It was the summer of 2016. I had a stockpile of my favorite snacks (ketchup chips, sour candy, veggies and hummus), got into my coziest PJs, and curled up on my couch for the 4-hour spectacular, WWE’s SummerSlam. Halfway through the show I was treated to the delightful absurdity of wrestlers Dolph Ziggler and The Miz, dressed as KFC’s Colonel Sanders and a chicken. They were pitted against each other to prove that KFC made the best chicken sandwich.

Wrestler Dolph Ziggler superkicking The Miz

Dolph Ziggler, dressed as Colonel Sanders, using his signature move, the Superkick, on The Miz. Credit: Muscle and Fitness

It seemed like an odd pairing — you don’t immediately associate athleticism and fast food — but the live audience was enraptured and joined in by chanting “Colonel Sanders” during Ziggler’s entrance. Video of the match garnered almost 1 million views on YouTube, and WWE has continued its successful partnership with KFC at SummerSlam and other live events every year since.

The lesson here? When two seemingly unrelated brands collaborate, it can create something magical.

WWE isn’t the only company using the synergy of brand partnerships to drive fan engagement and sales. Let’s have a look at three unexpected, yet successful, sports brand partnerships.

Brand partnerships aren’t limited to sports! Check out our post on successful brand partnerships with influencers and the marketing strategies behind them.

1. The Social Distance Season Schedule

Detroit Lions x Animal Crossing

While the NFL released their schedule for the 2020 season in the typical unimaginative fashion, the Detroit Lions surprised their fans with a creative announcement through the videogame Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

The team tweeted a 7-minute video featuring an Animal Crossing player decked out in Lions gear. In-game activities were set up to represent the weekly match-ups. The activities included:

  • Burying a teddy bear, representing the Chicago Bears
  • Hitting villagers dressed in Green Bay Packers jerseys with a net
  • Deleting a bulletin board message from the New Orleans Saints

Engaging Fans Through an Unlikely Brand Partnership

Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been wildly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic and the era of social distancing. While you wouldn’t immediately think there’s an overlap of Animal Crossing and football fans, the Detroit Lions saw an opportunity to engage their audience through the shared cultural phenomena of the game.

What makes Animal Crossing so special? Read our thoughts here.

Not only did the Detroit Lions tap into Animal Crossing’s popularity, they realized that in order to successfully engage fans of the game, they had to be authentic.

By referencing Animal Crossing inside jokes (like the horribly cheesy puns about different fish species), the Detroit Lions earned acceptance and respect from the fanbase. The team wasn’t taking advantage of the game’s popularity — they were expressing their love for it.

To captivate their audience further, the Detroit Lions posted a follow-up tweet with the Nintendo Switch Online Design IDs so that Lions fans could wear their gear in-game.

The Detroit Lions’ Animal Crossing schedule announcement was an overwhelming success on social media. Their usual low engagement on Twitter was replaced with a video with over 185k views, plus 2.5k retweets and 8.7k likes.

2. “Fire, Aim, Ready” Puts the Biscuit in the Basket

NHL x Green Day Brand Partnership

Traditionally, the theme music for broadcast hockey games has largely been instrumental. That’s why it was unexpected when the NHL announced they had signed a multiyear partnership agreement with the punk rock trio Green Day.

The agreement includes the use of Green Day’s “Fire, Ready, Aim” as the opening theme song for NBCSN’s Wednesday Night Hockey, as well as use of other music from the band’s latest album in promotional materials.

While you may not immediately associate hockey and punk rock, NHL CCO and executive vice president Steve Mayer put it best:

“Their music fits so perfectly with the energy, speed and power that we witness on the ice and each and every night.”

A Brand Partnership that Brings the Hype Home

You know that feeling when your team scores a goal and the familiar music riff fills the arena? It’s electrifying.

Goal songs are an essential part of the live hockey experience. These beloved songs get the fans out of their seats, loudly singing along and cheering for their team while riling up the opposing team’s fans.

With the regular-season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fate of the playoffs is still uncertain there’s no guarantee arenas will be open to fans anytime soon. The post-goal celebration as we know it could be a thing of the past.

Green Day’s upbeat punk rock music brings the arena experience home. The energetic tempo and aggressive vocals of songs like “Fire, Ready, Aim” evoke the same excitement that fans feel when their team scores.

For the NHL, building and sustaining fan engagement at home is now more important than ever. And Green Day’s music is helping that happen.

Tweets from fans of Green Day and the NHL brand partnership

Fans showing their excitement for the Green Day x NHL partnership on Twitter.

3. The Iconic Sneaker that Nearly Never Was

Michael Jordan x Nike Brand Partnership

I know what you’re thinking: The Air Jordan sneaker is the quintessential example of a perfect pairing between a pro-sports athlete and consumer brand. How is this collaboration unexpected?

We now automatically associate the NBA with Nike but it was Converse and Adidas that 5were the original shoes of choice for Mr. Jordan. In 1980? Michael Jordan was asked what company he’d partner with and he responded without hesitation: “Adidas.”

In the mid-’80s a brand partnership with Converse fell through so Nike pitched a deal to Jordan. The then rookie player almost passed up the offer, only agreeing after his agent recruited his mother to convince him that it would be worth it. Turns out they were right.

Long-Lasting Brand Partnership Success

In 1985, Nike projected that Air Jordans would bring in $3 million — instead, they brought in a staggering $126 million.

Despite Nike’s colorful design being banned by the NBA, Michael Jordan wore the sneakers in every game and his rebellious attitude resonated with young fans. Seeing the potential in this new target audience, Nike created a campaign around the banned shoe — what better way to emulate your favorite player than to sport the symbol of his rebellion?

“For a kid, it was almost like holding a lightsaber from Star Wars … You needed that shoe to be like him.” - rapper Nas in the ESPN/Netflix docuseries The Last Dance

Photo credit: Coup d’Oreille CC BY-SA 2.0

The brand partnership between Nike and Michael Jordan has only grown, expanding to a full clothing and accessory line and pulling in a revenue of $3.1 billion in the last fiscal year. Wow, talk about brand synergy!

Want to precisely segment and target your fans? AE can help.

Choosing the Right Brand to Partner With

When two unexpected brands join forces, the result can be magical. Brand collaborations that resonate with a fanbase spark conversation, drive engagement, and encourage fans to become brand advocates.

What’s a brand advocate and why are they important? See our article here.

Collaborations like Michael Jordan x Nike or WWE x KFC may seem like a once-in-a-lifetime success, but they don’t have to be. With AE’s Cross Brand Analysis, you can see what brands have a strong customer overlap with your own. Take the guessing out of brand partnerships, and start relying on real-time data.