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University Of Washington’s Chris Hein Uses Brand Identity To Drive Fan Engagement

Chris Hein | Assistant Athletic Director for Brand Advancement | University of Washington Intercollegiate Athletics

Identity should be the lifeblood – the heart – the soul – the voice of what’s best about a brand – it should be built to comfort but engineered to inspire.

Chris Hein

Assistant Athletic Director for Brand Advancement

University of Washington Intercollegiate Athletics

× The interview with Chris Hein was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.

Tell us about your role as Assistant Athletic Director for Brand Advancement for the University of Washington. What does a typical day look like for you?

First and foremost – I just want to say thank you for the opportunity to share. I also want to express my extreme gratitude, solidarity, and well-wishes towards colleagues everywhere – current and future – in the sports community.

Each of us has felt the impact of this treacherous pandemic over the last 10 months, but the road ahead is paved with one another, so keep fighting the good fight.

I’m currently in my sixth year at UW – and going on 12 years here in Seattle.

Typical days don’t exist – especially now! We’re all doing our best to focus on the day that’s in front of us. There’s so much turbulence in our lives – our work – our world… Patience, perspective, and grace should be the new “typical” moving forward.

Zooming out – a large chunk of energy in my role is spent stewarding our brand ecosystem across a diverse and layered landscape. That work starts and ends with an investment of time and relationship resource in people. I’m fortunate to work with so many amazing and talented professionals.

Washington’s stakeholder cohort (like most organizations) is robust. It comes with a unique set of dynamics, perspectives, preferences, and needs.

Our external team is constantly working to foster a brand platform that’s tailored to serve each of our affinity groups in ways that drive authentic engagement and reinforce departmental core values (Grit, Growth Mindset, Committed Service, & Humility).

That focus extends to student-athletes first and foremost, and then across our internal structure, donor base, fan community, corporate partners, upper campus network, and alumni.

The work of advancing the Husky brand is a team effort – one where a commitment to culture dictates decision making. It’s hard work, but we’re always pushing each other to ask why and what?… as opposed to what and why?

More specifically, and from a day-to-day standpoint, I lead our brand communications team and exist in a space where strategic communication, marketing, and brand awareness efforts intersect (which is all the time!).

I’m thankful to be in a position that allows for so much crossover and collaboration opportunity to exist.

In addition, I serve as one of multiple brand leads for our official apparel partner Adidas, and was involved in the full-scale transition work, brand positioning effort, uniform ID development, and launch execution that took place during 2018-19.

The work to activate and amplify our partnership on a daily basis is front of mind as we carve out on-going communication goals, objectives, and strategy.

How do you incorporate brand identity into aspects of your role such as social media campaigns, marketing initiatives and other forms of communications? Why is brand identity so important within the sports industry?

Identity is always a crucial component as we look to build successful campaigns, brand initiatives, and strategic communication plans from the ground up.

We take an intentional approach and strive to stay rooted in authenticity. Generating emotion and sustained impact through goal setting and execution is key to our mission.

That’s the same for any organization looking to establish and grow loyalty.

Identity should be the lifeblood – the heart – the soul – the voice of what’s best about a brand – it should be built to comfort but engineered to inspire.

On top of that, I also believe brand positioning and the work that goes into shaping our identity is what tends to be a difference-maker here on Montlake.

Some of the building-block questions we lean on to steer content development and coordination in the strategic messaging space include: How is our brand influencing behavior? How does it impact decision making? Do we believe in it? Have we committed ourselves to it? How will we use it to guide and influence conversation – and foster our narrative? What words do we choose to use to describe who we are and what we represent? What does it mean to be a Husky? And how does that meaning come to life through our work and our product?

There are so many unique voices and values that exist within our ecosystem – it’s essential that everyone that has a seat at the brand table is committed to speaking the same language – and by default will designate themselves as a brand ambassador.

A recent example of how we’ve pulled some strong UW brand strings came through the apparel partnership launch with Adidas I mentioned above. Multiple expression moments across social, digital, environmental, experiential, and key rev-gen platforms have come to life over the last year and a half.

