PDA

View Full Version : "Now That's Steelers Football"



hawaiiansteel
05-07-2010, 07:52 PM
"Now That's Steelers Football!" A Marketing Professor's Guide To How A Small Market Team Created A Nation"

by Freddy Nager


http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/351114/Branding_One_medium.jpg

1. Icons
The Nike swoosh. The Apple apple. The Grateful Dead dancing bears. The Notre Dame fighting Irishman. The Republican elephant. The Obama 'O'. The Coca-Cola bottle. The Christian cross. These are examples of icons that most beholders - and all fans - can identify without seeing the institutional names.

All companies and teams have logos, but few become iconic. You can tell when a brand's logo has become an icon when fans (and not just employees) willingly wear it on their sleeves, chests, car bumpers, and especially their skin in the form of tattoos. For example, you'll see Apple stickers on cars, but good luck trying to find Microsoft or Dell.

The Steelers icon consists of the instantly recognizable three diamonds (or, to be geometrically correct, hypocycloids). Most sports fans know what that icon represents even without the Steelers name next to it - and none would say "U.S. Steel," even though that company had created that logo originally.

2. Heroes and Charismatic Leaders
Every cult brand needs a face. Some are legendary, others contemporary, and some fictitious (such as Captain Kirk). Most are human, but animals and even cartoon characters (think Mickey Mouse) have led some brands to cult status.

Religions have heroes that date back thousands of years as well as current spiritual leaders. Rock bands have singers and guitarists that some fans want to be and more amorous ones want to be with. Apple's hero is its CEO Steve Jobs, and you can see investors panic whenever his health wavers. And Nike was an ‘also-ran' shoe brand until it found its face - some guy by the name of Michael Jordan.

Sports teams, of course, have player heroes and the occasional coach who rises to charismatic leader. It would take me hundreds of pages to discuss every Steelers hero, and if you're reading this, you already know who they are - including one known for his ‘Immaculate Reception.' Talk about inspiring a religious following!

One attribute that most Steelers heroes share is that they're ‘home-grown.' Very few Steelers heroes (players or head coaches) came from other NFL teams. While the Steelers do find gems in free agency, rarely do those go on to become fan favorites. The few imported players that have become heroes - such as Jerome Bettis - all enjoyed their best years in the Steel City.

Who are the most influential Steelers heroes? Not players or coaches, but the Rooneys, the family that has owned the Steelers every year but one since the team's inaugural season in 1933. They have stuck by this team and this city through thick and a whole lot of thin. Although they're savvy business men, they repeatedly demonstrate that they care about more than money. Although Pittsburgh is a small city that has grown smaller, the Rooneys would never sneak off to another one. As much as we Steelers fans love to taunt Cleveland Browns fans, we can imagine the pain they endured at the hands of their backstabbing owner Art Modell, who ignored years of sellout crowds and diehard fan loyalty to move their team to Baltimore. I think one reason that Steeler Nation despises the Baltimore Ravens is because of that greed and betrayal.

The Rooneys also established a value system, starting with loyalty to the fans. They worked to advance minority opportunities, from hiring the NFL's first African-American assistant coach (Lowell Perry in 1957) to establishing the Rooney Rule that helps minority coaches procure interviews for head coaching gigs (which gave a little known young coach named Mike Tomlin a shot). The Rooneys have created a face for the Steelers brand that fans could be proud of. It's little wonder that there's a statue of Art Rooney, Sr. outside of Heinz Field. Very few team owners have been so immortalized. Imagine Oakland's Al Davis as a statue - the pigeons would love him.

3. Value System
Every cult brand has a value system.

Religions obviously have them - no need to explain here.

Political parties have them - or at least claim to.

Harley-Davidson worships the freedom of the road and the life of the American rebel.

The Grateful Dead promote sharing, peace and other ‘high' concepts.

Apple values being creative and enabling others to be creative.

