Embrace the Possibilities of Change


I am a lifelong baseball fan. It was my favorite sport growing up, and today I eagerly countdown the days until spring training camps open for MLB teams. It means two things: 1) baseball season is coming and 2) it will bring spring weather with it! MLB has taken its share of lumps in recent years in the court of public opinion. Prodigious home run totals by Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa were tarnished by allegations of performance enhancing drug usage. And, the sport has lost favor among young people as they have gravitated toward other sports and interests that are more fast-paced than the plodding flow of a baseball game.

Weighing Changes to the MLB Product

Major League Baseball is at a pivotal crossroads. The business of MLB is doing quite well, thank you, with robust revenues from media contracts and sponsorship deals. However, fan relationships with MLB are somewhat tenuous. We have many options for entertainment, including some that do not involve sports and do not require leaving home to venture to a stadium for several hours.

The position that MLB finds itself in has prompted new commissioner Rob Manfred to explore ways to streamline the game consumption experience and pack more action into it. Among the changes proposed by MLB are:

  • Speeding up the pace of game play– One of the criticisms of baseball has always been the slow pace of play relative to other sports. This difference is magnified in a world in which we allow ourselves little down time- we multitask, watch top 10 plays of the day, and gather sports news 140 characters at a time. MLB experimented with rules changes to speed up play in the Arizona Fall League including a no-pitch intentional walk (rather than throwing four balls on purpose to walk a batter), maximum 2:30 break between innings as well as during a pitching change, and no more than three “timeouts” per team during a game.
  • Increase offense by reducing size of the strike zone– Scoring has decreased steadily since an all-time high of 5.14 runs per game in 2000. Last season, MLB games averaged 4.07 runs per game, the lowest since 1982. The league-wide strike-out rate was the highest ever and the walk rate was the lowest since 1968. One reasons blamed for the decline in runs scored is an expanding strike zone. A review of strike zones in MLB found the average strike zone expanded from 436 square inches in 2008 to 475 square inches in 2014. MLB rules committee will monitor the size of the strike zone in 2015 and consider making changes beginning with the 2016 season.

No rules changes have been made yet for any of the product elements mentioned. But, give MLB credit for acknowledging that issues exist and taking steps to evaluate how to make the product more exciting for fans.

What can be Learned from MLB about Product Marketing

Marketers can benefit from the situation that MLB is currently facing. Specifically, three steps that MLB has taken that could ultimately lead to a better product are:

  1. Acknowledge flaws– Some of the business metrics for MLB suggest all is well, but leadership is savvy enough to see that flaws exist in the product. When a business is unable or unwilling to acknowledge its weaknesses, there is little chance they will be overcome.
  2. Learn from others– If your business is falling short in some way when it comes to delivering the best customer experience and you acknowledge it, a useful first step can be to observe how others have dealt with similar issues. In the case of MLB, it has borrowed practices from the NFL and NBA to incorporate video review of uncertain umpire calls and the pace of play experiments. Sometimes, you can even go outside your industry or category to learn from other firms’ successes in improving the customer experience.
  3. Don’t assume– While there has been much talk about pace of play diminishing the MLB consumption experience, it may not be the culprit when it comes to turning off prospective baseball fans. It has been pointed out that the length of NFL and college football games have increased, yet the popularity of those sports is as high as ever. If MLB focused all of its product improvement efforts on speeding up the game because they thought that is what mattered to people, it would have overlooked the decreasing run scoring trend. One of the easiest traps we fall into as marketers is a false belief that we understand what is happening in the market and know what our customers want because of our experience. Simply put- don’t make assumptions!

Will MLB implement changes that it has been floating? The brand has one other characteristic that is somewhat unique; baseball is a sport steeped in tradition. Change may be hard to sell to traditionalist fans. But, given that businesses operate in environments that are ever changing, it is incumbent on all marketers to embrace the possibilities of change.

Evaluating Service Performance is no Mystery

As someone who spent time in retail management and even more time as a marketing researcher, I am a proponent of mystery shopping. Enlisting persons to assume the role of a customer or shopper to evaluate a service provider’s performance gives an unfiltered view of employee performance. In a retail setting, mystery shoppers can assess touchpoints of the service encounter such as how quickly they are greeted (if greeted at all), salesperson’s product knowledge, selling skills demonstrated, closing attempts, and transaction execution. Findings can be used to give positive feedback to employees who are observed demonstrating desired behaviors or to give coaching to employees who do not meet expectations.

