The rise of digital easily lends itself to the analogy of a growing wave. So does the excitement of riding it. That’s why, after 15 years at The Coca-Cola Company, Scott Hargrove changed direction and joined the World Surf League (WSL), where “the opportunity to come in and work on a true growth brand was exciting.”
In his role as global chief marketing officer at the worldwide sanctioning organization for men’s and women’s professional surfing, Hargrove focuses on building the WSL brand, driving fan growth, and overseeing all facets of brand strategy, creative, media, social, public relations, and communications. He also leads the league’s pioneering, digital-first approach to harnessing the power of its millions of fans around the globe.
“I loved the idea of being in an environment where my digital marketing skills would be challenged each day,” Hargrove told CMO.com
Read on for our exclusive interview with Hargrove, who also spoke about real-time marketing, mobile and social engagement, and geotargeted advertising partnerships.
CMO.com: What about the world of marketing appeals to you?
Hargrove: I have always been fascinated by what drives consumer behavior. I love understanding why a person would prefer Coca-Cola over Pepsi when, to some people, they’re essentially the same product. Why does someone make decisions for emotional reasons instead of rational reasons? Why does someone make a purchase based on a package design, a marketing message, an association, or a tagline?
I’ve also always appreciated marketing’s multifunctional DNA. While creativity and instinct are certainly a big part of marketing, so is strategy, analysis, innovation, finance, and operations. It’s one of a few disciplines that leverages a range of functions.
CMO.com: You spent a great deal of your career with Coca-Cola, so what made you interested in becoming part of the WSL? Do you have any sort of surfing background?
Hargrove: Coca-Cola is a fantastic company, and they taught me so much about brand building. But after 15 years, I loved the idea of working for a smaller organization that was experiencing explosive growth. The opportunity to come in and work on a true growth brand was exciting.
Working on a brand that was digital at the core [also] was appealing; Coca-Cola always prioritized traditional media. Paul Speaker, our CEO, is committed to differentiating the WSL from other sports leagues through digital innovation, so I knew I was in the right place.
Finally, I’ve always loved surfing. I grew up in San Diego, and surfing has always been a part of me. So the opportunity to combine growth, digital, and a sport I’m passionate about was too good to pass up.
CMO.com: What’s the secret for building fan growth and reaching audiences who might not know a lot about the WSL?
Hargrove: I was hired essentially to do two things: recruit new fans and build the WSL brand. The recruitment challenge is the tough one because, unlike traditional sports leagues, surfing takes place on a playing field that is always changing due to shifting swell conditions; as a result, our event start times are always changing, too. It can be difficult for a new fan to know when we are on. So the heart of our marketing focus is driving real-time access to our live events through social, paid digital, and other forms of real-time media.
My second priority is driving a deeper connection to the WSL brand. Our brand-building efforts are still in the early stages, but our goal is to give the World Surf League brand meaning in a way that connects with fans for decades to come.
CMO.com: Upon taking the job, one of the first things you did was help launch the free WSL app. Tell me why that was important and what it has done for the brand.
Hargrove: I definitely can’t take full credit for that. There were a lot of really smart people, Rich Robinson and Tim Greenberg, in particular, who led that effort from our digital and social teams. But the overall goal of the new WSL app was to give fans a customized way to experience the world’s best surfing from anywhere and allow us to communicate to them in real time. Not only does the app send you an alert that our competition is live, it also provides customized features, such as when your favorite athlete is about to hit the water.
The app has been a huge success for us. Since launching in April 2015, we’ve had more than 1 million fans download the app, and we are on target for another 1 million in 2016. We will continue to leverage and improve our app technology to ensure our fans can easily stay connected to the sport they love, while elevating their personal engagement with the sport. It’s a very, very important part of our overall marketing mix.
CMO.com: One of your first big marketing pushes for the brand was the “You Can’t Script This” campaign, which speaks to the inherent unpredictability of the sport. What was the genesis of this?
Hargrove: For surfing, the simple truth is it’s impossible to predict what will happen next due to the constantly changing swell conditions. This truth is the driver of our brand campaign and [explains] our tagline, “You Can’t Script This.” The campaign celebrates the unexpected and reminds fans about what’s so unique and special about our sport and the WSL.
We debuted the campaign during our Super Bowl: the Billabong Pipe Masters event in Hawaii in December 2015. We launched with an anthem spot entitled “Chaos Theory” and an integrated event campaign celebrating the fact that there were six potential champions going into our final event. The campaign has been extremely successful for us.
CMO.com: What can we expect to see from the new chapter?
Hargrove: I think at a high-level we did a really nice job of introducing “You Can’t Script This”—what it means and why it’s so right for surfing. This year we’d like to evolve it to help bring to life our athletes and their unique personalities. Instead of a formal, polished anthem spot, we’re exploring ways to create 30 to 40 pieces of short, snackable content that showcase our athletes in a fun and unexpected way.
