NHL CMO Heidi Browning on Billie Jean King, Underdog Stories and Hockey in the Bubble
Heidi Browning is chief marketing officer of the National Hockey League, responsible for executing the league's growth marketing strategy with a focus on social media, digital, data and innovation. Inspired by the intersection of media, technology and culture, she studies generational trends in consumer attention and brand engagement.
Prior to joining the NHL in 2016, Heidi served as svp of strategic solutions at Pandora. Her team was responsible for developing marketing experiences that create value for fans, bands and brands.
Earlier in her career, as svp of client solutions for Fox Interactive Media/MySpace, Heidi evangelized the value of social media in the marketing mix and positioned brand communities as a new way to build audience, create engagement and establish a two-way dialogue between consumers and brands. She led the first in-depth consumer segmentation and ROI study for social media—Never Ending Friending, A Journey Into Social Networking—which quantified the impact of The Momentum Effect.
We spoke with Heidi for our Time-Out series, where we chat with folks in the sports world about their favorite athletes, teams, sports movies and shows, and their love of sports generally.
Heidi, tell us ...
Where you grew up, and where you live now.
I was born and raised in Montana, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Now I live a bicoastal life, splitting my time between NYC and San Francisco.
Your earliest sports memory.
Weekend ski trips with friends and family. When we were young, my dad would drive the neighborhood kids up to the mountain every Saturday and Sunday. It was a different time: Our skis were long and straight, we wore jeans with gaitors and no helmets or sunscreen, we carved through the trees in that epic Montana snow and rarely experienced chairlift lines. At the end of every day, we would calculate our cost per run and try to beat it the next day. I think this was the moment I discovered my personal passion for measuring ROI.
Your favorite sports teams.
This is tough because I can't name just one NHL team that's my favorite. I love each and every one of them for unique reasons such as their fanbase, arena, players, staff, community, game presentation, mascots, team dogs or food. My favorite thing to do when visiting our clubs is to sit with the fans and get to know them. I've met some incredible fans and stay in contact with many of them.
Your favorite athlete.
My favorite athlete of all time is the great Billie Jean King. Her talent, tenacity and relentless pursuit of equality and justice have inspired generations of young athletes and fans. She continues to set the example of how athletes can leverage their personal platforms to create change. My favorite Billie Jean quote is, "If you can see her, you can be her." As a woman executive in sports, I try to channel Billie Jean and make the time to support and coach young women in their career journeys. It's especially rewarding to see the NHL partner with Billie Jean King's organization to support research, action, advocacy and collaboration with organizations that have a significant community impact. Our goal is to advance equity by elevating the dialogue on diversity and promoting inclusion in the locker rooms, board rooms and stands.
Clio Sports and Bleacher Report are hosting a virtual B2B thought leadership event, The New Sports Marketing Playbook, on Oct. 28-29. Click here to learn more and to register.
Your favorite sports show or podcast.
I listen to a variety of sports pods, mostly about hockey, culture and innovation. Some of my favorites include:
• Fluid Fan, which is hosted by Sports Innovation Lab CEO and four-time Olympic medalist Angela Ruggiero.
• On Her Turf, hosted by Katherine Tappin of NBC Sports, celebrates amazing women and their male allies with stories of motivation and lessons learned along the way.
• Spittin Chiclets, hosted by former NHL players Paul Bissonette and Ryan Whitney, showcases hockey stories from current and former players. They cater to a younger hockey audience, and I feel compelled to listen and understand the content that resonates with next-generation fans.
• CMO Moves, hosted by Nadine Dietz, is not a sports pod per se, but explores interesting stories and journeys of CMOs across all industries. Nadine has interviewed league and club CMOs and serves as a connector for all of us sports marketers.
Your favorite sports movie.
There are so many incredible sports movies over the years, it is impossible to name one. I enjoy David and Goliath moments, where underdogs find the grit, overcome adversity and dig deep to believe that they can win it all: Rocky, Bad News Bears, Miracle, Slapshot, Hoosiers, Moneyball, etc. A relatively recent movie I enjoyed is The Russian Five, which is the story behind five hockey players from the Soviet Union who played for the Detroit Red Wings in the '90s. It's an interesting story about sports, politics and culture in the '80s and '90s.
A recent project you're proud of.
I'm really proud of the NHL Power Player program, which is our youth advisory board. It was inspired by a letter from a young fan, Sabrina Solomon, who wrote a letter to offer her ideas on how to create relevant marketing programs for Gen Z. We invited her into the office to meet with a group of marketing executives and the commissioner and deputy commissioner. She blew us away with the thoughtful ideas she presented to us. This was an aha moment for me, as we were already doing some of the ideas, but she wasn't aware of them. So this one conversation inspired the creation of the Power Players advisory board.
We promoted the program on air with our broadcast partners and across all digital and social channels. After reviewing 1,500 applications, we narrowed down to semifinalists, did video interviews and selected 15 Power Players. We host meetings on Zoom—this is in the before-time, when Zoom was a new tool for many organizations—and have a Slack channel that we open for additional conversation. Our Power Players are amazing and have provided us with great feedback, tough love and lots of inspiration—much of which you are seeing in our social channels now. We just opened applications for the NHL Power Players 2021 season and look forward to listening and learning from our new advisory board.
Someone else's project that you admired recently.
Well, I have to say the NHL's successful return to play is one of the most impressive endeavors I've seen in my career. The NHL created two "bubbles" in Canada (Edmonton and Toronto) where 24 teams are competing to win the Stanley Cup. Now we're down to the Conference Finals, taking place in Edmonton. Health and safety is the No. 1 priority, so the events team, led by chief content officer Steve Mayer, essentially created a mini-city within each bubble, where players and staff can get tested daily, have access to meals, training facilities, entertainment and recreational activities.
In addition, Steve and team were challenged with creating a new game experience that's made for TV since there are no fans in the building. They considered every aspect of the experience, including what it looks like on TV, how to create remote fan interaction and engagement, testing interesting and new camera angles, and the art of adding crowd noise at the right time for both the fans at home and the players on the ice.
We have an incredible amount of pride and gratitude to each and every NHL employee who have been working in the bubbles for over two months to ensure we award the Stanley Cup this year. Be sure to tune in to the most exciting playoffs in all of sports! The four remaining teams are playing outstanding hockey in pursuit of the Cup, the most cherished and historic trophy in sports.
What you love about sports generally/what sports can do that nothing else can.
The role of sport is bigger than what happens on the ice, field or court. Our role is to inspire, entertain and unite people across the globe. Sport teaches character, perseverance, teamwork, strategy and other life skills. Now more than ever, it's the responsibility of leagues, clubs and athletes to use our platform to create positive change in the world.
What you'd be doing if you weren't in the sports world.
I would be doing exactly what I'm doing now, because I love what I do. I'm a digital passionista dedicated to peace, love and ROI. My happy place is the intersection of media, tech and culture.