Recently, Sports Business Journal ran a story about a study by IntelliShop of ticket sales employees for Major League Baseball teams. Mystery shoppers were used to evaluate salespersons’ attempts to build a relationship with someone calling to inquire about tickets as well as whether the customer was invited to visit the ballpark to learn more about season-ticket options. The study was not sponsored by MLB, but one would think it would be very interested to know how its teams fared in terms of serving potential ticket buyers. Apparently not! A MLB spokesperson quoted in the article said “While I haven’t seen all of the data, I think anyone would question the results of a survey where the research company aggressively solicited more than two-thirds of the league to forge a business relationship. They are incentivized to demonstrate a need to teams, one that they can fill. It is a clear conflict of interest.”

I assume that the MLB spokesperson has neither worked in marketing nor has a grasp on the concept of a mystery shopper. Question the results? Clear conflict of interest? The spokesperson’s dim view of the survey’s findings may be attributed to some teams scoring very low in terms of: 1) percentage of mystery shoppers invited to visit the ballpark and 2) salespeople’s efforts to build rapport with mystery shoppers when they called. Instead of taking a defensive posture, MLB teams should embrace the data… especially since they did not have to pay for it!

Mystery shopping is a valuable market research tool for uncovering strengths and weaknesses, individually and organizationally, in delivering outstanding customer service. Rather than feeling compelled to engage in PR-speak when results are less than ideal, MLB and its clubs should be thrilled because they now have insights into how their ticket sales personnel’s interactions with buyers are perceived. In effect, mystery shopping removes the mystery of identifying areas of improvement in enhancing the customer experience.

Use Celebrity Endorsers to Engage, not Impress

Celebrity endorsers have been used for decades by advertisers seeking to benefit from the familiarity and likeability of athletes, entertainers, or other famous people. Often, marketers do not fully leverage their association with celebrities. For example, ads in which the endorser is merely pictured or otherwise does not engage the audience with the story behind his or her association with the brand misses an opportunity to connect with the audience. A memorable example I once saw was an ad in a marketing trade magazine several years for a mailing list service that featured NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana. His picture was in the ad, and while he flashed a nice smile it never was clear what his connection was to the product. I never knew Joe Montana was a mailing list expert (but he is a marketing expert if he could get a company to pay him to endorse the product!).

In contrast, I like the approach used by Unilever to integrate celebrity endorsers into its campaign for Dove Men+Care skin care line. The company has enlisted Major League Baseball personalities such as St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi in a video series. The “Journey to Comfort” campaign will feature 90-second videos as well as longer clips featuring the baseball stars (see a Pujols video here). A sweepstakes is part of the campaign, too, with the grand prize being a meeting with Pujols and watching him take batting practice.

Dove’s “Journey to Comfort” campaign is not guaranteed to move the sales needle, but then again no campaign has that capability. What the campaign does guarantee is a glimpse into the lives of three baseball heroes. The endorsers share personal experiences and stories in the videos that will allow fans to see a different side than the baseball accomplishments for which Pujols, Pettitte, and Girardi are known. A video campaign like the one Dove is conducting has the potential to effectively target men through their interest in baseball, getting their attention with the access to three well-known MLB personalities. The campaign sells Dove Men+Care in a subtle manner, connecting the brand to the lives of men via the MLB endorsers. And, it is a stronger customer relationship to the brand that will ultimately positively impact sales.

Marketing Daily – “Dove Links with MLB Figures for Videos, Sweeps”

The Cause Marketing Taste Test

Two recent cause marketing campaigns caught my attention. Both are for the same cause, both campaigns are from well known brands. Yet, one campaign has generated criticism of the sponsor and the cause, while the other campaign receives kudos for the sponsor and the cause. What is the difference in the two campaigns? Let’s take a look.

The cause is one of the most recognizable in the United States in recent years: Susan G. Komen for the Cure. This nonprofit organization is viewed as the standard bearer for raising awareness and money to fight breast cancer. The campaign that has played to favorable reviews is Major League Baseball’s “Going to Bat Against Breast Cancer” campaign. Players donned pink batting gloves and wristbands, and pink bats were proudly used in yesterday’s games across MLB. Fans can even purchase pink bats at MLB.com, and $10 from their purchase will go to Komen.

