SBJ/August 6 - 12, 2001/Opinion

Put Ripken in marketing's Hall of Fame

He is a lock for the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he belongs in the Marketing Hall of Fame as well.At the end of the 2001 season, Cal Ripken will retire. There is no question he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, not so much for his baseball numbers as for the brand he created. Ripken's career batting average is not even close to .300, and he has not averaged more than 30 home runs a year. Yet he is one of the most popular, most memorable and most marketable players of recent history. Why?

For the past 21 years, Ripken has been a living example of what marketers need to do to build a successful brand. If you didn't pay attention to it, you missed one great lesson. For Ripken, building his brand came naturally. It flowed from his love for the game.

People love and "buy" Ripken because of the image he has created — the consistent and decent everyday type of guy who just does his job. Let's look at the incredible, almost textbook marketing lessons to be learned from him.

  Stand for one thing. You can't be all things to all consumers. It never works. You have to carefully determine what you are selling, and I'm not talking about whether you are selling washers or accounting services. What is the soul or the vision behind what you are selling — what is it that you stand for and are asking your consumers to identify with?

Hundreds of baseball players are selling baseball skills, but that doesn't turn them into a popular brand like The Iron Man. Ripken has been selling reliability and decency. Consumers have identified with his blue-collar work ethic and have "bought into" his brand. Day in and day out, everyone knew what they were getting from Ripken.

  Clarity of message. Once you have determined what it is you are selling, then you need to make sure that this is clearly communicated through all that you do. There is no room for confusion or mixed messages here. You can't sell reliability one day and flashiness the next. This creates "cognitive dissonance" for the consumer and always results in poor or unsuccessful branding.

Your brand must be communicated clearly in all that you do — from your PR and advertising messages to your people on the street to the products and services you provide. Not 9 to 5. But 24 hours a day!

This is the beauty of the Ripken brand. Whenever or wherever you see him, he always bespeaks reliability and decency — never anything else.

  Consistency and repetition of messages. Building a brand requires patience. A long-term successful brand has never been and never will be established overnight. The key is consistency and repetition of your core message. It is unlikely that your consumer will learn and remember what you stand for after only one encounter with your "brand." You must be relentless in repeating your core message if you want to create long-term success.

Ripken took this axiom to the extreme in that he repeated his selling point over and over again until it was crystal clear that he was the embodiment of the blue-collar work ethic. Seven years into his career, people in the Baltimore/Washington area knew that he was reliable and decent, but people in Oklahoma and California did not.

Continual repetition of his unique selling point changed this over the next 10 years, to the point where Ripken became known throughout the country as The Iron Man.

  Be best, better or different. Once you have determined what you are selling, you need to determine how you can position yourself as best, better or different from your competitor. How and why do you stand out from the crowd and why should the consumer pay attention to you?

There have been many other ballplayers over the past 20 years who were reliable and decent. Ripken chose to make himself the best of this group by outlasting them all and by making a commitment to not missing one single game during a 16-year period. In addition to shattering Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" record for most consecutive games played, Ripken further differentiated himself by playing for one team, the Baltimore Orioles, his entire career. For a superstar to do so in today's sports world is virtually unheard of.

The fact that Ripken played for only one team his entire career is also a great example of consistency of message. There never was and never will be any confusion. Ripken is an Oriole. Had he played for a couple of different teams during his career, his brand would never have been as strong.

  Control your own message. The best brands are those that have controlled their own destiny. They were built from the ground up over time. When controversy raised its head, they didn't bow to it. They stayed true to their core message and proceeded according to the timeline that was most advantageous to the brand.

Ripken has been a master at this. When people said it was time to sit down, he didn't get involved in the controversy. He just made his move when he felt it was the right time, all the way down to his decision to retire. He controlled the message. He did it when it was right for him. And he did it in such a way that reinforced his brand.

There is no question that we in Baltimore have been privileged to be a part of something very special. We were allowed to witness firsthand the birth and career of one of the greatest baseball players of all time — one of the few really good guys in sports. A ballplayer who epitomized what it meant to be a ballplayer when baseball needed it most.

As a former baseball player, I have loved watching Ripken play the game the way it was meant to be played. As a PR and marketing professional (with no business relationship to Ripken), it has been my joy watching him create a brand the way it was meant to be created. See you in the Hall of Fame, Cal – the marketing one as well as that one in Cooperstown.

David Warschawski (davidw@warschawskipr.com) is president of Warschawski Public Relations in the Baltimore/Washington area.

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