The paradoxical Chicago Cubs. The brand succeeds even when team doesn’t.

May 17, 2010


Yet the brand prevails…

Could “sucking” be a brand virtue? The notion seems counterintuitive but I wonder if in one case sucking might actually benefit a brand.

I should define sucking. For the purpose of this discussion, I mean the act not being good. For example, I suck at golf. I can’t even hit a ball off the tee. Thankfully, this fact does not harm me in any particular way. I am not expected to be good at golf. God’s plan for me does not include acumen for the game. If I were an account executive, one could argue my lack of golfing skills impedes my ability to cultivate important client relationships. True or false, the point is a moot one. Assuming people can be considered brands, mine is not affected one way or another by sucking at golf.

I’m not digressing. For herein lies the critical distinction for my argument. In order for sucking to be considered a legitimate brand virtue, the brand –be it person, place or thing- needs first to first be something ordinarily expected to be good but for some reason… isn’t.

Take the Chicago Cubs. Please. Here is a major league team that has not won a World Series since 1910. The last time they appeared in one was during World War II. Frankly, the Cubs seldom make it to the post season and when they do they don’t stick around very long. By most criteria, The Cubs suck. So much so they are often referred to as “Lovable Losers.”

Lovable? Well, for one thing they regularly sell out beloved Wrigley Field, no matter what their record. WGN consistently scores huge ratings for Cub’s games, despite their record. Interestingly, WGN delivers a national audience for the Cubs, sustaining and creating fans all over the country. People love the Chicago Cubs even though they suck. Why? Fans typically point out the venerable, old ballpark as a reason. The fact that the Cubs play in the heart of one of Chicago’s most pleasant and fun-filled neighborhoods, Lakeview attracts executives, pretty girls, tourists and gay people –people who ordinarily wouldn’t go to games. The Cubs are transcendent.


“The Cubs are hot!”

But one hundred years of sucking? I can’t think of any other brand that could survive under these terms, let alone thrive.

Just look at Chicago’s other professional baseball team, the White Sox. They are held to an entirely different standard. When they suck attendance drops, ratings flag, and everyone but the diehards lose interest. Like any other team in professional sports, winning is mandatory. As the White Sox’ new slogan suggests: It’s Black & White.

If the Chicago Cubs suddenly became a great baseball team what would happen to the brand? The hysteria would be off the chart. Fans would go bonkers. But then what? The Cub’s would be held to a new standard, wouldn’t they? Folks might not tolerate sucking anymore. For the first time in a long time, The Chicago Cubs would be taken seriously. And if they started sucking again, they might not be taken at all. At least not like before. Therefore, sucking can be viewed as a brand virtue for the Cubs. The brand scores precisely because the team does not. Truly a paradox, I can’t think of any brand on earth with such a hall pass. Can you?

At this writing the Cubs were 16 and 22, fourth place in the Central Division.

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21 Responses to “The paradoxical Chicago Cubs. The brand succeeds even when team doesn’t.”

  1. jim schmidt said

    Everything James Patterson writes falls into this category. Beloved and mediocre. As do the movies of James Cameron, the cd’s of the Dave Matthews Band and the food of McDonalds, the beer of Budweiser and the cars of GM. Americans love mediocrity. The Cubs are just one of many examples.

    • SRP said

      Jim-

      I thought of some of your examples, which I more or less agree “suck.” But here’s the distinction: people don’t generally expect much from those brands. People take junk food and escapist movies for what they are. A pro sports team is expected to win. When the Cubs don’t win, people still pay, buy the caps, etc… Why is that?

  2. Curvin O'Rielly said

    I love the Cubs. Always have. Of course, I’d love them a lot more if they could eke out a few more wins. I’m also a Yankees fan. But I’d root for the Cubbies (in a New York minute?) if they ever played the Yanks in a World Series. Fat chance of that ever happening, right?

  3. jim schmidt said

    the cubs are expected to lose. they’ve done so for over 100 years. that’s their brand and they’re being true to it.