Ahead of our launch date (July 1, 2019), Washington and Adidas triggered multiple “Out of Home” (OOH) brand messaging placements across the Seattle-Metro area to tease the partnership. One of the most heavily-trafficked locales in the city – Pike Place Market – was home to a primary activation.

To act as the official signal of UW’s new partnership, team Husky and team Adidas created a first-of-its-kind brand experience – one that embodied the spirit of the Washington, Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest.

A ferry boat (called the “PartnerShip”) co-branded in Washington and Adidas creative transported a shipping container (designed to look like a shoe box) through Seattle’s main waterway and delivered it to the front porch of Alaska Airlines Field at Husky Stadium – aka – Husky Harbor.

Housed inside the container, digital viewers and physical visitors were given a first-look at Washington’s newly-crafted football uniforms along with a unique vantage point into the design narrative itself.

Watch “The Journey”

“Special Delivery” Gallery

“The Journey” Gallery

“PartnerShip” Gallery

After several days of docked public viewing and special events, the boat was “decommissioned” and the shipping container was transported to a permanent location in Washington’s athletic village where it was used to unveil new uniforms across the departmental landscape.

Another recent example of how we’ve used identity to drive engagement and UW/Seattle brand flavor was through an environmental promo of our 2019-20 Washington men’s basketball team.

Our staff activated an awareness campaign inside the Capitol Hill Sound Transit Light Rail station (Cap Hill is the most densely populated neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest). The station serves thousands of riders each day and is one stop from UW’s campus.

A role in Brand Advancement definitely presents creative opportunities. Although Brand Advancement does present such creative opportunities, how much strategizing, tracking and data collection is involved in your role? Why are they significant in a Brand Advancement role?

While creative opportunity presents itself more consistently in the brand advancement space than many other areas within the framework of our organization, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all opportunity is created equal – or fits into our value system – or aligns with established business objectives.

Culture should always guide strategy – and strategy should always align with culture. That concept is baked into our mission as a department.

Ultimately, our brand voice and its story is designed to project our value system.

We’re not going to just jump in the water because everyone else is doing it – or has already done so. If we’re going to get wet – we want to have established a reason why – and a confidence that we’re prepared to swim – and we want to make sure we’re driving value for our brand, our student-athletes, our partners, and each of our stakeholders.

We’re always investing concentrated time and energy on the front end of brand-building and strategic communications work in order to pave ourselves as much runway as possible for learning outcomes throughout the entire process.

Several categories related to tracking performance, gathering feedback, centralizing workflow, and coordinating energy and output play a key role through an active evaluation strategy.

We’re keenly aware of how data and information can tilt our scale in one direction or another.

Our Husky Fan Advisory Council (launched in 2016) is a great example of how direct feedback and stakeholder insight on brand experience and other advancement initiatives can impact resource allocation, strategy, and execution.

On a parallel track – in terms of how we’ve taken internal steps to organize, centralize, coordinate, and create efficiencies in our workflow, a huge chunk of data and learning has been produced over the past four years via our project management partnership with a local company called Smartsheet Inc. (Bellevue, WA).

Smartsheet is a service application designed to enhance collaboration, creative automation, and workflow management. It’s used to assign tasks, track project progress, manage calendars, share documents, and manage other work.

Via Smartsheet, our brand comms dashboard offers quick access to project request forms, resources, and departmental production timeline information.

We rely on Smartsheet as our home base and ecosystem for streamlining workflow management, building content calendars and executing against them and facilitating an automated and integrated system for collaboration across the marketing and communications scope.

Every organization in the sports industry is always looking to improve and strengthen their brand. Are there any specific goals you have set for the University of Washington brand? How do you plan to reach for those goals?

The most pressing and pivotal challenge (and resulting goal) we currently face as a brand is squarely oriented around financial stability as a department – and how the climate we’re all navigating will impact our ability to serve student-athletes – and ultimately what that means as we look for ways to connect with our community and strengthen our brand position.

Right now, we’re doing everything we can to provide creative support designed to both educate and remind our audience of all the reasons this department exists.

