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The Coliseum, circa 1980: Clean Boards, No Distractions, Passionate Fans.

The Coliseum, circa 1980: Clean Boards, No Distractions, Passionate Fans.

The Islanders never had a chance – not really.  When I first heard the news that moving was a possibility, the only mystery left, to me, was where they were going – not if.  Brooklyn, as it turns out. And while I’ll argue that the politicians who failed to understand the tremendous opportunity presented to them by Charles Wang and Scott Rechler were simply the tipping point; honestly, it was already a done deal.  Hockey – as a sport – lost.

And it wasn’t because the Coliseum (AKA, The Mausoleum) was getting a little long in the tooth.  And it wasn’t because the Islanders hadn’t put a consistently strong team on the ice for awhile.  And it wasn’t because there weren’t enough shops, or parking or public transit. All of that may have contributed, but none were the actual reason.

So Why? It’s actually quite simple:

The good folks who’ve  run the Islander organization have for a number of years simply failed to understand the core of their Brand which is not, as it turns out, ‘The Islanders’.  Actually, the core of their brand – and listen up here, NHL – is the sport of Hockey.

Here’s some backstory, and yes, for me this is a little personal:

I started going to Islanders games as a kid, and I fast became a fan.  Hardcore – I knew everything about the team.  I followed them in the papers.  I knew what Billy Smith would do to you if you got in the crease, I knew Dave Langevin never got enough credit, that Wayne Merrick could skate faster and more elegantly than a figure skater, and that Mike Bossy on the right side of the blue line with less than 30-seconds on the clock was a very good thing.

We didn’t have cable, so I was the kid listening breathlessly on an old radio to that Stanley Cup game – yes, that one –  and then whooping and hollering and tearing around the house all by myself  when I heard “Tonelli to Nystrom…he scores!!!!!”

Yeah, I was into it.  Passionate.

In the Seventies (before the Cup run) and Eighties, when the Coliseum was even less friendly than it is today, the fans were rabidly enthusiastic and the place always sold out.  In fact, I remember the only grumbling was that there was no shot clock, and everyone else in the NHL had one. You see, the fans back then were hockey fans; they understood the game.  The entire crowd watched the puck with such intensity that people would cheer before the goal light went on, and boo before the ref blew the whistle. They knew the game, inside and out, and management even took ‘valuable ad space’ in the program to explain Hockey 101.  Smart move. And the fans  instilled their passion for the game into their kids (myself included), so from a marketing standpoint, they were seeding a future generation of loyal customers.

Back then, there would have been riots if  even changing the seats – much less relocation –  was even suggested. Sacrilege.

But after the Cup run ended, things started to change.  And not for the better.  Sure, they got a shiny new scoreboard, and the shot clock to boot, but something else happened too.  In the inevitably lean years following The Run of of four Stanley Cups in a row, a bad decision was made.

What was it?  I wasn’t at the meeting, but I guarantee it was one of those ‘bottom line’ justified initiatives that sound like this:  “Get money in at any cost.  What do the fans want? What will they buy?  The world is changing, we have to keep up”.  Yada Yada, insert corporate jargon here, Yada.  Ad Nauseum.

And so it began.  Plaster the place with advertising – leave no wall uncovered.  Keep everyone revved up and distracted.  Loud rock music supplanting the fan-favorite organist.  Lasers. Ice Girls with Bare Midriffs shooting T-shirts into the crowd from atop the sacred Zamboni.  TV timeouts filled with silly on-site promos.  Stores every ten feet pushing overpriced, uninspired crap made as carnival prizes and stamped with the Islanders logo.

The game became the sideshow, and the marketing circus took center stage. Nothing about Hockey as a sport. Anything for a buck. And a path to failure.

Here’s the Key: When you place a primary focus on anything other than the thing that makes you different and desirable (i.e.your Unique Selling Proposition (USP) that lies at the heart of your Brand) then you set yourself up as a parity product. And for eventual failure.

What’s a parity product?  Think toothpaste; it all works about the same, even though marketers try and claim otherwise.  So, ultimately, there is no product differentiation beyond price – not really.

