Q&A With The Seattle Seahawks’ Jeff Richards On The ’12s’ And Why Its OK To Take A Knee

For brands, the ability to create truly meaningful connections with consumers is the ultimate goal. It requires a data-driven understanding of what your audience cares about, a constant refinement of your communications methods and an unwavering commitment to your values. The Seattle Seahawks have undoubtedly mastered the art making lifelong fans of its brand.

I recently spoke with Jeff Richards, VP of Marketing, Seattle Seahawks, to learn about the origins of the”12s”campaign. We also talked about the influence and leadership of the team’s owners and touched on the NFL’s “take a knee” issue.

Seattle Pacific University

Richards at Seahawks headquarters, the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton, Washington

Aaron Kwittken: While you were getting your master’s degree, you were also an educational pediatric mental health specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Did that experience provide you with the perspective that you would be able to handle anything thrown at you, especially in your current role?

Jeff Richards: I primarily worked with kids leaving the psychiatric unit, supporting them as they transition back into their communities. I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but it was an incredibly rewarding experience. Throughout my career, I’ve always had the mantra to assume positive intent. Our season ticket holders, fans, fellow employees and players are people first. Everyone faces different things in their lives, both highs and lows. At times, we have support, and other times we don’t. You never know where someone is along their journey so it is important to approach someone as a person first. Nine times out of ten, you will be guided to a resolution, a connection or an idea more quickly than taking things at face value. I’m wired this way and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Kwittken: There is a strong emotional tie between fans, the players, and the franchise. In light of current events, especially following the State of the Union, the NFL as a whole faced quite the curveball, sorry to mix sports metaphors. How did the Seahawks manage through that?

Richards: It’s obviously a challenging and polarizing time in our country and as an organization from the top down, there was a decision made that we were going to support our players’ first amendment right to peacefully protest. Across the entire sports landscape, every organization is going to make its own decisions. Our organization, and region more broadly, is driven by the idea of acceptance and understanding that there is a curiosity for the “We Are 12” spirit. It’s in our DNA so I don’t believe there was ever a moment where there was much polarization here, within our community. It was interesting to watch how it played out in other markets but for us we decided to stand behind our players on this.

Kwittken: How was the “12s” campaign created? What role has it played in your broader marketing program?

Richards: The roots of this campaign trace back four decades. In 1976, the team played its first season and immediately the organization noticed a sense of “purpose” among the crowd. With the Kingdome stadium being domed, the noise is amplified, which can be distracting to an opposing quarterback in communicating at the line of scrimmage, trying to change a play. Our fans felt they had an impact on the game in changing the outcome, to some degree. Our president and head coach leaned into this. In postgame press conferences, they praised the fans, calling them the “12th man”. In the mid-eighties, some of our leaders decided to retire the number in a way that honored our fans. Retiring a number is almost exclusively held for players who have had an unbelievable impact on a franchise or game. To retire a number in honor of fans was unheard of.

In the mid-2000’s, the team went to the Super Bowl after the 2005 season and the story of the 12th man took center stage. At the time, there was media interest in why this was such a strong point of reference for the fans. Why do they call themselves that? What does it mean? It quickly gained promise, exploding over the past 5-6 years. The media appetite was voracious in telling a story about the impact our fans have on the game. This idea of “We Are 12” is that whether you are the team’s owner, head coach, quarterback Russell Wilson or a local from Bellevue, Washington, you are an equal shareholder. This philosophy stems from the top and has transcended throughout our entire organization in how we operate. Our fans are as important as our players and our partners. We believe this is part of our DNA. The media also understands the team and our fans are on equal footing; both as important to what we do here as the other.

Kwittken: As the only franchise in your region, are you using any data to look beneath the surface of your fan base? Marketing seems to be easier when you’re a winning team, but not every team is winning all the time. What other data, analytics, or other tools are you using in the valleys as opposed to the peaks to help you maintain fan engagement?

Richards: Marketing isn’t necessarily easier when you are winning, but it is definitely different. Creating a connection with fans is easier when you’re winning, but winning provides challenges too. We have a culture of listening to our fan base, and that is absolutely not lip service. We have tens of thousands of data points coming back from our fan base and customers, but also fan bases in general, asking them everything from, “How was your game day experience?” to “What do you value in terms of your relationship to the team?” to “What content are you most drawn to?” even asking “Do you want more from us?”

Kwittken: Is that data approach endemic to the franchise or because of your owner who has helped build one of the largest, most successful software companies in the world?

Richards: It stems from the top. Our owner is a curious, thoughtful and inquisitive person who wants to immerse himself in what our fans are saying, test new ideas and leverage social media. He asks questions that require us to look to quantitative and qualitative data. If we come with opinions, they must be informed opinions. Data speaks louder than gut feelings.

This article originally appeared on Forbes CMO Network on March 2, 2018.