Nike celebrates athletic excellence - just ahead of having a sense of humor.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' value system emphasizes strong characters, putting team first, and zero tolerance for misconduct. Sure, there's the occasional minor drug bust, fight with a paper towel dispenser, or headfirst plunge off a motorcycle without a helmet. And, yes, there's the occasional contract dispute. But those are nothing compared to the character problems that plague other teams. Why? Because any player with serious character issues soon finds himself off the Steelers... and eventually onto the payroll of the Cowboys, Bengals or Raiders - all of whom seem to have anti-value systems (anything to win, baby). Consequently, if you see a Steeler committing a felony or throwing a temper tantrum when he doesn't get the ball, you'll have to look quickly, because in a blink he'll be gone. The Rooneys won't stand for it.

You also won't even find Steelers cheerleaders, because they're considered too frivolous for this team. (Though I admit, I like cheerleaders, particularly those in Dallas and Oakland. Oh the irony...)

‘True Steelers' are down-to-earth, tough and gritty, with even the wide receivers notorious for throwing devastating blocks. In essence, the Steelers strive to reflect the values of their hometown. And that's critical. These aren't arbitrary values imposed on the fans; these values reflect them. (Imagine Steelers values imposed on a team in, say, Los Angeles. What, no cheerleaders in L.A.?)

The Steelers achieved greatness just as Pittsburgh's steel mills began their inexorable decline, and for the city's blue-collar workers, the Steelers were what sustained them through those bitter years. The team didn't let them down. Today, the Steel City is known more for medical science, financial services, and top-notch universities, but the team still has blue-collar values, and that appeals to football fans throughout the Rust Belt and far beyond.

4. Gatherings and Places of Worship
A cult brand needs a place or event where followers can meet and share their passion in an environment steeped in that brand's culture. This reinforces the vitality of the brand -- and also enables it to raise a few bucks.

Religions have churches, temples and other hallowed grounds.

Harley riders have rallies.

Rock bands have concerts.

Trekkies and political parties have conventions.

Nike and Apple have their own branded stores.

And sports teams have games and stadiums.

I regret that I never got to visit Three Rivers Stadium. When I was a kid, it appeared to me like a sacred place in the far off holy land.

Today, I live 2,140 miles from Heinz Field, so I have to settle for a local substitute. No, not some nearby team's house of worship -- though I once saw the Steelers play the Chargers in San Diego in a stadium that was 75% Black and Gold by kickoff. I'm talking about my local 'Steelers Bar'. All across the country, individual bars are dedicated to certain NFL teams, with an extraordinary number of them devoted to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers bar I frequent doesn't have the best televisions or sound system. It's cramped and cold, with steel folding chairs and food that would give you a heart attack after three bites. The waitresses are sweet and vivacious, but they're not the Hollywood starlet-wannabe eye candy that you'll find hosting other sports bars in L.A. Indeed, I can find more luxurious, higher-tech bars just a couple of miles in any direction, and they'll all be showing the Steelers on at least one screen. But the local Steelers bar is where dozens of diehard Black and Gold fans like me gather devotedly every Sunday, wearing our Sunday-best jerseys, ready to sing our favorite hymn at the top of our lungs ("Here we go, Steelers, here we go!").

Going anywhere else would be sacrilegious.

http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/351122/Branding_Three_medium.jpg

5. Arch Rivals
Want to establish a cult brand? Pick someone you're not, then do everything you can to highlight the differences between yourself and them.

Sometimes that rival is specifically named. Apple and its followers love to ridicule Microsoft. Notre Dame and USC have been at each other's throats for decades. And the Democrats hate the Republicans (and vice versa).
Sometimes that rival is more general. Harley-Davidson riders rebel against bourgeois lifestyles and Japanese pocket-rocket bikes. The Grateful Dead buck mainstream attitudes and commercialism, going so far as to enable their fans to bootleg their concerts. Budweiser is an ‘American beer' that mocks elitist rivals - though we'll see how long that will hold up now that they're owned by Belgians.