  4. Interesting points. In the past decade, other “lovable losers” in sports, such as the Red Sox, (Devil) Rays, and Saints — have won championships (or come close) and shed the tag. Of course, the Red Sox didn’t really suck all of those years before; they had to overcome the “Curse of the Bambino” and get over the Yankees hump. But my point is, they can no longer play the underdog card, which works well for the Cubs’ faithful (who point to their own billy goat “curse”).

    It would be interesting to see the effects of the Cubs becoming a champion (if nothing else, the law of averages would seem to favor it). Sort of reminds me of an old Warner Bros. special when Wile E. Coyote caught the Road Runner. As I recall, he held up one of his signs that read something like, “Well, this is what you’ve waited for. Now what?”

    Since there are few, if any, sports dynasties left, I suspect the Cubbies would go right back to sucking a year or two later and no major rebranding would be necessary. “Wait ’til next century” would become the new mantra.

  5. jim schmidt said

    stef, sports is entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. and the job of entertainment is to separate you from you money. the cubs, like patterson and cameron are good at this. and it has nothing to do with the quality of the offering, but rather the shallow level of escape all three provide.

  6. Brad said

    What did you search to find that pic of the female fan? Just curious because she’s my girlfriend (seriously).

  7. Curvin O'Rielly said

    You’re a lucky man, Brad…

  8. Gordon said

    White Castles. The fact that an excess of alcohol is necessary to have a positive user experience is a commonality with the Chicago Cubs brand.

  9. Preparation H sucks but the effects are loveable. Grape Nuts suck – lead to Prep H.

    “Suck but Loveable” is rare.

    Garfield the Cat? Tiny Tim sucked. Charro sucks but is loveable. Cher? NBC sucks and is loveable – Cathy and Hoda?

  10. Madison said

    Maybe being a Cubs fan is not as much about the brand PER SE as about fellow consumers of the brand aka. fellow fans that self identify themselves as Cubs fans.

    Like with Phish concert goers who do not care that the group has not had a hit in years – the COMMUNITY around the brand is what matters. To some extend it can be also said about B movies aficionados – it’s not the quality of the entertainment but about what the choice of the movies says about the VIEWER.

    Unlike fans of winning teams with stars like A-Rod, Cubs fans feel that THEY are the REAL stars of the brand (by the virtue of their loyalty and support). That can be quite gratifying …

  11. jim schmidt said

    One other thing. I went to a Cubs game this past week and I’m really not sure how many fans really care about the game. They seem a little more interested in all the “other” stuff.

  12. Funnyside said

    Another sports brand:

    The Toronto Maple Leafs.

    They suck year in year out and haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1963.

    Yet Maple Leaf fans experience collective amnesia at the start of every season, rubbing their hands together thinking: “This is it. I can feel it. This is the year we do it”.

    Then when they don’t make the playoffs at the end of the year it’s quickly justified: “Oh well, it was a rebuilding year”.

    And the greatest irony is that while they have crappy, impoverished talent on the ice, they remain one of the richest sports franchises in the NHL.

    Their primary purpose has morphed into playing as as a background event for corporate companies to talk business rather than playing to win.

    Painful, painful to watch.

  13. piggtailbitch said

    correction, the cubs haven’t won a world series since 1908. Yes, that’s two more years of sucking. 102 years instead of 100. how is it no cub fan here saw that mistake?

  14. Paul Teller said

    As a Yankee fan I finally get it. Several years ago I had the pleasure of seeing my first Cub game at Wrigley. Clemens was going for his 300th win against Wood. As luck would have it the Cubs actually beat the Yankees in inter-league play that day. The Yankees lost but I had that perfect Wrigley experience. Losing didn’t matter and I had one of the most enjoyable days of my life.

  15. [...] almost a year ago today, I wrote a piece about Chicago’s lovable losers, the Cubs. I wrote that the Cubs brand transcends its reputation for losing, suggesting that losing [...]

  16. [...] almost a year ago today, I wrote a piece about Chicago’s lovable losers, the Cubs. I wrote that the Cubs brand transcends its reputation for losing, suggesting that losing [...]

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