On the eve of the Final Four as I reflect on my busted bracket, I felt compelled to reprise a piece about branding and basketball – with some fresh updates, of course.
So here’s the gist: there’s a lot that brands can learn from the game of basketball. But not just any game. I’m talking about pick-up ball – the game played on playgrounds across the globe, where those who truly got game, got it in the first place.
Full disclosure: I am the son of a college basketball coach. Growing up, my father’s parenting style was more Johnny Wooden than Dr. Spock. So I suppose it’s no surprise that as CMO of a brand and design agency, I continue to I look for guidance and inspiration more from the likes of Jimmy Valvano than David Aaker (Not to take anything away from Mr. Aaker. For all I know, he’s a total baller).
The biggest lesson pick-up ball has to offer brands is this: modern brand strategy must focus on building organizational resilience and agility as much as it does on consistency of messaging and image. Resilience and agility, more than anything else – size, positioning, benefits, image – are the most sustainable competitive advantages.
We see the competitive advantage of resilience and agility manifest itself in pick-up ball all the time. It’s not always the biggest or most talented teams that win, but rather those that are able to quickly come together and play as a team, out hustle their opponents and adjust to changes in the game. The speed, intensity, raw physicality, and unpredictability of playground pick-up games are what bring your game to another level. Team dynamics constantly change. No blood? No foul. There are no time-outs. Only go time. The fundamentals that you practiced over and over have to kick-in purely on muscle memory.
The same holds true for brands. The game played on the digital playground is exponentially faster, rougher, and more unpredictable than ever. The brands with the greatest ability to mobilize cross-functional teams to adjust and take bold action in real time are the ones that will end up on top.
Here are five fundamentals that can help your brand learn to thrive on the court:
1. Get Tribal – Just like pick-up ball, building brand agility is a team effort. It starts with a mindset of living for your people, not off them.
Yet so many brands today still speak in terms of marketing to a “target” as if they were some savage, foreign subspecies, completely separate from the people they interact with every day. As a result, their brand efforts feel like a con game. Eventually, consumers get wise (and even revolt).
As a brand, you have to be one with your pack. You need to be in lockstep with your consumer in order to build the trust, empathy and intuition needed to quickly act and react in ways that add value and build loyalty. Follow us, join us, share with us (and eventually buy us) are the new calls to action in the connected age.
No brand knows this more than Glossier. As CEO Emily Weiss stated in a recent Recode Decode interview, “The way we look at it is that we’re building this people-powered ecosystem. We have co-created since we launched four and a half years ago, with our consumers. The reason we’re able to do that is because we know who they are. We have a direct relationship with every single person who buys something from us, unlike all of the incumbent companies that have been built through retail channels.”
The digital age has broken down the barriers between consumers and brands. So much so that there really is no excuse why any brand isn’t regularly engaging in a pick-up game of co-creation of some kind on a regular basis.
2. Know Your Purpose – Why do you play the game? Seems like a simple question, but it’s amazing how many brands don’t have an answer.
Ironically, the edge that fuels the most successful basketball teams has little to do with traditional objectives of winning. The great programs inspire a level of play and a sense of team that is bigger than the game itself. What’s more, when the game is as fast as it is today, the advantage will always go to the players who have a common understanding of not only how they play best together, but why that style of play matters.
Getting to that level of inspired play starts with knowing your brand purpose. Positioning is a helpful framework to remind you what messages (benefits, RTBs, etc.) your brand needs to repeat, but it doesn’t do much to inspire advocacy. That’s the job of purpose.
For brands that compete largely based on the experience that their employees and brand reps deliver, the role of purpose cannot be understated. John Dwyer, President of AT&T Prepaid Wireless, recently attributed the growth and success of Cricket Wireless in large part to the clarity and dedication they have to their purpose. As Dwyer states, “When you have purpose, you have an engaged workforce that makes the brand special in the eyes of customers, because they believe what they are doing is meaningful.”