Sports teams have lots of competitors, but it's key to pick out a few and make them the target of bitter enmity. Solid teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Carolina Panthers have divisional rivalries, but no key competitors that make their fans foam at the mouth.

For Steeler Nation, the longtime rivals have been the nearby Browns, but with the recent decline of that franchise, we fans find our blood boiling most at mention of the Ravens and the New England Patriots, who cheated us out of a Super Bowl berth. Of course, we still get a special buzz when we play the Cowboys, and are thoroughly enjoying all the misery that has beset the Raiders.

6. Feeling Different - and Superior
Winning isn't everything. Yes, it matters - no cult brand can languish forever - but many NFL teams with records of success can't build a fan base beyond their region. Consider the Seattle Seahawks, a recent Super Bowl team that has few fans outside the Pacific Northwest. Or the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have enjoyed a fair share of success since their inaugural season in 1995, yet who still struggle to sell home playoff tickets.

Beyond football, Dell once led the world in computer sales, but even during the company's glory days, you would have had a hard time promoting a Dell convention. Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer on the planet, but let's see how loyal its fans are if it ever raises its prices. What do those two business brands have in common? They emphasize low prices. That only appeals to the wallet - not the heart.

You can't build a cult brand without targeting the emotions. Winning percentages and dollar signs alone do not make a cult brand. Instead, you have to accompany that winning with an attitude - an attitude that we're different from the other reindeer, and that difference is what makes us better, even if we're not the biggest in the marketplace.
Apple literally says ‘Think Different', and the smug attitude of Apple ‘fanboys' irks non-Apple users. Followers of Harley and Star Trek and the Grateful Dead relish being outsiders. And here in Steeler Nation, our team isn't just good, it's different: we play Steelers Football.

You know what I'm talking about.

Say "Steelers Football," and NFL fans everywhere know what you mean. For decades, Pittsburgh's brand of football has been distinguished by a grind-it-out offense based on power running and an unforgiving defense starring vicious, sack-happy linebackers. It's not pretty, and it can be rough - just like the players and the city. Indeed, whenever the Steelers hit a rough spot, the most common criticism you'll hear is that "they're not playing Steelers football." And that is the most lethal insult you can level at this team.

7. A Way of Life
Cult followers don't see their favorite brand as a product - it's a lifestyle. And that's critical.

A cult brand is something followers can dive into, not just buy. A Trekkie can attend a Star Trek convention in costume, learn to speak Klingon, and write Star Trek stories (which the copyright holders allow him to do). Notre Dame fans can attend the school, refer to Touchdown Jesus and Knute Rockne, and - if they're talented enough - make the team (go Rudy!). Members of both political parties can get out the vote, attend conventions, even run for office.

Then there's Steeler Nation. Most of us would have a tough (likely impossible) time making the team, but we can form fan clubs, launch discussion websites and, of course, dress up and attend a game. And not just in Pittsburgh, but everywhere. Fans of other teams are getting downright sick of seeing Black and Gold filling their stadiums. The sportswriters say it's because Steeler fans travel well -- if you call driving across town traveling. Yes, we live everywhere.

Some call the Dallas Cowboys "America's Team," but it's Steeler Nation that fills the seats.

8. Quality
To justify a superior attitude, you need superior quality. That sounds ridiculously obvious, but we know that not everything commercially available is necessarily good. American banks are currently in intensive care. Our car companies are hurting. And has anyone flown a commercial airline lately?
Makes you wish the Rooneys were running everything, huh?

Brands that achieve cult status not only have pinnacle moments of performance, they maintain higher-than-average quality over the years. Many non-cult brands have moments in the sun -- after all, the Rams did win a Super Bowl - but their overall quality is average or lower. Packard Bell computers sold well because their superior distribution outweighed their dubious quality... for a while. GM is still the world's biggest carmaker, but not for quality reasons. And despite its hit theme song by Queen, the Flash Gordon movie never gets mentioned in the same breath as Star Trek or Star Wars.

