Brands, and more specifically, executives of those brands, always want the secret formula to “go viral,” but going viral isn’t a simple task. I like to describe it as making bread. While you may have a recipe and the artistry to create a gorgeous loaf, it takes time, all the right ingredients at the right time, constant monitoring, and, more often than not, someone waking up in the middle of the night to check on the progress and address any concerns.
But a brand needs to be more than clever campaigns; they need to have established values, goals, and a reason for your audience to engage with you. We live in an era of seemingly endless content. If you don’t give us a reason to engage, we will scroll past you in less than a second.
Successful brands will create a social media experience to drive engagement and capture fans. They understand their audience and leverage that information to create compelling content to illustrate their brand message. Brands that put time, resources, and creativity into narrating who they are and what they do, build a loyal fanbase of followers that not only engage with their content but actively seek it out.
This year, I’ve got my eyes on the infamous duo Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds.
Say what you want about celebrity-owned brands, but these two caught my attention in 2020 when headlines broke about two Hollywood interested in purchasing a football club in Northeast Wales, Wrexham AFC. Wrexham plays in the National League, the fifth tier of the English Football League, and has played there for the last 15 years.
McElhenny, a massive sports fan, got the idea to purchase a football club after watching the docuseries Sunderland ’Til I Die, recommended by his colleague, Humphrey Ker. Ker explains in an interview with the Athletic that as soon as McElhenny finished the box set, he approached Ker with enthusiasm saying, “We should do this, we should buy a club and make a documentary.” Shortly after the research began, McElhenny secured a massive financial and creative win: he partnered with Ryan Reynolds.
McElhenny held onto his vision and created a docuseries to follow the purchase and the inevitable first-year struggles of Wrexham AFC. The show, Welcome to Wrexham, is available on FX, home of McElhenny’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Hulu as it follows Rob and Ryan through their first season of ownership. Just one week after the season one finale, Welcome to Wrexham was renewed for season two.
From the beginning, what set these two apart from the rest wasn’t just their celebrity status but their commitment to the town of Wrexham to do a good job. Reynolds shares with the Athletic,
“…we are going to do our best to make sure that the success of the club is commensurate to the success of the community, and vice versa. So a lot of it was kind of finding that multi-pronged approach, because the community and the club are so linked that you really can’t tear them apart and you really can’t grow one without growing the other.”
Celebrities have been crossing into the business sector for decades. This story is unique because McElhenney and Reynolds have the receipts to back up their wild ideas. Reynolds is the co-founder of the film production company and digital advertising agency Maximum Effort, which he sold to the ad tech company MNTN in 2021 while remaining the chief creative officer. He is also the majority owner of Aviation Gin and Mint Mobile, all while producing viral marketing campaigns like Nick Cannon’s Vasectomy for Aviation Gin and a series of ads for AMC’s The Walking Dead finale featuring brands like DoorDash, Deloitte, and Ring.
McElhenny, on the other hand, produces a hell of a lot of television. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, co-created by and co-starring McElhenny, is the longest-running sitcom of all time, completing 15 seasons last year, and was renewed by FX for up to 18 seasons. His newest venture, Mythic Quest, available on Apple TV, finished its third season in late 2022.
So ya, these two know a thing or two about branding, storytelling, and success. Right now, Wrexham AFC is competing in the Emirates FA Cup and, as of this writing, has made unbelievable progress that one author jokes that their last match was “straight out of a Hollywood script.” A heartbreaking draw for Wrexham late in the second half means a replay against Sheffield United, who play in the English Football League Championship, the league under the Premier league. Regardless of the outcome, Wrexham, a fifth-tier team, played on par with Sheffield United, a second-tier team. Not many professional sports teams can say they participated in a competition of that magnitude.
Fans of Welcome to Wrexham have been singing praises since its release in August 2022. With a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a Critics Choice Award, the show captured sports fans all over the world with a true underdog story. But the show is much more than sports; for brands, you are much more than the products or services you offer.
