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“Let’s play two.” -Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks

I grew up in the shadow of Wrigley Field, which, though now hard to believe, was a sketchy neighborhood at the time. It was really only safe during Cub’s games. But on those days it seemed the sun always shone. If you weren’t at the game you could hear it blaring on “Chicago’s own” WGN, from literally every open window and door. Back then kids like us would catch the players after a game walking to their cars. Ron Santo. Don Kessinger. And of course, Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. Even after losing, which was often, he’d smile and sign an autograph. Wish I still had mine.

Ernie Banks died last year. in honor of his team’s first World Series birth since 1945 (an event he sadly cannot see and one in which he never participated) here is a reprisal of some words I put together after his passing. Among other things, it perhaps sheds light on how a team so mediocre for so long retains its loveable mystique.

During his Hall-Of-Fame career in baseball (if not his lifetime) one likes to think Ernie Banks was without sin. He was not only a superior ball player but by all accounts was a superior man as well. Always happy. Always grateful. Always willing to sign an autograph, even after losing, which the Chicago Cubs did often. Granted he played before the prying eyes of social media but Chicago’s sportswriters were not known for their subtlety. If he’d been a cheater or a bad dude chances are we would have heard about it.

Contrast him with what we now have going on in the NFL and professional sports in general. Like night and day, right? Unlike Ray Rice, Barry Bonds or Tom Brady, Ernie Banks played for a perennially losing team. Yet, it seemed, he was always smiling. “Mr. Cub” also was a black man playing in a sport that, when he started, still had a “Negro League.” That could not have been easy. Yet, where was the defiance and even the attitude? Can you imagine Ernie Banks yelling into the cameras like Richard Sherman –a multi-millionaire who had just won the biggest game in sports? No, we cannot.

Before one states that Ernie Banks played in an era when things were proper and pleasant think again. His peak years were during the 60’s. The Viet Nam War could not be more damning and contentious, rivaling and surpassing much of what we’re now experiencing in the Middle East. At home, Civil Rights were being fought over in cruel and bloody fashion. Stuff like Fergeson, Missouri was happening on a daily basis. Ernie played during an equally tumultuous time. Yet, as far as we know, he was a peaceful man who kept his dignity. Like no other man, he truly made Wrigley the “Friendly Confines.”

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

Can “sucking” be a brand virtue? The notion seems counter-intuitive but I wonder if in some cases 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.

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.

images-16.jpg  “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?

Author’s Note: First draft of this essay was written in 2010. The Cub’s were in 4th place in their division, going nowhere. Growing up 5 blocks from Wrigley, I could not be happier for their current success. #flytheW

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Link courtesy of Bart Smith…

Bart Smith is an old friend from back in my Chicago days. Well before I moved west Bart trekked to Seattle, where he continued his audio production company, Bart Radio. (now bartplus) Anyway, he and I collaborated on some radio scripts I wrote for Art.com, including the one linked here about Vincent Van Gogh. Inspired by a popular biography series on TV, the spots featured the indelible voice of the now departed, Peter Graves.

I’m on the record as saying 90% of all radio sucks. But of that rarefied 10% Bart produced a great many. In 25 years in this business, so far I have written only a handful of radio commercials. The Art.com stuff was a highlight. Not only did I get to tell true stories about interesting people I got to tell them in a way that was uninhibited and fun, inviting people “to bring the art world into their world.”

They say radio is the true test of a copywriter and hopefully I aced it. I’m currently doing various freelance projects (content creation and creative leadership) and would love to hear from you. This is my portfolio. And if you’re looking for great audio production and a truly supreme collaborator, look up Bart. He’ll take good care of you.

First things first. I love the song. Though recorded before I was born, Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” is one of those rare tunes that transcends time. If the song came out tomorrow, sung by Adelle, it would be a smash hit. It’s that good. And it’s certainly the best thing about Toyota’s big budget, 60-second anthem for Corolla, which debuted recently. Because of this commercial, I’ve been singing the hero lyric, off and on now for several weeks. In that regard it’s indisputably memorable.

And yet something is the matter. The “creative algebra” doesn’t add up. Using a classic ballad of female empowerment for selling mainstream automobiles to Millennials is not enough to turn the trick. Showing assorted attractive young people engaging in mildly rebellious behavior isn’t enough either. Try as they do to appear otherwise, the cars seem incongruous to the lovely pictures and strong music. By definition most every commercial is fabricated reality but if it’s pushed too far the stink of bullshit corrupts the narrative. In my view that’s what’s happening here. The ad’s slip is showing.

Said another way, there’s nothing particularly interesting or provocative about these cars except for the fact that they’re in this commercial.

The ad is clearly targeting twenty-somethings and according to this article might actually be working. I’m suspicious about this data so soon after the commercial’s premier. Especially given my intuition points in another direction.

And then, just before posting, I saw another execution in the “You Don’t Own Me” campaign, a 30-second spot.

30 second version, with story…

The same great tune. Slick production values. But this time there’s a story. A young woman quits her job from an ornery chef (he can’t own her) and starts a food truck business. The Toyota Corolla gets her from point A to Point B. It’s a simple story but it is a story. And it made me like –maybe the better word is appreciate- the campaign. Stories will do that.

I haven’t enjoyed a Toyota commercial in ages. Compared to the white bread suburban approach the brand has maintained for eons, at least this musically powered approach –helped now I see by stories- has ambition. What do you think? Have I gone soft or was my original assessment accurate?

(Author’s note: I’m avail for copy, content creation & creative leadership: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com)

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Heel to Hero…

Going from Heel to Hero and visa-versa has not only become predictable but is occurring at dizzying speeds. I think this phenomenon is grossly underappreciated. Not only is it changing how we view good news and bad news but it is shaping current events and enabling shocking new discourse in popular culture and marketing.

A perfect example is Colin Kaepernick. When he was first caught sitting in protest during the National Anthem at a pre-season football game, the world all but tore him a new asshole. Within two weeks he’s on the cover of Time magazine and high school athletes around the country are emulating his behavior. Last week his jersey outsold all others. Pretty remarkable given he’s not even the starting quarterback for the team. Colin Kaepernick went from a goat to a God. Just like that.

The confluence of social media, proliferate video, celebrity obsession, reality TV and other factors have created a perfect storm, enabling controversial behavior and in turn changing our perceptions of what constitutes good and bad, right and wrong, and it’s doing so in real time!

Look at what a sordid sex tape of Kim Kardashian started. Once vilified and humiliated, that negative take has long been forgotten. She and her get are some of the most famous people on Earth.

The camera loves errant behavior. And society loves cameras. Ergo anyone can be a “star.” Provided you punch through. Dropping your pants or taking a stance are two surefire ways of getting that attention.

Courting controversy is not the real news, however. Like many, I have been writing about this for years.

What’s especially fascinating is how predictable the pattern has become. And the subsequent opportunities this affords. Marketers can take more and bigger chances. So what if a campaign or Tweet creates a shit storm. Within hours, defenders will join the fray. Even turn the tide. One can game public opinion. Betting on the inevitable backlash should be considered strategy from the get-go. Whether we like it or not, this is happening. Certain groups will take advantage while others stand by gaping.

(Author’s note: I’m avail for copy, content creation & creative leadership: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com)