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Hawks CEO shows UNG students how to build brands

Steven Koonin CSS 2015
A UNG student takes a selfie with Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin following Koonin's presentation, which kicked off the 2015-16 Cottrell Speaker Series.

"Concentrate on your brand's focus" and "don't be afraid to fail" were just a few of the key messages that Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin shared with students at the University of North Georgia (UNG) during the first session of the 2015-16 Cottrell Speaker Series.

Hosted by the Center for the Future of North Georgia in UNG's Mike Cottrell College of Business, the series supports the college's vision of "strong graduates, strong communities" by bringing top-tier executives to UNG campuses to showcase to students how these individuals have steered themselves and their companies toward growth and success.

"The Cottrell Speaker Series is an opportunity for students and faculty to interact with business executives who are leaders of their respective fields," said Dr. Ruben Boling, director of the Center for the Future of North Georgia. "This year we have an impressive list of executives who are making huge impacts in their industries and organizations."

Koonin oversees all business, financial and strategic operations of the Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena, and represents the owners as the head of the organization. A longtime entertainment and marketing veteran, he joined the Hawks after spending 14 years with Turner Entertainment Networks, most recently serving as division president. His talk with UNG students highlighted strategies he has employed to solve marketing challenges or shift a company's brand in a new direction.

He began with "the chicken crash of 1986," during which a new sandwich created by McDonald's helped drive up the price of chicken. As a marketing executive for Coca-Cola, Koonin was tasked with finding their client, Church's Chicken, a way to sell more chicken until the price leveled out and keep the franchise from moving to another soft drink provider. His idea produced the popular Manute Bol and Spud Webb meals, named after two prominent players in the National Basketball Association.

Among his many successes, Koonin helped build the brands of television stations TNT and TBS during the early 2000s, re-imaging them as homes for "drama" and "comedy," respectively. This included cancelling TNT's most profitable show at the time, WCW wrestling. At TBS, his guidance led to a new comedy created during a "dearth of comedy shows" that targeted a specific, under-represented demographic, the very successful "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," which also helped launch the career of Atlanta native Tyler Perry.

Koonin wrapped up by discussing his entry into the Atlanta Hawks professional basketball team as CEO in 2014. Six weeks into his new position Koonin began orchestrating a rebuild of the team's brand, built on the position to "unite and entertain Atlanta through basketball."

"It is very important to tailor your marketing and messages to your audience," Koonin said. "In this case, we wanted to build a new culture from scratch that was focused on commitment to our communities."

The next speaker in the series is Susan Bell, partner of the National Power & Utilities Sector Financial Accounting & Advisory Services on Nov. 2.

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