In 2023, brands need to take cues from content that inspires. Here are five ways brands can learn how to create compelling, viral content by watching Welcome to Wrexham.
Right out of the gate, Rob and Ryan take a strategic risk and, oops, buy a football club. At the beginning of the series, it feels like they fell into it, but as it is later revealed, it was a long, complex process. As the series progresses, they take more strategic risks, like choosing to redo the pitch, change up the coaching staff, and purchase more high-profile players. Each decision is a substantial investment and watching the behind-the-scenes conversations, you get to see how leaders choose priorities based on their established budget and overall strategy.
Strategic risks are essential for brands of all sizes. It requires you to have established goals (and values!) and a strategic plan in place to assess the risk appropriately. Without goals and a strategic plan, taking risks is a shot in the dark. Whether playing with millions of dollars or a much smaller budget, it is better to know what you are signing up for or passing on.
Brands take risks all the time, big and small. Reddit’s super bowl commercial was a risk and a clever one. Instead of dropping the $6.5 million to have a 30-second super bowl commercial spot, they paid for just 5 seconds of airtime. A big swing for R/GA, the agency responsible for the ad, paid off with more than 6 billion impressions, a 25% increase in website traffic, and won the Cannes Grand Prix Lion for Real-Time Response.
Not all risks are immediate, and it’s important to know your return while investing in your brand’s long-term success. Although some risks don’t pan out, it is better to try to be innovative than not try.
The most captivating part of Welcome to Wrexham is the storytelling. There are introductions to the team, coaching, and legal teams, but what makes the show charming are the stories of the people of Wrexham. We follow Shaun Winter, a super fan who discusses what Wrexham AFC means to a father-son relationship. We follow a volunteer, Kerry Evans, who works with the club to ensure people with disabilities can enjoy the matches and safely travel to away games. We follow a series of local Wrexham fans to emphasize what English Football is all about — the people.
It would have been easy for Rob and Ryan to make this series about their ownership, featuring the two of them the entire time. Instead, they bring us on a tour of Wrexham to feature the town, the culture, the history, and the people that have supported Wrexham AFC for generations. As we learn, the fans are the only reason the team exists today. In 2011, after a series of poor ownership and uprisings caused by unethical leadership, the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust was founded to purchase the club and end the cycle of poor performance.
The people of Wrexham have a lot of what we see in sports fans: heart. They care deeply for their club, and it shows. Unlike other sports documentaries, you fall in love with the characters of the town and become so invested in their stories you almost forget matches are going on. Almost. Take one look at Ollie Palmer, and you’ll remember him forever.
So many brands today want virality over substance, which is a mistake because what makes the best content is when content has a purpose beyond clickability. Sure, brands that pump out content can still have a massive following and do relatively well; but the brands we remember, and use as examples of how to do it right, show us their Why. The people of Wrexham are the Why. And the people of Wrexham are what make this docuseries far exceed others.
The number of times I have sat in a creative meeting discussing a branding refresh only to be struck down and “keep it the same” is mindblowing. A brand is much like a person because you have a style, a voice, and values. And much like a person, we often need a haircut, or an updated look, to match our new perspectives or milestones.
Immediately in Welcome to Wrexham, Rob, and Ryan share their plans to update the stadium and clubhouse. Entire sections of The Racecourse — the name of Wrexham’s stadium — haven’t been operational for years. The weight room and training areas are minimal, and as Rob and Ryan tour the grounds for the first time, we see their faces absorb how much of an investment is needed to be competitive.
A refresh isn’t cheap — er, rather, a good one isn’t cheap. However, once you make that initial investment, you can incrementally update areas in years to come. A refresh isn’t like Extreme Home Makeover, although, admittedly, that is one of my favorite Always Sunny episodes. Strategic planning allows you to update small brand elements throughout the year, or span multiple years, to minimize short-term costs. What matters most isn’t the pace but the continuous effort and innovation. Making even minor updates to brand elements can make a significant difference. Brand managers and designers shouldn’t be afraid of change but rather use it as an opportunity to attract new leads and create compelling content.