And that’s what the Islanders did: The took the focus away from the game, and placed it instead on the sideshow in a desperate attempt to make a quick buck. And the problem with that?  You can get that same, soulless sideshow anywhere – concert, circus, other venue – no matter. But you can’t get hockey just anywhere – and that’s where they blew it.

The point of smart brand marketing is to accentuate your offerings, not dilute or displace them.  The danger of making your quick-buck offerings primary, and your actual USP an afterthought, is that you run the risk of becoming a parity product. Also, and perhaps more importantly,  you do not continually develop a tight and loyal fan base (and I mean that in the truest sense of the word – not the Facebook sense), but instead you attract a fickle audience that may simply appreciate you for your entertainment value, and drift to newer things very quickly.  It’s a critical mistake if you’re in it for the long haul – and you should be.

In the Islanders’ case, they trained their new ‘fans’ to appreciate not hockey, but instead the fun of ‘a night out’, along with all of the glitz and shiny baubles. And when it came right down to it, when they wanted to move the team, it just didn’t matter.  The majority of the new ‘fans’ – the ones that came for a night out, instead of a hockey game, didn’t put up much of a fight.

And why would they?  They could get that same ‘experience’ in other ways.  They didn’t need hockey for that, even Islanders hockey. Sure, they might miss it if the Islanders left, but they were only there for the show anyway.  It reminds me of the end of the Truman show, when the viewer shrugs and says “Hey, what else is on?”

Best Buy and Local Movie Theaters, Take Note:

The lesson above applies to you, too.  How?  When one used to go to the movies, it was a special night out.  Popcorn and trivia and the anticipation of a Great Escape for a few hours – that’s what the movies were really selling.  But when I went to the movies last week, I had to sit through a block of about a dozen tv commercials – the same kind that I ignore at home.  And because of that, the experience became less special.  In this age of giant flatscreens and Netflix, the movie theaters had better be aware of their need to keep a night at the movies special – that’s their USP and Brand Core –  and not dilute it for a few extra bucks of revenue.

And Best Buy?  Bought something there last week, and when I got to the checkout (after a long wait), when I tried to pay by credit card, I had to run through an offer on screen to apply for the Best Buy credit card.  And when I declined, I had to run the card – and go through the entire process – again. So while Best Buy fights against showrooming, in their sad attempt to make the quick buck, they left me remembering only a bad experience. I thought ‘Well,  I could’ve stayed home and ordered online.” instead of thinking about the great professional service, product knowledge and instant gratification I had otherwise received at Best Buy – which is, arguably, their USP, and raison d’etre.

 The Takeaway

The reality is this: effective marketing and branding practices that build marketshare over time are not always glamorous, nor are they flash-effective in terms of revenue.  For some businesses, it is a reality check. Ask yourself, is there enough substance at your business’ core? A true USP that speaks to unique value within your business niche, and that your customers can’t  get anywhere else?  If there’s not, then that’s where you should start.

If you’re concerned about this, that’s good: you may have to go back to the basics a bit, and reassess your core value to the people you really want to reach.  When you tighten that up, your high-value clients and customer base – the ones that truly need and appreciate you – will be that much stronger.  Plus you’ve re-established your USP  – and that will serve as the foundation for your marketing and communications efforts.

Focus on the basics first.  And always. Then refine them.  It’s hard work.  It flies in the face of what a lot of marketing and branding companies are selling, when they say they can spike your metrics quickly.  They’ll cast a wide, sugar-coated net, but It’s not a long lasting solution, because it makes you a parity provider.  Don’t do that.

Define or redefine your value.  We do that at my agency, LGM creative,  when we say that we don’t “build” brands, we unearth them.  It’s in our tag “Understanding. Then Branding.™”.  We go deep to look for the core value in a client’s business – even if it’s not sexy or boring, it’s your important thing.  You can always clean it up and present it as sexy later, but that’s where it all starts.  And remains.

Remember,  true fans – the loyal die-hards that dig what you do best and love your for it –  are your Brand’s best friend. They’re your Ambassadors. They’ll stick with you. They’re the only ones you truly need.

Don’t sell them – or yourself – out.

And whatever you do, don’t train your customers not to care.