Sometimes You Need to Let the Town Drunk Coach the Team

And Other Brand Strategy Lessons from 'Hoosiers' Coach Norman Dale

By Published on .

Tom Denari
Tom Denari
Is your brand competing effectively?

With the NCAA's Final Four approaching this weekend in Indianapolis, it seems only appropriate to take some brand strategy lessons from Norman Dale (aka Gene Hackman), coach of the Hickory Huskers, the fictional, underdog Indiana state champions from the acclaimed sports movie "Hoosiers."

Work on the boring stuff, like defense and ball handling, first. When Coach Norman Dale arrived at Hickory High, he didn't just roll out the ball and start scrimmaging. Instead, he wanted to see what kind of talent he really had, and then he worked his players tirelessly on the basics of the game to ensure their fundamentals were sound. Dribbling around chairs and doing defensive drills wasn't fun for his players, but these basics had to be sharp before they'd be ready to play a game.

Too often, new CMOs want a quick fix, thinking a new campaign or a new ad agency will solve everything. They choose to jump into the most outward demonstration of change -- the advertising and communications plan. While it's the easiest aspect to adjust, a new campaign will make the least amount of difference if your brand's fundamentals aren't right.

Before you change your campaign, ask yourself a few questions. Can you easily state your brand's promise? Is your brand's product offering deficient in any way? Is your pricing appropriate? Does your service model support what your brand stands for? Until these basics are tended to, the communications part of the equation is meaningless. Too often, we forget that brands are more about the consumer's experience with a product than the ad campaign that tries to sell it. One of the best examples of a company that gets this is Zappos, which is completely focused on the unglamorous, hard work of getting its service model right. Making sure that its service is consistent at every consumer touchpoint has paid big dividends beyond any ad campaign it could have produced.

Sit the player that doesn't follow the game plan. During Hickory's opening night of the season, Coach Dale yanked star player Rave out of the game, even though he was making one-handed set shots one after another. Why? Because Rave wanted to play fast and loose, ignoring his coach's game plan of passing five times before shooting. Despite Rave's early scoring, his coach knew that instilling discipline and sacrificing short-term gains would lead to team success later.

Especially given the current environment, exercising discipline is difficult. What are you doing in the name of short-term results that you'll regret later? Are you selling a product that doesn't fit your brand promise? Are you discounting to the point that it's mortgaging your brand strength? Don't forget that a brand is not static -- it's either getting stronger or weaker. Which direction is yours headed?

Don't listen to the chatter at the barbershop. Hickory's coach wisely ignored his critics at the barbershop when they questioned his unique methods. Dale knew that his unconventional approach wouldn't necessarily be the most popular.

When you're looking to do something bold and unconventional, the toughest audience is often those inside your company that are used to doing things a certain way. Conventional wisdom can be a powerful force that often holds brands back. Resist this inertia and stay the course, even when others are questioning the direction. Just know that anything at odds with the status quo will attract attention -- and doubters. But, also remember that it's the best way to break through and compete effectively.

Sometimes, let the town drunk coach the team. Letting "Shooter," the town drunk and basketball savant (aka Dennis Hopper) coach the team may have seemed like a crazy idea, but Coach Dale relied on his own intuition to take a calculated risk. His vision paid off later in the season, when Shooter drew up the game-winning "picket fence" play.

Too often we rely on the numbers to give us the courage to take a risk, even when we know something will work. This reliance on ensuring success causes us to miss windows of opportunity that don't stay open for very long. Look at some of the greatest marketers, who have combined consumer insights with imagination, leading to "crazy" products that people want, like four-dollar-coffees and phones that play videos. Pay attention to your customers and trust your gut.

Give your fans something to root for. A high school basketball game was the most important event of the small town of Hickory, because the basketball team defined the self-esteem of the town. Each and every citizen lived and died on every shot, as if the team was a part of them.

Irrational? Sure. But, don't forget that a brand is an emotional (and usually irrational) relationship between people and products. People want to be a part of brands that they feel reflect who they are. How does your brand make your customers feel about themselves? What does your brand reflect on them?

Once customers become a part of your brand, they want it to succeed just as much as you do.

They become fans.

They root for your brand.

And then you win.

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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