NEW ORLEANS -- Members of the San Francisco 49ers' marketing department faced an interesting challenge when they sat down midway through the season with an eye toward the playoffs, hoping to create a campaign that would capture the imagination of the team's fans.
Yes, the Niners have a rich history, with five Super Bowl wins to their credit (tying them with the Dallas Cowboys, one shy of the Pittsburgh Steelers' record six). But it has been 18 seasons since they won their last title, long enough that many of the team's current players see only a cosmetic connection to the championship squads of the 1980s and '90s. They wear the same colors and rock the same logo, but that's about as far as it goes. Even San Francisco itself has undergone major changes over the past two decades, with the city becoming a technology epicenter.
So how does an organization with a proud tradition connect with a new generation of fans? Well, sometimes the best solution is the simplest one. And after a lot of brainstorming, the end result was a slogan -- "Quest for Six" -- that has gone viral on Twitter (#QuestforSix) and on Facebook, as droves of 49ers fans have replaced their avatars with the badge.
"I think why it works so well with people is because it perfectly mirrors our team right now," said graphic designer and Bay Area native Ben Mayberry, who spoke with espnW in New Orleans. "We are trying to differentiate from the past. This team is trying to create its own story, its own history, while also paying homage to the past."
It's a story that Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, who won three Super Bowls with the Niners, can appreciate. "Everyone expected so much of us back then, expected us to always win," Rice said. "This new generation of players is out there paving a new identity for the team."
After the 49ers beat the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, Mayberry and Ali Towle, the Niners' director of marketing, flew directly to New Orleans. They set up shop in a large conference room inside the Marriott, the team's hotel, and filled it with gear -- thousands of backpacks, hats, T-shirts, coasters -- stamped with the Quest for Six logo. With only one more win to go, the campaign might seem like a no-brainer now, but that was hardly the case a few months ago. "There was debate about the word 'quest' and whether that was presumptuous," Towle explained. "And we were saying, 'No, it's aspirational.' If it doesn't happen this year, we can still be on that journey. A quest is by its very nature challenging."
And so Towle and her staff of 11 built a campaign that allowed 49ers fans to join that quest, launching it right before the playoffs. As Towle points out, a key part of representing San Francisco is being able to harness technology. The Niners are the only NFL team with its own YouTube page; they also have the largest Instagram following of any franchise. When the 49ers won their divisional playoff game over the Green Bay Packers, Towle's group updated the Quest for Six logo to reflect that victory, changing the first stripe from red to gold. After the win over the Falcons, both stripes became gold.
"I think in the back of our minds it's really about pushing the envelope with technology and being cutting-edge," Towle said. "Of course, winning helps a lot. The team was in so much transition before, and we had so many unsuccessful seasons, that for years we called our fan base 'The Faithful' and everything had to revolve around that idea, because we had so little to talk about other than the loyalty of our fans, which we cherished."
In recent weeks, the marketing team has been able to capitalize on ideas and trends that have started organically, whether at the grassroots level among fans, which is where Mayberry first saw the phrase "Quest for Six" being used sporadically, or within the locker room itself, such as during the 2011 season, when head coach Jim Harbaugh introduced the slogan, "Who's got it better than us? Nobody!"
It's all about building the brand.
"What we do is so fluid, and it can't be super-strategic all of the time," Towle said. "We have that conversation a lot: 'We don't think our fan base will like that.' And we're lucky we have people like Ben, who grew up there and understand the team and the fans, because they are our gut check. Sometimes it's just about going with what feels right. This was one of those things."
The marketing folks are already working on ways to update the #QuestforSix campaign if the Super Bowl turns out as they hope. In fact, Mayberry seemed eager to talk about what will come next, but then Towle cut him off, worried about jinxing it all.
Whatever the result on the field this Sunday, their own quest will continue into the offseason.
"Maybe it's just a good slogan, but I think it's more than that," Mayberry said. "I think it's about defining the future without forgetting our past."