We’re well into a full-scale fundraising campaign – our ability to be ambassadors of that work and communicate the need through each piece of brand comms we activate is our primary objective.

We’re placing more energy and resource into our storytelling apparatus – and we’re also building foundational framework future student-athlete personal brand development initiatives.

Committing our channels and platforms as tools for student-athlete stories to live is something we’ve always cared deeply about.

Thoughtful and engaging work with our academic support staff and student groups like our Black Student-Athlete Alliance has generated positive action and set the stage for continued momentum.

Some individual points of emphasis that I’m focused on – that I’m committed to as a leader and influencer of our brand – and hope to pass along to others include:

  • Develop, maintain, and foster high-level/authentic relationships.
  • Learn and lead with purpose.
  • Over-communicate culture.
  • Create ownership opportunity for others.
  • Delegate with strategy. 

How do the branding strategies for the University of Washington compare to other schools in the NCAA? What are some things you are considering now when advocating for the brand that you might not have before? How does Washington stand out?

The intercollegiate brand ecosystem is truly special. There are so many amazing people and organizations across the country that are consistently redefining the space, forging new ground, developing best practice, and innovating in ways most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine 5-10 years ago.

Washington has been part of that conversation every step of the way. The work that’s gone into carving out our voice among the noise, developing brand authenticity, as well as influencing the behavior and strategy of our counterparts have only been accomplished thanks to a focused and dedicated approach to strong and forward-thinking expression and strategy.

My belief – which is rooted in experience and perspective – is that Washington stands out because of its people, the care and commitment to its cause, and core competency it places in getting better every single day.

The way we advocate for our brand and use it to connect with our community has changed dramatically, but the meaning behind why that connection is so important has not – our why has always been our north star.

Finally, what advice would you give to prospective sport management professionals looking to eventually work in sport at a similar level to yourself but just starting off in their career?

My path has been all but conventional (a phrase familiar to most).

I started in coaching and sports operations – navigated my way through two degrees (sport management and organizational management) – broke into the athletic and digital comms space – then pivoted into an athletic leadership role at one of the top prep schools in the country (here in Seattle).

After six years on the interscholastic side, I “started over” by taking on a digital position here at UW – and since then, a lot has changed – and I couldn’t be more thankful for all of the perspectives I’ve gained.

During my time as a Husky (and before that as well), I’ve been extremely fortunate to learn from and grow alongside professionals with a deep passion for organizational culture and commitment to mission-driven strategy.

My personal evolution is directly tied to the pledge those around me have made in promoting relationships and trust through thoughtful action, regardless of what’s known or unknown.

That mindset – that focus – that purpose-connectivity has reinforced my own values and approach towards leadership and development.

Be committed to the work and to the meaning behind the work – but before that – commit yourself to a value system that you can be proud of. Be open. Be willing. And be humble at every step. This environment is about purpose for me – and that’s not necessarily the case for everyone (and that’s ok!).

But for one – do your best to identify what makes you go, and secondly – don’t be afraid to learn – and learn as much as possible – about others and about yourself… that never stops.

Very few folks have ended up exactly where they thought they would at the outset of anything – take things with you – and look to get better at every step along the way.

I’m a big believer in ownership – and specifically taking responsibility for my own growth and development.

As much as those around us can be sources of influence, support, and help – ultimately – it’s on me to choose how I’m going to grow – how I’m going to react to my surroundings, my situation, and my circumstances. Lead with empathy – and develop a mindset that defaults to resilience, grit, high emotional IQ, and service – pure and simple.

Hayley Michie Hayley's Final Thoughts

Brand identity is a crucial component of any sports organization. As Assistant Athletic Director for Brand Advancement at the University of Washington (UW), Chris Hein leads strategic communication, marketing, and brand awareness efforts. Overall, Chris helps UW to better position their brand by shaping its identity. For his almost 6 years of being at UW, Chris has been a part of some outstanding partnerships – all of which contributed to furthering the UW brand. He’s been given the chance to be creative by his own means and has had much success in doing so! Chris and his team at UW are continuing to plan for the future of the brand – I cannot wait to see what they have in store!

Connect With Chris Hein