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How The Chicago Cubs Brand Strategy Is Embracing The W

For more than a century the club’s identity has been as baseball’s lovable losers. Now what?

How The Chicago Cubs Brand Strategy Is Embracing The W

For the first time in 108 years, the Chicago Cubs are starting a Major League Baseball season as the reigning World Series champs. Let that sink in for a minute.

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As stories go, last fall’s run for the Cubs, and its inherent historical significance, is about as good as it gets. And for a marketer, it’s an absolute gold mine. Selling tickets and merchandise to old fans and new bandwagon passengers should be as easy as hawking beer and hot dogs at a ballgame. Just open the door and turn on the cash registers, right?

But as the 2017 MLB campaign kicks off, the Cubs aren’t taking any of last season’s success for granted, and that goes for the marketing department, too.

“The parade was on November 4th, an November 5th we woke up and said, ‘OK, now what?'” says Cubs vice-president of marketing Alison Miller. “We had always pitched how this is the most remarkable journey in sports. But we know there is another pivot in the brand and its voice. We’re seeing this as a bit of a new era for Cubs baseball. We won, but now there’s a new expectation, so what does that mean for the brand going forward?”

Good question for a team whose identity had been so tied to that century-long drought, whose image as the lovable losers was about as ingrained in the fabric of sports culture as the ivy-covered bricks in Wrigley’s outfield. It’s easy to love an underdog. But a champ can be more complicated sell. As a brand, the team had to figure out how to keep its identity while leaving the losing behind. In order to figure out the plan from here, the team had to stick with the fundamentals that got them here in the first place.

How To Sell A Loser

When Miller arrived back in 2012, the Chicago Cubs marketing department consisted of two people. The story of how the team turned things around on the field is well-documented, starting with hiring Theo Epstein in 2011. And while Epstein went about building a winner on the field, president of business operations Crane Kenney doubled the size of the team’s front office, and updated everything from sponsorships to season tickets. Miller, a former packaged goods marketer at General Mills was part of that front office transformation.

“When I came in during the summer of 2012, my first things were, Where’s our brand architecture? Where’s our brand narrative? What’s our brand voice? What’s our positioning statement? What are our reasons to believe?” says Miller. “All those fundamental marketing and brand documents that I was used to having or building at an organization like General Mills, they didn’t have them. They didn’t exist.”

By early 2013, Miller had begun building her team–now at 22 people–hired a new ad agency in Chicago-based Schafer Condon Carter (SCC), and spent a lot of time building all those documents that are core to traditional branding and marketing, asking questions like, “What are our consumers are saying about us?” “What do we have to talk about?” “What about this product and brand do we want to leverage?” And coming off a 101-loss season, the team’s worst record since 1966, they had to figure out how to position the product to a fanbase that’s been waiting for more than a century for a championship, to whom Theo Epstein had said to prepare for a lot more losing. Not exactly a winning tagline.
SCC president David Selby says they decided to use that newfound honesty around the team’s chances as a marketing tool. “We embraced that transparency, and wrote this brand voice around the deep bond between the team and its fans, and the sense we’re together in this epic journey,” says Selby. “We can’t promise winning, but we can certainly promise resilience, we can promise hope, and the one overriding thing we can promise is commitment. It didn’t talk about winning or the team, but the fans and their stories. We made promises around how we knew what they wanted, and we wanted them to know we were working on it.”
The team hosted season ticket holders in a theatre in Chicago to hear from owner Tom Ricketts, Kenney, and Epstein, who outlined the team’s commitment and plan for the next few seasons. Miller says the response from the fanbase was phenomenal. “It was all around thanking us for finally telling them what was happening, that we had a plan,” she says. “So even though our team wasn’t that good on the field at the time, we did use a lot of our social channels to highlight the positives coming through the system–look the AA team just won, look at this young pitcher, to show them the talent was coming.”

“What do lovable winners look like?”

 Now that the epic journey is over, at least that century-long one, the brand is faced with figuring out how to ditch the “lovable losers” label without losing its soul.

“Being lovable losers had always been such a big part of this brand and its fanbase, but what do lovable winners look like?” asks Miller. “Can you be lovable and a winner? And we talked about this with Theo and (Cubs general manager) Jed (Hoyer), around what lovable winners look like, and a lot of it is around a love of, and humble approach to the game. As we think about changing the voice, they still play really hard, run out ground balls to first base, they still back up their teammates on throws to home, they’re still out in the community, still stopping to sign autographs. How do you stay humble and likable as a team? So we challenge ourselves on that. Now we have this new challenge to show the world what lovable winners look like. That’s not out tagline, but it’s our internal narrative going forward.”

That’s Cub

The idea of humility in sports marketing may sound counterintuitive, but Miller and Selby think they’ve found a way to do it. The club’s marketing tagline this season is “That’s Cub,” meant to reflect hard work and humility, amid the champ’s confidence.

“The last two years it’s all been about ‘Let’s Go!’, inviting people in and having a sense of confidence and urgency for winning,” says Selby. “Now, it’s ‘That’s Cub.” Which is a statement of how we’re going to be, going to act as winners, who we are.”

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It may sound like just another ad slogan, but Miller says it actually comes from deep within the organization. “For many years, ‘That’s so Cub’ was a negative, like losing in the bottom of the ninth on a walk-off to the Cardinals,” she says. “But in the minors a few years ago, they were winning the single-A championship, winning in AA and AAA, and some of the players started saying ‘That’s Cub’ about playing hard and winning. So it started from within the club with the players.”

Lessons Learned

Honesty in advertising may sound like an oxymoron, but for Miller it was a policy that paid off significant dividends that she sees laid the foundation for fans to not only enjoy the World Series win that much more, but help them stick with the team in tougher times. Not to say it was easy.

“I remember discussions back in 2013 where we’d say, ‘Are we really going to tell our fans that we’re not going to be competitive this season?’ Taking that risk of saying the product is broken and we need the fans help to repair it,” says Miller. “It’s about saying, we recognize we’re not good at this, this, and this, and make a commitment to our consumers to make that experience better. Having the courage to do that is a lesson I can see. When I worked in packaged goods, if you were losing market share and your brand was in decline, you were always trying to figure out a way around it. But you can draw a line in the sand acknowledging where your brand is, where it wants to go, what the plan is to get there, and then be honest with your customers about it.”

Selby points to Domino’s as a prime non-sports example of the same approach, when the pizza chain admitted it’s pizza wasn’t great and it wanted to make it better.

“That level of transparency really builds great empathy,” says Selby. “It’s the antithesis of hubris. When you think of iconic brands with storied legacies, those relationships are precious. There are going to be bumps along the road, but to be able to buffer those with a relationship with your customer that makes them stick with you is very powerful. Too few businesses today embrace the power of humility and transparency in how they manage the narrative of their brand voice.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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