One of the most memorable lines from the Hollywood blockbuster “Forrest Gump” was “My mama always said stupid is as stupid does.”
Another blockbuster just emerged out of the movie capital, but it wasn’t the kind that generates rave reviews.
In fact, Los Angeles Dodgersfans are more likely lamenting that “Manny is as Manny does” when Manny Ramirez, their newly minted superstar slugger was recently suspendedfor 50 games – almost a third of the baseball season – for violating Major League Baseball’s (MLB) banned substances policy.
At risk is not only Ramirez’ legacy, who was (and may very well still turn out to be) a sure-thing Hall of Famer but also his brand as a hitting savant and that of the Dodgers as a wholesome franchise, one of the most potent brands in all of sports and particularly in the tradition-rich national pastime.
The value of a brand is equal to that of how its actions match what it stands for. A new expensive commitment designed to make Ramirez the face of the Dodgers had literally just commenced with a high profile marketing campaign around “Mannywood” in which legions of fans were already eagerly taking part. In response to the player’s suspension the Dodgers swiftly removed some but not all Manny-related merchandise, with a club official saying “We’ll continue to sell Manny product. It will be a supply and demand situation.”
Right call or wrong call?
For starters let’s assume that based on the facts there is no disputing Ramirez’ violation. Instead the open question is the potential damage to the brand. The Dodgers have come to represent the best of MLB - its Jackie Robinsonlegacy and vintage ballpark contribute to what is among the league’s perpetual crown jewels. And even in celebrity-studded L.A., baseball remains a family-oriented enterprise; the Dodgers, in fact, were major participants in the comprehensive league-wide CSR Breast Awareness campaign timed for maximum exposure with the MLB’s Mother’s Daygames.
A brand’s equity, however, is not produced through an occasional action or behavior, but rather with sustainable behavior. Through that lens one could argue that the ballclub – originally nicknamed for the art of dodging Brooklyn street cars when the team was founded in that borough – is trying to have it both ways by dodging between a set of dueling impulses. The proper response is not through an ad buy or a generic statement (as so often occurs), but rather through a series of sustainable actions that should represent a ballclub’s primary interest – maintaining the integrity of its team both on AND off the field.
Had the ballclub pulled all of its existing Manny merchandise at the same time that it eliminated the new Mannywood-driven marketing machine, the public could feel satisfied that the Dodgers were making a statement that it won’t tolerate and reward unethical conduct on the part of its players. But by keeping the turnstiles moving on its Manny-branded shirts, bobblehead dolls and other merchandise, the team essentially caved to the lure of cashing in on its greatest marketable asset even during its marquee player’s shameful absence.
If you are keeping score, that’s a crass quick win for the cash registers, at the expense of a long term loss by failing to live up to the brand’s essence. And in today’s wide open social media environment that invites customer engagement and feeds citizen journalism, that kind of behavior poses a legitimate risk to a brand’s ability to withstand attacks.
By contrast, media observers know that back in the day, the world of traditional news media was more concentrated, and just a few agenda-setting media properties were capable of potentially dictating what became news and who read about it. Back then, a lot of what we are now accustomed to hearing, seeing and seeking as news could more easily have been dismissed or relegated to a one-day story .
Not anymore. Traditional news media will certainly remain a potent force and is of course integrated online. But in the growing dominance of a blogging-google-twitter-facebook-youtube world that increasingly brings self-selection and control of the media to the masses rather than simply distributing content to the masses, brands are a nanosecond away from being revealed for how they live up to – or fall short of - their promise (and promises). There is just literally no escaping how an organization or its employees – even (or especially) those making upwards of $20 million a year – can evade the harsh light of a truly democratic media.
For the Los Angeles Dodgers the lesson should be clear: a brand is as a brand does.
Ray Kotcher is the CEO of Ketchum Public Relations, one of the world's largest global public relations agencies and a unit of Omnicom Group Inc.