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December 20, 2012

Learning to play the game: What football can teach us about marketing

I was watching my Tennessee Titans play this past weekend with a couple of friends, one of whom I hadn’t seen in a while. In addition to cheering on our team, we were also getting caught up on each other’s lives. I told him I had started a marketing consulting firm earlier this year. He’s an operations guy for his company and doesn’t quite understand marketing. He thinks it complicated – always changing, hard to measure, etc. I tried explaining it to him with standard sorts of comments but it just wasn’t sticking.

Then I remembered where we where and what we were doing and realized that for him to get it, I would need to put it in terms he would understand. So I decided to explain what marketing is and its role in an organization through the eyes of a football fan.

Just score, baby!
What’s the job of the quarterback? Easy – to efficiently and successfully lead the offense down the field, utilizing all available plays and players, and score on a consistent basis. Doesn’t sound glamorous when stated like that but that’s what quarterbacks do. And the ones we all recognize – Montana, Elway, Unitas, Bradshaw, Marino, Starr (and more recently, Manning, Rodgers, the other Manning and Brady) – are hall-of-famers (or will be) because they scored more points than the competition and won more games on a regular basis.

And during every drive they ever lead down the field, they were going over game films in their heads, taking direction from sideline coaches and watching what the defense was doing but their goal was simple and direct: score!

In business, the purpose of marketing is also simple and clear – to help drive revenue to the company. If your marketing doesn’t help to do that, then you are wasting your time and your resources. Marketing is not about winning awards or impressing your stakeholders. Good marketing is about one thing and one thing only: revenue!

Have a game plan
Watch any football game, from the pros down to the peewee level, and what do you see on offense? The coach decides on the play and communicates it to his quarterback. In the huddle, the quarterback relays the play to his teammates. They break huddle and go to the spot on the field required of them for that particular play. And then they execute. The linemen block, the receivers run their routes, the running backs get ready for the handoff and the quarterback takes the snap.

Rarely, except in my backyard when the neighborhood kids are playing, is the call, “OK guys, just run around the field in a random pattern and I’ll find someone to throw it to.” There’s preparation and planning. There’s a process.

And so it is with marketing. Marketing is not luck or gut feel or magic or serendipity. Successful marketing is the result of a well-planned, disciplined, step-by-step approach to growing revenue.

Keep score
In football, they keep score. We, of course, know the score of the game. We also know how many passes the quarterback attempted and completed, as well as touchdowns and interceptions. We also know how many sacks the defense had, how many turnover they caused, how many yards the running back ran for, the average yards gained by the punt returner and much more. Why do we measure these things?

First, to see who wins the game. And, as importantly, to see which plays are working and which ones aren’t; which players are producing and which ones aren’t; and where the coaches might need to spend a little extra time at the next practice.

In marketing, we measure our efforts too. Why? For the same reasons as in football – to see what’s working and what’s not. If it’s working, do more of it. If it’s not working, stop doing it or figure out a way to improve the results.

There’s an old saying in marketing that goes, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” That is a situation you do not want to find yourself in.

Be committed to winning
It’s the fourth quarter of a critical game with your biggest rival. There’s a minute and a half left to play and your team is driving. You’re executing the two-minute drill to perfection. Then, all of a sudden, on second and short, one of their linebackers comes on a delayed blitz and sacks your quarterback for a seven-yard loss. Ouch! What do you do?

While you may make an adjustment to pick up that linebacker the next time he blitzes, what you don’t do is abandon your two-minute drill plan. If you’ve studied the films, practiced the plays and believe in your plan, then keep right on going.

In marketing, it works the same way. If you’ve done your research, established solid strategies and are executing the tactics as planned, then give your marketing plan a chance to work. Too many business owners give up on their plan if it’s not generating immediate returns. Rarely do those kind of returns happen. To be successful, marketing requires a sustained, multifaceted approach to move your product/service/company from unknown to recognized to preferred in the minds of your customers and prospects.

Work as a team
While there is no doubt that the quarterback is the leader of his team, he is also just part of that team. He doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Imagine if the quarterback took the snap but the linemen didn’t block, the receivers didn’t run their routes or the running backs just stood there. The quarterback would be left out to dry and it would be a disaster. The quarterback is absolutely impacted by the other players on his team.

Now imagine if those roles were reversed. What if everyone on the team was doing his job, except the quarterback? Think about the quarterback throwing when he was supposed to hand off or handing off when he was supposed to throw or just standing there and not even taking the hike from the center. Every player on the team is significantly impacted by the play of the quarterback.

The fact is, the quarterback and his teammates are inextricably tied to one another. Every play. Every game. All season long.

To be successful in business, you must also understand that marketing impacts and is impacted by every other department in your organization. Too often, marketing is relegated to some corner of the building with instructions like, “Create a sales brochure for us” or “We need a Web site.”

To maximize the return from your marketing efforts, they must be fully integrated into every aspect of your organization. They must know what’s happening around the company and the company needs to know what happening around the marketing department. Finally, make sure marketing has a voice at the executive’s table. They need to understand and give input on the strategic direction of the organization.

