Inside Louisville Slugger's Game Plan to Beat Upstart Rivals, Score Young Players

Marketer Aims to Reinvent Itself, Show New Generation How to Bat Like a Man

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At Procter & Gamble Co. nearly a decade ago, Kyle Schlegel was trying to refresh Old Spice, a brand popular among dads and grandfathers but losing relevance to young men. Now, as VP-marketing at Hillerich & Bradsby, he's got nearly the same challenge with Louisville Slugger.

With the MLB Prime line, Louisville Slugger is the first bat maker to sell the product used by MLB players at retail.
With the MLB Prime line, Louisville Slugger is the first bat maker to sell the product used by MLB players at retail.

So Mr. Schlegel has spent the past year reapplying some lessons from his old gig to his new one, culminating with the official debut of Louisville Slugger's new logo and marketing effort during opening night for Major League Baseball on ESPN on March 31, along with a social-media effort including the #LeaveYourMark hashtag.

Compared with Old Spice, Louisville Slugger is a stronger brand in a smaller business. It commands a 60% to 70% share of the U.S. wood-bat market, which has more than $25 million in annual sales. And its bats are used by 55% of MLB players, Mr. Schlegel said -- certainly a good position, but south of its share in the general market.

That's just one worrisome sign for the 129-year-old brand. While Louisville Slugger market research shows awareness scores north of 80% among baseball and softball players and the brand has affinity scores that beat Harley Davidson or McDonald's, it's losing cachet and recognition for product performance among top high-school and college players. They're the big customers, coaches and influencers of tomorrow, and they've been migrating to newer, hipper brands such as Marucci and Demarini -- the brands taking the "Axe" to Louisville Slugger's market share.

"The best thing that ever happened to the Old Spice brand, at least in the past 15 to 20 years, was the launch of Axe, because it made everybody get focused on what was really working and what wasn't," Mr. Schlegel said. "We have a similar situation at Slugger."

Two numbers that concern him most are the percentage of coaches recommending the brand and the number saying the best players on their teams use Louisville Slugger products, Mr. Schlegel said. "We were in third-, fourth-, fifth-place territory vs. competition on some of those," he said. "Those are huge indicators of the perception of today's products."

Kyle Schlegel, VP-marketing, Hillerich & Bradsby
Kyle Schlegel, VP-marketing, Hillerich & Bradsby

And, he said, "today's 16-year-old doesn't see history as a benefit."

The solution, not unlike what Old Spice did, is a balance of modernizing the brand and its products without forgetting where it came from. For Old Spice, that meant trying to shift from being a "dad" brand to being a sort of older brother helping younger siblings "navigate the seas of manhood."

Demarini and Marucci are "borrowing from skater culture and things like that," Mr. Schlegel said. "But we talk about how when you're ready to put down the toy and pick up a man's bat, it's a Louisville Slugger."

In other words, how to bat like a man.

So the restage launching this year, besides the first logo update since 1979, includes a major product upgrade. The MLB Prime line makes Louisville Slugger "the first and only brand to take exactly the same product we give to our Major League players and make it available at retail for the elite college and high-school players," Mr. Schlegel said.

That carries more weight given that the MLB product has improved substantially the past year. A rising number of shattered maple bats in prior years led MLB to institute an ink-drop test during manufacturing to ensure grain lines are as straight as possible. The test led to a 60% decline in bat breakage last year, Mr. Schlegel said.

Louisville Slugger will incorporate that ink dot into online, print and in-store advertising for MLB Prime. MEplusYOU' class='directory_entry' title='Ad Age LookBook'>MEplusYou, Dallas, is lead agency on the relaunch, with Omnicom's Interbrand having handled design, including the new logo, and Doe Anderson, Louisville, handling PR. Partnerships with MLB, Baseball America and big sporting-goods chains such as Dick's Sporting Goods will also play a key role, Mr. Schlegel said.

While he declined to disclose spending, it's well under his eight-figure media budgets at P&G. Hillerich & Bradsby, with estimated sales of more than $100 million, had measured media of just around $100,000 the past two years combined, per Kantar Media. The company is about a seventh the size of the last business Mr. Schlegel worked on at P&G, the Herbal Essences and Aussie brands.

But relationships loom large in the bat business. Just one MLB player goes through 120 to 140 bats a season at north of $100 apiece.

Chuck Schupp, director of professional baseball for Louisville Slugger, has been on the business nearly 30 years. And according to Mr. Schlegel, he is sought out by players when he enters a clubhouse rather than the other way around. He's been busy touting the brand restage in spring training, where the once-a-year aggregation of major- and minor-league players into Florida and Arizona training camps makes it prime time for equipment sellers.

Relationships with pros alone, however, no longer cut it, Mr. Schlegel said. So Louisville Slugger increasingly targets top college, high-school and even younger players, sponsoring select travel leagues for elite youth players and getting 10 of the top 30 college teams under contract, all, as he puts it, to "get ahead of the curve."

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