named as Chiefs Kingdom, but I think using and leveraging their love for something, I think there's a huge opportunity.

Jen Mazi:

Lara, what is one thing that has changed throughout your career when you look at brands and businesses?

Lara Krug:

I think that the thing that has shifted the most, just over time, is the media landscape and how consumers engage with brands. And I think there has been, I'm sure you guys feel it, the pendulum swing of everything should be real-life experiential. Nope, everything needs to be social. Nope, everything should be a hybrid. Nope, we only focus on individual content on YouTube. Nope, everything... There are all these continual swings, and because of that, I think media and consumption are driving those changes. I will say, and again, in a unique spot versus maybe more traditional consumer products, we all know that organically it is very difficult for brands to grow on social channels and digital channels without either a great cultural zeitgeist or a lot of paid media.

I think brands almost taking a bit more control of their message in media. And I don't just mean that in PR, but thinking about it as an editorial, as a media house, even if your brand is a physical product, I think there's a lot of opportunity. But that's what I think kind of keeps me up at night. I assume many others are; how do you ensure that the content and energy you're spending on something is actually getting to the person you wanted it to see and that they're actually engaging in it and loving it?

Jen Mazi:

Coming in fairly new, what are your next five years, what does that vision look like?

Lara Krug:

The biggest area of focus will be on international. When the league shifted its model from being kind of league-driven and raising its hand and bidding for the commercial and marketing rights, it shifted the game in terms of opportunity. But we have gone all in the sense of having six corporate partners in Germany that are totally different from our US business to having media deals. Obviously, we played a game last year, but it is essentially a new business unit for us.

And so, the first year was kind of getting up and running. This year has now been starting to grow. But we are having those conversations now on what the business looks like to support international growth, games, players, and preseason; what could that all look like? So, that's a huge area of focus. And then the other one is definitely in what I was saying before that we believe we're in an entertainment company as well, so what does that mean in the current world of entertainment and content and streaming services? So, we see that as a huge opportunity, given the type of content we can create and have created.

Jen Mazi:

What are the top challenges for entering those markets?

Lara Krug:

The biggest one has honestly been the media rights. So, I think in the past, the concern was that fans were not accepting, willing, or wanting to be American football fans. I think that has shifted in many markets as soccer; in Germany, for example, it just becomes more of a mature sport. The younger generation is now looking to American football. Same thing that the NFL has had past issues here in the US, but it's more now on making sure that they can actually consume the game. So, in Germany, they're seven hours ahead, so when they're watching games, it's midnight, 1:00 in the morning, and they oftentimes don't get to choose which game, and it's only on one channel.

So, that whole narrative of how we are getting more access to fans who want it is probably still the biggest barrier. And then, I think that the next barrier will just be on if you can't have a game 17 weeks of the year in one of the countries, what then product or potential products are you bringing to them that they feel like they can touch it and see it more than only once a year? So, those are probably the two biggest barriers we're trying to work through.

Jason Parks:

One last question. How often do you wear your Super Bowl ring?

Lara Krug:

Not as much as I think everyone wishes that I did. I wear it to special home games, and we received word that the ring design this year won a bronze in Clio Sports. So, we were excited that it got the love that so many of us get to see when we wear it. Not daily, but it's a good flex.

Jen Mazi:

Okay, since we're asking bonus questions, I want to know if you've run into Taylor Swift in the hall.

Lara Krug:

I have not. I've seen her run by, and she is as dynamic and beautiful as I think everyone sees her on screen.

Jen Mazi:

Well, go, Chiefs. That is all the time we have today to discuss this iconic brand. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lara Krug:

Thank you, guys.

Jason Parks:

This is part of the podcast we call brand battles, where we pit two brands against each other, score them on a performance framework we call the whole brand index, and declare one of them a winner in the marketplace. This week, Nike faces Adidas — two of the most powerful brands in the world in the sporting goods category. Our chief provocateur and creator of the whole brand index, Dave Gutting, breaks it down for us.

Dave Gutting:

I love Ben Affleck's movie, Air, about Nike's pursuit of Michael Jordan in the 1980s. First-rate entertainment doesn't teach us much about why Nike is such a great brand. The movie made a big deal out of the battle between Nike and Adidas to win over MJ or MJ's mom. Nike won and looked way ahead of their time. But let's face it, they got lucky with Jordan. Nike has been at war with Adidas since before Jordan and long after him. When you look at this showdown from the perspective of who has the best whole brand, which is how we look at it here at Barkley, Nike has been winning where it counts, down in the trenches, in the everyday choices of consumers. We do brand research annually, and the athletic wear category is a big part of our study.

By our metrics, Nike is 30% stronger than Adidas regarding market outcomes. Why is that? We see in Nike a consistency that others lack, from product quality to brand communications. They leave nothing on the table. Interestingly, however, the difference in those various measures is relatively small, mostly in single digits, but the market payoff is huge, 30%. The other part of their success is how they win with purpose. You hear that word everywhere in marketing today—purpose, purpose. You've got to have it say the gurus.

Our research proves that and explains how it works. Brands with strong purpose scores get a 20% lift in the whole brand index and their market outcomes score. Why that happens is not entirely clear, but magic happens when you pair it up with extremely low variability in their performance. Purpose isn't a direct cause; it's an indispensable accelerant. So, Nike wins on purpose, despite vulnerabilities in their labor practices. In recent years, Adidas has closed the gap with them, and Nike should be worried, but they should also be prepared for surges from upstarts. Notably Allbirds and Lululemon. Those two are where Nike was in the '80s. One thing Nike versus Adidas taught us back then is not to take upstarts for granted. They'll pick your pocket, and you won't even know it.

Jason Parks:

So, Nike wins on purpose. You heard it here first.

For more stories and insights on building brands people love, visit barkleyus.com.

Explore more episodes of This Modern Brand here.

For a thorough evaluation to help your brand build its biggest future, contact our Chief Growth Officer, Jason Parks, at jparks@barkleyus.com.


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