CMO.com: As you’ve said, the company’s digital-first approach is important. Why is it so vital?
Hargrove: Our digital-first perspective was created out of necessity. We create over 800 hours of content each year. To put that into perspective, one of our events produces more live coverage than an entire season of Monday Night Football. The sheer volume of all that great content is difficult for a traditional broadcast partner to execute. Add to that the fact that our event schedule is always changing, it was impossible for surfing to approach broadcast in a traditional way. That is why we cut the cord and pioneered global digital live streaming. We’ve been doing it for well over a decade ... and the fans have responded as evidenced by the fact we saw a 122% increase in live video plays during the 2015 season.
The second reason for our digital-first approach is our fans. We have a very young, global audience, whose average age is 32. That’s significantly younger than the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball. Digital is where they live and how they communicate, so it’s imperative that we focus on digital. And it’s working: The WSL has the highest social engagement of any major league sport in the U.S.—2.5x the industry average.
CMO.com: Can you highlight some of the things you’ve done on social media—on Facebook, Snapchat, and Periscope, in particular?
Hargrove: Our mission at the WSL is to continually find new ways to elevate the experience of competitive surfing for our fans. That means finding new and innovative ways to put our global digital audience on the beach, in the water, and even on a wave. As a result, our marketing team and unbelievable talents like [SVPs of digital] Tim Greenberg and Rich Robinson are pioneering new ways to leverage digital and social innovation for our fans.
For example, we were the first sports league to live-stream on Facebook and give fans exclusive behind-the-scenes content in real time. We created the world’s first drone capable of taking Snapchat photos and videos, bringing fans even closer to the action. We were the first brand to live-stream surfing directly from the ocean via Periscope. We were the first sports league to publish a true 360-degree virtual reality experience on Facebook. And, most recently, the WSL partnered with surfboard designer Haydenshapes to create the world’s first crowdsourced surfboard. Since the project began on May 1, there have been over 2 million live views of the process. Fans have dictated the design and artwork of the finished product, which was donated to charity by reigning world champ Adriano de Souza at the conclusion of the Oi Rio Pro.
CMO.com: The next thing I wanted to explore why geotargeting advertising is so important to your league. Can you provide an example of this in action?
Hargrove: In addition to our endemic and regional sponsors, we are fortunate to have amazing global partners, such as Samsung, Jeep, GoPro, and Airbnb. These brands often have different messages they want to run in different markets during our live broadcasts. This is why we pioneered geotargeted advertising in our global live stream, where a brand, like Jeep, can run four different messages in different regions of the world.
Our ability to geotarget on behalf of partners is something we’re particularly proud of since it gives partners the flexibility to run multiple messages during an event, and is a really powerful asset to our partnership conversations.
CMO.com: One of the unfortunate situations you’ve had to address was the highly publicized shark incident involving Mick Fanning in South Africa. What was involved for you and your team?
Hargrove: We are still in awe of Mick and the others who were in the water that day—the water patrol, his competitor, Julian Wilson, and the many others who helped him to safety. Our CEO likes to say, “You never know what you’re going to do when there’s a burning building. Will you run away or run to the building to help?” and a lot of people ran to the building in that moment last year in South Africa.
Obviously the incident was a huge global media story, and our communications team worked around the clock to ensure all of the facts were communicated accurately. Most importantly, Mick, Julian, and our water patrol were celebrated like true heroes. Yes, the event gave us a lot of exposure as a league. But, honestly, none of us ever wanted it to happen like that.
CMO.com: What has been the most surprising or unexpected thing about the job to you so far?
Hargrove: I think the most surprising thing is the speed at which we move. We create digital marketing plans for a league that puts on over 170 events a year. We are never “off,” and we are always in planning mode for the next event. We also don’t spend a lot of time planning too far in advance because the competitive surfing landscape is so unpredictable. The overall tour storylines, which athletes are contending for the world title, the conditions for the contest, and even the marketing technology are constantly changing making it difficult to plan too far in advance.
CMO.com: What does the future hold for the WSJ? What goals have you set for yourself?
Hargrove: My personal goals for my WSL experience are the following: Have we elevated the competitive surfing experience for our fans, our athletes, and our partners? Have we made the sport better by harnessing the latest technology to bring fans closer to the athletes they admire? Have we improved their overall understanding of the sport? Have we achieved our full growth potential in the right way? That’s a huge one. Yes, we want to scale the sport, but we want to do it in the right way. Never leave behind the core and move too fast. That’s a huge goal of mine. Is my team engaged and passionate? And did we have some fun along the way?