He’s clearly on to something. Cricket passed the 10 million subscriber mark in February, doubling their subscriber base in just four years. What’s more, the brand was ranked #1 in the 2019 J.D. Power Awards for Wireless Customer Care.
3. Stay Tuned-In To Culture – Paying attention to shifts in the game is what allows you to pivot and adjust without losing sight of the ultimate goal. For brands, the shifts to focus on are not only those within a competitive category, but the broader shifts in culture. Brands that understand this are able to maintain their relevance even as cultural tastes evolve. Brands that don’t, die.
Arby’s, once a stalwart among the classic QSR brands, had been working to stem not only their sliding sales but their decline in relevance for years. While the restaurant brand enjoyed a loyal following, the brand was falling out of step with a culture craving more intense, higher quality, better-for-you food experiences. In a world of flavor excitement from brands taking stands, Arby’s was just bland. But it wasn’t content to stay that way. Recognizing the cultural shifts happening around them, they were able to identify what it was about the Arby’s brand that had the most potential to connect. Bring on the meats! The brand’s “Fast-Crafted” strategy transformed the truth of their brand into a meaningful experience for a new generation (and a whole lot of growth for the company).
4. Act On Your Best Behavior – If purpose is the articulation of your brand’s ultimate goal, then behaviors are the fundamentals that your brand should practice day-in-day-out.
Historically brands have only sought to define what they’re like through the use of adjectives and cleverly placed adverbs for an additional layer of specificity (ex. delightfully seductive). This is helpful in succinctly describing the brand’s personality, but it’s not very helpful in informing team members what the brand does in order to earn that personality.
Patagonia is brand that knows how to walk the talk (or rather climb, surf, ski, the talk in their case). The brand state’s very plainly that they “are in business to save our home planet.” Lofty? Certainly. But for Patagonia, it’s more than just an A for effort. They’re backing it up and they have the receipts to prove it, literally. When the company learned of the tax rebate they would receive from changes to the tax code, they announced that it would be giving all of it, approximately $10 million, to environmental groups they support. While the positive PR received from this kind of action could be viewed in a cynical light if it were other companies, it’s hard to go there with Patagonia. Their track record on taking strong pro-environmental stances speaks for itself. And so do the company’s sales. Patagonia says that revenue and profits have quadrupled over the past seven years. Turns out letting your people go surfing can be good for business.
5. Hustle – Whether we’re talking pick-up ball or the world of brands, the undeniable truth is that the game is fast and highly situational. Every shift in events, every new moment is a new opportunity – motion creates emotion. Overly vetted decision-making by committee may feel like prudence, but it kills agility and takes the life out of your brand. Steps 1-4 are there to develop the collective intuition needed to live and act as a brand in real time.
For this edition, I’m giving the hustle award to Miller Lite for their response to the overworked Bud Light Super Bowl ads. Bud Light purchased over 5 minutes of air time during the Super Bowl. The ads they ran were high-production value vignettes with a Game Of Thrones theme. In the ads Bud Light criticized Miller Lite for using corn syrup as a key ingredient. Now, while the attack was certainly weak and just confusing, Miller Lite wasted no time to retaliate. The brand immediately took to Twitter, letting consumers know that yes, Miller Lite does indeed use corn syrup. It’s what makes Miller Lite taste better than Bud Light. Oh, and btw, Bud Light has more calories. Miller Lite followed up with a full-page ad in the New York Times, explaining that corn syrup is a natural ingredient that adds flavor in the brewing process. They also explained that “corn syrup” is not the same as “high-fructose corn syrup” to clear up any confusion. Miller Lite was able to ride the very expensive wave that Bud Light funded, positioning themselves as the confident guys taking on the insecure bully. Nice hustle!
Resilience and agility are not gained overnight. It takes time and a commitment to building the muscle memory needed to quickly act and react in ways that continue to drive value. Taken together, these pointers can help brands get both the home and away court advantage in an always-on world that is getting faster and more dynamic each day. The brands that can thrive in this new environment – the brands with resilience and agility – will continue to win.
See you on the court.