The best advice I can give to brands is just to get started. Agree to little updates, and test those updates with your audience. Complacency is for brands that lack innovation and have given up on growing as a business. A brand comprises dozens of elements, from the design of social media pages and website pages to communications templates and marketing materials and even the look of the office space. There are so many ways people interact with your brand; if it goes unchanged for decades, it starts to look old and forgotten. Your brand look is the first thing people associate with your business, so refreshing it to be relevant, clean, and inviting is always a good investment.
It is hard to believe some brands choose not to utilize the billion-dollar industry of influencers. I certainly can understand why they choose not to; it can be scary and intimidating when you don’t know how something works. Rather than navigate this whole new world, many brands outsource it to agencies or bypass it entirely.
The Influencer market is now a $10 billion industry. By 2025, experts project Influencers to produce more than $20 billion globally. Influencers are successful because they have spent years building content and a dedicated fanbase. Their audience trusts them and their opinions, so when they recommend something, their audience responds. Good influencers align their values with the products they endorse, and brands with successful influencer programs utilize their resources and connections to solidify those partnerships.
There is no better Influencer than an in-demand celebrity. Ryan Reynolds speaks for himself; the world would follow him off a cliff if they could. He has over 80 million followers on social media that hang onto his every word, video, and gif. Rob McElhenney, has a slightly smaller audience with a little over 2 million followers on social media, but that is still more than most, if not all, your employees.
Rob and Ryan immediately utilized their social influence, posting about the team, sharing stories and game highlights, and even poking fun at their self-promotion. They partnered with other Influencers, including a rare social media appearance by Danny DeVito, to grow the brand and bring attention to this historic undertaking of revitalizing a football club in the fifth-tier English Football League. They recognized the power of social media, especially their personal pages, and used it to their advantage.
In 2023, there is no reason why a brand shouldn’t be using Influencers. Even those with the smallest marketing budget can utilize Micro-Influencers, or strategic planning to use on a case-by-case basis. Influencers help large and small teams, often supporting a small brand more than expected. Influencers have their own creative process; they film or provide assets and follow the guidelines for posting, eliminating work for your social manager or graphic designer. While setting up an Influencer program is time-consuming, there are several Influencer Management platforms to make life easier. Influencers help your brand look original, authentic, and creative. Choosing to ignore the power of Influencer marketing is a choice that may cost you business.
I could express that authenticity is the crucial component for making a brand go viral, but in reality, most brands don’t know who they are and therefore struggle the most with authenticity. To be authentic, you need a deep understanding of your brand, mission, voice, and, most importantly, your WHY. The Why, a concept by Simon Sinek, is your profound purpose for existing, not only to sell a product or produce capital. Discovering your brand’s WHY requires leadership to collectively think of a motive beyond making money. Without a purpose or a compelling vision, your brand cannot hope to be authentic.
As mentioned, the most compelling part of Welcome to Wrexham was the storytelling of the fans, loyalists, townspeople, and employees. They kept the lights on for years before Rob and Ryan even entered the scene, but now because of their status globally, they run the show. What is most impressive is Rob and Ryan never imply they know what is best — even though strategically and with their business partners, they very well may. Both argue that while they have experience growing brands and telling stories, they don’t have experience growing this brand and telling this story.
Recognizing your limitations, and bringing in experts to guide you in those limitations, is what turns a boss into a leader. There is no shame in not knowing the answer, but there is shame in pretending to know what is best while ignoring all evidence or opinions that differ from your own.
What I suggest, above all else, is to put the people first. The people that have made your brand what it is today. The people who have purchased your product have spent years building loyalty with your brand. Listen to your audience, poll the customers, and take stock of what could be improved and what should be left behind entirely. People are interacting with your brand daily, far more than most executives, so choosing only to take advice from people in charge is a quick way to lose touch with reality.
Brands are made of PEOPLE, and the moment you forget that is the moment you lose authenticity.