Hawks CEO Shares Team's Winning, Youth-Centric Marketing Philosophy

 Steve Koonin
Hawks CEO Steve Koonin

Steve Koonin Leads Tetley Distinguished Leader Series

KENNESAW, Ga. (Sep 28, 2018) — What do emojis, online dating apps, community service, and urban development all have in common? According to Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, they are important ways that businesses can stay engaged with the changing values of younger audiences.

Koonin was the featured speaker at the Tetley Distinguished Leaders Series presentation held Sept. 26 in the Michael J. Coles College of Business. The Tetley series, made possible by a generous donation from former Tetley, Inc. CEO Hank McInerney, brings prominent business and community leaders to Kennesaw State University to share their insights with students.

During his presentation, titled “Atlanta Hawks: Connecting with Next Generation Atlanta,” Koonin discussed how organizations adapt their marketing strategies to fit their target demographic. More than 2 million Metro Atlanta residents are between the ages of 18 and 44, and the city’s population has become more diverse. The basketball team has built its messaging around a younger, more multicultural audience.

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin

“Sports teams historically have marketed to people like me: middle-aged, affluent, white males,” he said. “In Atlanta, Georgia that is a fail. That is not who our audience is…It’s really you guys. It’s next generation Atlantans.”

Koonin says the company has made several changes in recent years to appeal to this audience, including relying more heavily on digital marketing. For example, in 2015 Koonin leveraged the popularity of the Tinder online dating app to host a “Swipe-Right Night” for singles to meet each other at the game. The team also announced the 2018-2019 season on social media entirely in emoji form.

“When it comes to digital, we have to figure out how to differentiate ourselves from 120 other teams,” he said. “We wanted to have a unique digital voice.”

Another marketing strategy Koonin discussed with students was recognizing that young people today often place more value on experience than on possessions.

“We’ve seen a social trend where concerts, sports, cultural events, and festivals are having explosive growth,” he said, “because young people want to be with other people.”

To that end, the Hawks have taken the lead on a proposed $5 billion project to develop downtown Atlanta’s “gulch,” a 40-acre piece of undeveloped land directly across from State Farm Arena, into a mixed-use community of residences, offices, and entertainment businesses. The team’s goal is to enhance visitors’ experience when they visit downtown Atlanta.

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin

Finally, Koonin pointed out that young people prefer to engage with brands that demonstrate social responsibility. He shared how the basketball club has improved communities by building 22 basketball courts across Metro Atlanta, and by providing more than 2,200 pairs of glasses to underprivileged children through the Vision to Learn program.

“The responsibility of being a sports team and doing things above selling, selling, selling, is something we think is necessary to build the community and to build generational fans to our franchise,” he said.

This event was the third Tetley presentation Koonin has led since the program’s inception 25 years ago. According to Dr. Kathy Schwaig, Dean of the Coles College of Business, students can learn a great deal from leaders like Koonin and the other prominent business people who have appeared in the past.

“The Tetley series is about you,” she said, directly addressing the student attendees, “and it is about you hearing from some of the greatest business minds in the nation. We are excited to be able to bring these individuals to you.”

The next Tetley Distinguished Leader Series event will be held Nov. 6, when Debbie Pike, Principal of Meritage Restaurant Group, will speak to students. Pike has been an experienced brand manager for more than 30 years, including previously serving as both the Chief Marketing Officer and the president of franchise operation for Arby’s.

See the full Tetley Series Schedule.

-Patrick Harbin