The other cause marketing campaign involving Susan G. Komen for the Cure is a partnership with KFC. The “Buckets for a Cure” campaign involves KFC donating 50 cents from each bucket of chicken sold, with a goal of $ 8 million. As of this post, more than $3.1 million has been raised by the campaign. KFC has a microsite dedicated to the campaign and is supporting it with social media. A KFC Twitter post even gives a nod to the MLB pink bat offer as Louisville-based KFC promotes another hometown firm, bat manufacturer Louisville Slugger.

So, what is the problem? KFC and Komen have been criticized for their partnership. Specifically, critics are quick to point out incongruence between a cause promoting women’s health and the unhealthy properties of KFC’s fried chicken. When sponsor and cause are perceived as incongruent, the impact a sponsor hopes to achieve in terms of favorable image, greater brand goodwill, and even sales increases may not be realized. In this situation, consumers call into question the motives of the sponsor- does KFC really care about the cause, or is the sponsor exploiting the cause to make money?

The criticism of KFC’s Buckets for a Cure is unfortunate and shortsighted. First, give the folks at Komen some credit that they see that the partnership will be perceived as a bad fit by many people. To that end, the partnership focuses on KFC’s grilled chicken. Moreover, KFC has a national platform to raise awareness for the cause, not to mention raise money. KFC is succeeding at doing both, and the money that will go to Komen is hardly tainted. KFC’s customer base includes women who will potentially be impacted by the influence of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. And, KFC’s male customers are part of the picture, too, as many of them have mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters who have dealt with breast cancer.

MLB and KFC have something in common: they have great reach and influence among large numbers of people. One of the most significant contributions a business can make is to use its influence to give back to stakeholder groups that are unrelated to its core business. The need met by Susan G. Komen for the Cure will not go away, unfortunately. If there are brands like KFC that can make a difference in the lives of those persons impacted by breast cancer, they should do it and be recognized, not criticized, for their support.

MLB Network: Why”All Baseball, All the Time” Will Work

The fourth U.S. professional sports league that has launched its own television network is Major League Baseball. MLB Network, launched January 1, joins the NFL, NBA, and NHL as leagues with their own cable TV channel. In some ways, launching a network focusing on a single sport is ill advised at a time when competition is abundant and advertisers’ budgets are shrinking. Nevertheless, MLB Network appears to be poised to succeed.

What does MLB Network have going for it? First and foremost, it has distribution. Lack of distribution dooms more new products to failure than any other factor. MLB Network launched with an audience of more than 50 million households, larger than the other three leagues’ audiences at their launches. Second, MLB Network brings brand equity on several fronts. The MLB brand itself is strong, as is the equity brought by its 30 clubs. Moreover, MLB Network personalities like Bob Costas and Harold Reynolds will be familiar faces to baseball fans. Finally, MLB Network will benefit from an abundance of content it can carry. Activity among Major League teams is constant from mid-February through October. Any gaps in programming can be filled relatively easily with classic games, features on old timers, and coverage of minor leagues, to name three possibilities.

I am looking forward to my first season having MLB Network as a resource to help with my fantasy baseball efforts… and I can use all the help I can get!

Link: Media Planner Buyer: “MLB Network Appeals to Media Buyers”

Advertising on MLB Uniforms: Strike Out or Home Run?

The Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s will kickoff the 2008 MLB season with a two-game series in Tokyo March 22-23. The games will not only mark the only time the teams will play outside North America, but it will also be the only time their uniforms feature corporate advertising. The Red Sox have struck a deal with EMC, a Massachussetts-based data storage company, for ad patches on their uniform sleeves. Both teams will have logos of Japan’s Ricoh Co. on their helmets.

Advertising on sports teams’ uniforms is not unusual in countries outside of the U.S. In our country, ads have encroached seemingly every inch of space at our sporting venues except for players’ bodies. Venues have corporate names and signage is everywhere from the turnstiles to toilets. Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition, and corporate logos on uniforms certainly is not part of that tradition! An uproar occurred in 2004 when MLB considered putting ads for the “Spider-Man 2” movie on bases for one weekend. It is highly unlikely that American sports fans will change their views just because uniform ads are accepted practice in other countries.

While there is no indication that MLB is considering allowing uniform ads, it may be testing the waters by allowing the Red Sox and A’s to wear ads in Japan. The economic state of baseball is probably as good as it has ever been, so there is not an urgent need to tap into the revenue stream that could come from uniform ads. and considering the game has more important issues to deal with (i.e., steroids), allowing uniform ads would not be a wise move at this point in time. Link