By Ken Sugiura for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Their last successful branding campaign was spontaneously introduced in an end zone one Sunday 14 years ago. Atlanta running back Jamal Anderson scored a touchdown, broke into a curious arm-flapping demonstration that caught the public’s fancy and the Falcons danced the “Dirty Bird” all the way to the Super Bowl.
In 2010, the Falcons went the other way. Employing an ad firm, market surveys, the actor Samuel L. Jackson and a red-gowned gospel choir, the team’s multi-media campaign encouraged the city to “Rise up.” Three years in, Atlanta is getting the idea.
When the Falcons face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday for the NFC Championship and a reservation for the Super Bowl, the city will reverberate with the “Rise up” exhortation. MARTA conductors will encourage fans exiting trains at the Dome to rise up. Fans dressed in Falcons gear will greet each other simply with “Rise up.”
And, most crucially, as before every home game on the video boards, Jackson himself will implore the Dome faithful to rise up too.
“It’s kind of a rallying cry,” Falcons fan Michael Landis said.
Tyler Hartsook, a Falcons fan ever since his dad took him to see them play in Fulton-County Stadium, said he’d never seen anything like the scene outside the Dome last Sunday, following the last-second 30-28 victory over Seattle. Jubilant fans clogged Northside Drive to the point that police officers gave up trying to move them across the street.
“It was kind of a microcosm of the melting pot of this city, everybody grabbing whoever they could, chanting, ‘Rise up,” said Hartsook, a season-ticket holder. “It was awesome. You would have thought we’d won the Super Bowl.”
Landis, a Brookhaven resident, said when makes plans with his cousins for pregame tailgates, he and his group end their text messages with “Rise up.” He has company. During the Falcons-Seahawks game, there were roughly 180,000 Twitter messages with “#riseup.”
Said Landis, “I hope it becomes our ‘Roll Tide.’”
As a slogan, it’s hardly original. The Atlanta Hawks, in fact, used it several years ago. What has distinguished the Falcons is timing and execution. In 2009, the team was still shaken from a string of disasters. Coach Bobby Petrino had fled the team after 13 games of the 2007 season. The same week, former quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to federal prison stay for his involvement in a dogfighting ring.
That all led to the hiring of coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff and the subsequent drafting of quarterback Matt Ryan. But the team still needed a new identity.
“What we probably learned the hard way was, you can’t let your brand default to be one player,” Falcons marketing vice president Jim Smith said. “It’s got to stand for something a little more than that.”
The Richards Group in Dallas, an agency with clients like Home Depot and Chick-fil-A, had worked with the Falcons since 2005. But after the 2009 season, team officials went to Richards with an NFL report done for the team that included market research, focus group information and the feedback from team executives, including team owner Arthur Blank, Dimitroff and Mike Smith.
Surveys with fans and the broader Atlanta public produced what Jim Smith called a “key brand benefit.”
“It’s not that we’re guaranteeing we’re going to win, but that the Atlanta Falcons could raise you up,” he said. “They make you feel better. They make you feel a part of the community.”
With that, Richards returned with a few ideas, each presented with theatrical flair. In one, gospel music was cued up and a script that would become familiar with Falcons fans was read with stirring emotion — the “Rise Up” oration.
“The guy that wrote it said, ‘In my head, it’s like Samuel L. Jackson,’” Richards principal Doug Martin said. ”’He’s part preacher, part motivational speaker, part locker-room guy.’”
Said Smith, “It was a slam dunk.”
Now all the Falcons had to do was hire Jackson, merely the highest-grossing actor of all-time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Through a connection with Blank, Smith found himself on the phone with Jackson’s agent, whom he had never met. Not sensing much interest, he offered to read the script, trying to summon the same fervor.
“It was a long pause and she said, ‘Sam doesn’t do commercials,’” Smith said. “I said, ‘This isn’t a commercial. This is a movement.’”
Less than a week later, Jackson was in. It turned out Jackson was not only a Falcons fan and but had even sold concessions at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium while he was a student at Morehouse College. Billboards and radio spots came first, followed by the first TV commercial with Jackson speaking/preaching in front of a red-robed church choir.
“If we get knocked down, we won’t just get up,” Jackson said. “It’s time we all rise up.”
The campaign won an “Effie,” the prestigious marketing prize. The 60-second ad became part of the pregame production at the Dome. The second time fans saw it, Smith said, and knew what to expect, they reacted wildly and he knew something was brewing. When Jackson returned for two more spots for this season, he told Smith NFL players stop him to say how cool the video is.
Jackson’s influence in the success of “Rise Up” is undeniable.
“I think the Samuel L. Jackson thing was great,” said Bob Hope, the longtime Atlanta sports marketing executive. “There’s a lot of good ideas that become great ideas based on how well you execute it.”
On Sundays in the Dome, rising up is inescapable, even for Ryan.
“It sounds weird, but one of the first things you hear when you walk in, after they’re checking your bag, the security and the attendants at the door, they tell you to ‘rise up,’” he said.
Perhaps it lacks the comic appeal of the Dirty Bird. Among Falcons archives, nothing brings a smile quicker than the replay of coach Dan Reeves, a month removed from quadruple bypass surgery, performing the dance after his team beat Minnesota for the 1998 NFC championship.
But the hope among fans is that “Rise Up” has greater staying power. There are no plans to change it. Martin, the Richards principal, could see it getting periodically freshened but thinks the Falcons can own it for years.
“Even if we continue to win through the whole year, we’ve got to rise up again next year,” Smith said. “I mean, when do you ever stop?”