Sports may be a metaphor for life but not for marketing

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A friend and colleague, a fan of the game of baseball but one with shifting team loyalties-which he justifies based on having only recently discovered that he likes the sport-asked me to explain how I can remain a fan of the Yankees even as they turn in their most dismal early season performance in more than a decade.

My instant answer, that of a lifelong, die-hard fan: How could I not?

I didn't give the question much more thought at the time, but that night I climbed into the back of a gypsy cab in Harlem to discover the driver was listening to the Yankees-A's game on Spanish-language radio. I picked up enough of the broadcast to grasp that the Yankees, fresh from being swept by their hated Boston rivals, were down 8-4 to Oakland late in the game. "Not again," I said to the driver. "But," she said in broken English, "full house, no outs." The bases were loaded.

Her optimism was well-placed; the Yankees went on to win the game 10-8 and snap their losing streak. And my thoughts returned to the earlier question.

Pro sports leagues are as marketing-savvy as any business. So if the Yankees are a brand, and a brand is essentially a promise to the consumer, why do fans remain loyal when the product doesn't deliver on its promise? At least in the opening weeks of the 2004 season, the players in pinstripes did not deliver the quality of product expected of those who wear the Yankee uniform. This all-star lineup had the lowest batting average in the American League. It was as inconceivable as opening a bottle of Heinz to discover watery, tasteless ketchup. If it happened more than once, or even once for some buyers, Heinz's hard-won consumer loyalty would evaporate.

There are, of course, case studies of consumer brands that survived crises that should have felled them. And there is hard evidence that fair-weather fans will abandon a sports team that's not playing well; there were empty seats at Yankee Stadium for the better part of the `80s. But loyal fans have an emotional bond nearly impossible to break. The Cubs make a good counter-point to the Yankees; the team's fans are just as true despite not having won a championship in 3,000 years. You could argue that the Cubs are consistent losers, that they deliver on what has become an unfortunate brand promise. But the real lesson seems to be that the rules that apply to most traditional consumer brands don't apply to sports teams.

So ball clubs may have little to learn from brand marketers. But perhaps brands can learn from the sports teams' ability to develop ties with their consumers strong enough to withstand the toughest challenges.

I put the question to Simon Dumenco, the editor who, along with Kurt Andersen, just relaunched Colors magazine for Benetton. Their first issue was dedicated to fandom, and I wanted to know what Simon had learned about fans' near-unshakeable brand loyalty.

"There are a lot of similarities between how brands are marketed and sports teams and stars are marketed," Simon said. "The difference is that we give sports teams and especially celebrities the benefit of the doubt because there's an extra layer of metaphor with fandom of fellow humans.

"If sports is a metaphor for life, we're looking for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. They're fans not just of the game but of the narrative."

Consumer brands, then, have little chance of replicating that relationship, despite attempts to imbue products with personality. "Nobody," said Simon, "wants Coca-Cola to taste bad one day and come back the next."

Good point. Go Yankees.

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