While cult brands command unflinching loyalty that's resilient in tough times and resistant to competitive temptation, the one sure way they can destroy their cult status is by betraying their fans. This might be by releasing subpar products (I know diehard ‘Indiana Jones' fans who still won't talk about the last movie), violating its own value system (few fans want to be associated with an organization rocked by scandals), or - in the ultimate betrayal of any sports fan - moving to another city (I don't think anyone in Brooklyn has ever forgiven the Dodgers). A cult brand has to be as loyal to its fans as its fans are loyal to it. And the best way to demonstrate that loyalty is to provide a consistently good product.

And that brings me to the one attribute that separates the Pittsburgh Steelers from all other NFL teams - and even from other cult brands...

The Power of Consistency

Consistency is the hallmark of a great cult brand: consistency in quality, consistency in values, consistency in character.

A Big Mac tastes the same anywhere in the world. The Rolling Stones will continue to deliver a great stage show even when they're using walkers and wheel chairs. A Harley will always be a loud upright bike with a deep-throated Cro-Magnon roar.

But in the NFL, no one has been as consistent as the Steelers.

First, allow me to draw a distinction between the early Steelers and the Steelers of the Super Bowl era and beyond. Although the Steelers have been around since 1933, for most of their early existence through the 1960s, their only source of consistency was the dedication of their owner, Art Rooney. And their ability to lose.
For most of their existence, they weren't a cult brand. Not even in Pittsburgh.

The first Super Bowl was played in 1967. Two years later, the Steelers hired Chuck Noll to be the team's head coach. Noll forged the team's winning tradition and personified ‘Steelers Football.' He also remained coach through the 1991 season: that's twenty-three years without changing head coaches, a feat of consistency that's impossible to imagine in any professional sport today.

http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/351126/Branding_Four_medium.jpg


Noll was followed by Bill Cowher, who maintained the Steelers bruising style of play and ultimately won a Super Bowl in 2005 before retiring after the 2006 season. Cowher's successor, Mike Tomlin, won a Super Bowl just two years later with a vicious defense and a gutsy, physical quarterback. (Side note: no one has ever used the words ‘Ben Roethlisberger' and ‘finesse' in the same sentence.)

That's three coaches spanning 42 years winning six Super Bowls. More importantly, with just a few adjustments, the style of play has remained consistent.

There was one painfully glaring exception when my boys slipped and stumbled away from ‘Steelers Football'. It was 2003, and the usually dependable Cowher - a coach renowned for stubbornness - surprisingly re-made the Steelers into a passing team. That season, the Steelers de-emphasized the run, relegating power back Jerome ‘The Bus' Bettis (a franchise hero who later helped the team win a Super Bowl) to second string; instead, they regularly deployed 5-wideout passing formations. The result: a feeble 6-10 record.

And that was a good thing - no, a great thing.

As painful as that season was to endure, had it been successful, it could have redefined ‘Steelers Football' for years to come.

Even more fortuitously, that 6-10 record put the Steelers in a high-enough draft position to pick Ben Roethlisberger - but not high enough to pick the other QB we were scouting, Phillip Rivers. It's hard to imagine the Steelers under Rivers. He might have led the team to success, but his trash talking and tantrum throwing might have clashed with what ‘Steelers Football' is all about.

Our brand escaped a close one.

Ironically, by experimenting with something different, the Steelers reinforced classic Steelers Football. Kind of like how Coke's money-losing experiment with New Coke actually bolstered sales of Coca-Cola Classic.
And that leads to one important and difficult challenge facing cult brands: you have to be consistent while continuously evolving and introducing something new.

Staying Fresh -- Consistently
While fans want their cult brand to be consistent in style, values, and quality, they also need it refreshed with new blood. The car company Saturn had the makings of a cult brand: it was different, with a strong value system and dedicated owner gatherings. But after a strong start, Saturn allowed its model line to become outdated and fall below industry standards. In the end, Saturn betrayed its fans.