Be a student of the game
Peyton Manning is on pace to become the most prolific quarterback who ever played the game. If he stays healthy, he should break every significant quarterback record tracked by the NFL: attempts, completions, total yards and touchdowns.

What makes Manning so successful? Is he a quarterback just on Sundays during the fall and winter? Of course not! He’s so successful because he’s a quarterback all year long. He is one of the great students of the game in the NFL. During the season and, more importantly, in the off-season, he is continually reviewing game films of the Broncos and their competitors. He stays in great physical shape. He practices pass plays over and over again. Peyton Manning has been so good for so long because being a successful quarterback is what he thinks about all year long.

As a business owner, if you want your business to break sales records and keep growing, then you need to think about marketing all year long. Too many owners go through the effort to craft a marketing plan, use it for a little while, get distracted and then let it fall to the wayside until next year (or maybe forever).

Marketing requires the same kind of discipline as your financial or operational functions. It must be discussed regularly at group meetings. Marketing should be providing regular updates on their activities and they must be held accountable, just like everyone else.

Prepare to win
On Sunday afternoons in the Henke household, we gather around the TV (no season tickets, dammit!) with a buffet of snacks and beverages to watch our Tennessee Titans battle with their competitor that week. We watch them fight for three hours and in the end, they either win or they lose. And that’s our perception of professional football.

But there is so much more to it than that. What we don’t see is the weeks and months of training and practicing, coaches’ meetings, scouting, two-a-days and learning and running the plays over and over again. So while the coaches enter the game with a game plan, what’s really important is the planning, preparing, scouting of the competition and thinking through the what-ifs.

Well guess what? That’s how marketing works too. While you want and need a marketing plan to work from, what’s really important is the planning, preparing, scouting of the competition and thinking through the what-ifs. If all you want is a plan without the planning, then download a template off of the Internet, fill it in and you’ll be done in no time. And you’ll get what you pay for. The real power of the marketing plan is in the planning. Take the time and do it right.

Take what they give you
Imagine you’re a coach. You study game films, talk to scouts, review the league injury reports and pour over stat sheets as you prepare your team for your next game. It’s a big game, with one of your most-hated rivals and you couldn’t be more ready. Your plan is to run the ball right down their throat. Good ol’ smashmouth football.

The game starts and it appears that your opponent is ready to defend against your running game. They’ve done their homework too! To keep them off balance a little, you throw a few short passes and they work pretty well.

As the game progresses, because your competition is poised for your running attack, you begin to enjoy more and more success with the pass. So what does your opponent do? They drop back to defend the pass and now, your running game starts to open up. Beautiful!

As the coach, you are reacting to the conditions and situations. You’re taking what they’re giving you.

In business, you need to pay attention to the market in a similar way and be prepared to respond to it. Just because you want to sell it, doesn’t mean that anyone wants to buy it. Or better yet, be prepared to sell what the market is asking for.

When I was president of 20|20 Research, we started out as a focus group facility and recruiting firm but when our clients started asking about taking their focus groups online, we listened. And in the period of a few short years, we developed several different online qual platforms because it’s what the market wanted. The result? We tripled the size of the company and became a leader in online research – but only because we listened and responded.

Make sure your fans enjoy the game
Imagine you own an NFL franchise. Now, think about attending a football game from the fans’ perspective. What’s important to them? That their team wins, to be sure. But their enjoyment of the experience with your team goes well beyond the final score.

In addition to a good “product” on the field, they’re going to be remembering (and relating to their friends) their entire experience. How quickly the lines moved (or didn’t) when getting to their seats. How clean the restrooms were (or weren’t). The cost of the concessions. The overall appearance of the stadium. The halftime show. And so on and so on. Their perception of your team is based on much more than just the game’s outcome.

Now put you business hat back on. Are your customers happy fans? You must include in your marketing thinking some things not normally associated with marketing. That will include items like the way your phone is answered (friendly receptionist vs. automated voice attendant), your billing process (easy and accurate vs. inconsistent and riddled with errors), project personnel (friendly and helpful vs. a that’s-not-our-policy attitude), your salespeople (friendly and professional vs. used-car salesman approach), the appearance of your offices and so on.

Give thought to the three Ps: your products, processes and people. Remember, not all marketing is marketing.

You still have to execute
There was a very memorable television commercial produced for Xerox back in the ’80s (I think). In it, a football team needs one big final play to win the game. The coaches on the sideline hurriedly draw up (with all the appropriate Xs and Os) a play the team had ever seen before. They make copies of their document (on a Xerox copier, of course) and give one to each player.

The players get into position, literally holding the copy of the play in their hands as their guide. When the ball is snapped, each player does exactly what is shown on the diagram. The quarterback passes the ball as shown and – what do you know – the receiver catches it in the exact spot as planned. Amazing.

I bring this up not to tout the benefit of copiers but to reinforce that after the all the planning, preparing and training, you still have to execute and execute well. In marketing and sales, you plan your work and then work your plan. Without solid execution, all of your strategy and planning mean nothing.
The quarterback of your business

I hope this little football story has helped to explain marketing and its role in your firm. Marketing is the quarterback of your business so let it lead you down the field to new clients and new revenue.

Down, set, hike!

This article was originally published for Quirk’s.

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