Brand Management: A Redskins Case Study

Smart companies realize that they no longer control their brand.  Social media has given voice to the consumer and democratized public opinion.  Brand’s have become like NASA-launched deep-space probes.  You build them, design them and then launch them into the ether and hope you maintain contact, can exert some control and avoid being hit by a meteor.

There’s notional evidence that social media provides over-amplification for the disgruntled few as the satisfied masses remain silent.  You make someone angry and they now have a soapbox.  Savvy marketeers monitor the tweets, twits and blogs and transparently, non-obtrusively engage in communications to influence the influencers and shape the conversation. Comcast does this well.  Amazon and Dell do this well. Daniel Snyder and his NFL team, the Redskins? If they were a NASA designed deep-space probe, their brand would be, “Houston we have a problem.”

Some marketers pretend they can control public opinion.

Case in point, Daniel Snyder.  Daniel Snyder and his sister created a multi-billion dollar empire from the sale of their company, Snyder Communications. Snyder Communications was a direct marketing company – the kind that interrupted your dinner with a phone call because they thought you would rather switch phone companies than spend quality time with your family.  Those countless interruptions provided the capital to purchase a Washington DC Institution… The Washington Redskins.  Unfortunately, he has attempted to exert so much control and yet so successfully damaged the brand that even Congress has higher approval ratings than Mr. Snyder.

For the 30 year period prior to Snyder’s purchase of the team in 1999, the Redskins winning percentage has dropped from a 30 year average of 53% to a lowly 45%.  Playoff appearances have dropped from an average of 1 per season to less than .5 per season and Superbowl appearances and wins went from .17 and .1 per year to a big goose egg.  All this while paying big money for failed coaching experiments and wooing away expensive superstar free agents who just didn’t pan-out.

Censoring the media.

A couple days ago, the hosts of a local Snyder-owned radio station, ESPN980, asked fans for input on the difference between the teams who had made it the conference championship games this past weekend and the Redskins.  Asked to call in to suggest what was the Redskin missing I called in with the following answer, “The missing ingredient was competent ownership.  We could easily fix our problem by trading our owner and a couple draft picks in exchange for the owner of the Steelers, Mr. Rooney.”

And you know what the call screener told m?  “That’s funny but I’m sorry we can’t put that on the air.”  You see it’s like this, Danny owns that radio station and like Tom Cruise in the film, “A Few Good Men,” Danny can’t handle the truth, and even if he did, he doesn’t understand that in this new age, he can’t squelch the truth.

This is just one symptom of a disease that goes much deeper.  Traditional media people are afraid of retribution from the Redskins organization if they speak-out too harshly.  There are people in the media who know that if they want access to the Redskins they have to play by Snyders rules.  His employees can keep naysayers off Dan’s radio stations.  He can ban former Redskin hero’s from earning a living on Daniel-run stations, as he did with Redskin’s Superbowl XIV hero and star running back John Riggins after Riggins spoke out against Redskin mismanagement.  He can bar access to the press that speak out too harshly but he can’t hide the truth of the facts.

The internet and social media are forces that can easily distort the truth, and yet thanks to the law of large numbers the truth eventually wins out.  Mr. Snyder is living in the old days of his past success.  The days when telephone services were sold by interrupting your dinner.  The era when a privileged few could broadcast and control the message to the many. The days when brands were controlled by traditional broadcast and print media.

Many companies understand that traditional media is a way of launching your brand, but it no longer allows a company to control the brand.  Eventually, like a deep-space probe, external elements like solar flares, radiation, meteors, Twitter, and blogs exert more and more control.  You can design a brand strategy like you design a space probe – you can launch it, you can give it directions and try to control its path. But in reality, it is out there and very quickly in deep space on its own. You just can’t prevent it from being crushed by a killer asteroid.

Brands, you can’t hide from the truth.

You have to design your brand with integrity and purpose.  You can plan its path and make adjustments, yet when it’s out there… it’s out there on its own.  When it gets tarnished, you can’t pretend it’s still shiny. You can’t block or avoid the facts.  By trying, you facilitate presiding over the disintegration of your brand. The truth is the truth and there are too many independent empowered voices with too many channels to successfully suppress the truth. Heck, if the government couldn’t keep Wikileaks from disclosing that Gaddafi likes blond nurses, then let’s face it….someone’s going to figure out that under current Redskins management, the brand sank faster than any Six Flag roller-coasters on that first harrowing drop, which is not as fast as six flags stock dropped to bankruptcy after Snyder purchased the company.

Social media is out there and a major force.  It is not only used by school kids to flit and flirt. Smart brand managers listen to what people are saying and skillfully get themselves invited to the conversation.  They conduct themselves like interested, caring adults and they shape, not control their brands.

Good corporate social media strategy calls for marketeers to act as honest agents on the new media stage.  Transparency and integrity are key.