A rock band should stick to its genre - no one wants to hear Metallica release a teen-pop album. But it also needs to release new albums and embark on new concert tours with different themes.

Budweiser shouldn't change its flavor, but it needs new TV commercial campaigns to keep viewers interested.
Sports teams have it easy when it comes to staying fresh. They sign rookies and other new players every season, as well as the occasional head coach (those teams not named the Steelers, that is). They'll also throw in new plays to keep the competition on its toes. The challenge is to integrate that new blood and implement those new plays while maintaining the essence of that brand.

Being able to meet that "fresh yet consistent" challenge is what separates the Steelers from other teams that have racked up a lot of Super Bowl wins - including that aforementioned championship team that's never achieved cult status...

Steelers vs 49ers
Some argue that consistency of character and style isn't important, and that all that matters is winning. They obviously haven't been following the 49ers.

Up until this year, the San Francisco 49ers had just as many Vince Lombardi Trophies as the Steelers. They were the dynasty of the 1980s and early 1990s. Today, just over a decade later, you won't hear anyone talk about ‘49er Nation' filling other teams' stadiums. In fact, even during their winning years, they couldn't do that. You won't find many 49er fans outside of California, nor will you find 49er bars in all four corners of the country.

For a while, the 49ers did play a distinctive style of football created by legendary coach Bill Walsh. It was distinguished by a short, quick-hitting passing attack dubbed the ‘West Coast Offense'. Since the retirement of their last great quarterback, Steve Young, San Francisco has been a team in search of an identity. And wins. Counting George Seifert, they've had five different coaches since 1995 when they won Super Bowl XXIX. Their current coach, Mike Singletary, has vocalized his intention to transform the 49ers into a power running offense backed up by a fierce defense. Sounds a lot like ‘Steelers Football'.

Indeed, you know you've established a cult brand when others are copying you.

The 49ers also never established a value system outside of winning. Jerry Rice had a legendary work ethic, but he was often alone in running stadium steps before a game. If anything, the 49ers had a negative value system, thanks to the felony conviction of owner Eddie J. DeBartolo, Jr. (whose family, interestingly enough, also owned the Pittsburgh Penguins).

Worst of all? There are rumors floating around that the 49ers might move south to the hated rival city of Los Angeles. Imagine hearing rumors of the Steelers moving to Cleveland. Shudder.

Teams like the 49ers can count all the victories they want, but that's not enough to build a cult following. Fans might talk passionately about their team's past glory, but that's simply nostalgia - a powerful element of a brand, but not enough to sustain it in the long run (see ‘Baylor University Football' or ‘Pittsburgh Pirates'). Nice try, San Francisco - you might have just one fewer Lombardi Trophy than Pittsburgh, but when it comes to branding, you've got a long way to go.

Parting Shot
The 2008 season marked my 30th anniversary as a Steeler fan. I was able to celebrate the milestone - appropriately enough - with another Super Bowl victory by my first and only team.

Funny how good things can happen to unsuspecting people.

Within days of the victory, I and hundreds of other fans logged back onto Steelers websites like BehindTheSteelCurtain.com to discuss what was next for our beloved team. We basked in the moment, congratulated each other and shared stories and photos of our latest historic triumph, while appreciating how infrequent championships can be, even for the Steelers. Yet winning the Super Bowl wasn't enough to satiate us and turn our attention away until the following season. Heated discussions began to flow on how we could re-establish a power running game in 2009 and get back to consistently playing ‘Steelers Football'.

And that's clearly the hallmark of a great brand...

The fans can never get enough.

http://www.behindthesteelcurtain.com/20 ... football-a (http://www.behindthesteelcurtain.com/2010/5/5/1458772/now-thats-steelers-football-a)

http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/351130/Branding_Nine_medium.jpg

SteelCrazy
05-07-2010, 11:47 PM
"Now That's A Post"