I originally wrote this story for my recurring marketing column on Forbes.com’s MarketShare blog and am now re-posting here.
I’m a lifelong sports fan and, in all candor, kind of a dumb jock. But I typically do not pay much attention to many sports marketing initiatives.
The reasons for this are two-fold: One, there are only a few agencies that have been able to create profitable sports marketing practices. With the exception of Ari Fleischer – who’s counsel to athletes has seemingly created more problems for his clients (Tiger Woods, Mark McGuire) than helped them – most sports PR practices bleed red ink and are leveraged for prestige more than anything. After all, sports organizations tend to get a lot of work for free, often using barter as a principle means of payment.
Second, most initiatives from teams and leagues aren’t awfully interesting. They are low-risk and cater to captive, sports-adoring audiences conditioned to want to accept whatever is being sold. Insert yawn here.
Last summer, however, the Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals – one of the more conservative franchises in the league – launched its “Stand For Stan” initiative. The campaign was, in essence, a marketing and lobbying effort on behalf of Cardinals legend and MLB hall-of-famer Stan Musial to land him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And it caught my eye.
My interest, of course, not withstanding a lifetime of indentured servitude to my beloved Chicago Cubs, who never win anything – “Stand For Stan” was not some sophomoric program. It was a surprisingly progressive initiative – from an organization that had traditionally used very basic communications channels — seeking to create momentum on behalf of the three-time Most Valuable Player and St. Louis legend’s candidacy for the nation’s highest civilian honor.
It began with, and was largely steeped in, the use of the Cardinals Twitter account, relying heavily on word-of-mouth and in-stadium marketing, as well as some political lobbying from Missouri’s congressional delegation.
Ironically, according to Cardinals Vice President Ron Watermon, the team chose not to leverage its Facebook presence to a great degree as they wanted to drive people back to the meat of the program — which lived on the team’s website and included rich content such as letters to the president, a petition, and photos.
One of the most important pieces on the Cardinals’ site was a printable “Flat Stan The Man,” a copy-cat of the “Flat Stanley Project” pictures that continue to be used for literacy awareness.
“At 10 a.m. on May 25 we Tweeted out a link encouraging use of the ‘Flat Stan The Man,’” said Watermon. “We saw fans from San Diego that night where the team was playing the Padres. They were holding them up to the television camera. And then the next morning we got pictures sent to use from a group of kids in Jordan in the Middle East. It was a real eye opener as to the power of social media.”
There was no program news release, but the launch was followed by a seeded front page story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and then the effort continued throughout the season with employees wearing buttons, in-stadium videos, and photos of celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Anna Kournakova, Mathew Broderick, Ken Burns, some of the Real Houswives (ugh), and others.
The campaign closed on the final Saturday of baseball’s regular season with a “Stand For Stan” day in Busch Stadium, with Musial on hand as some 40,000 fans cheered for his candidacy.
Unlike some programs of its ilk, there was some level of political risk involved with the approach.
“Lobbying and commercialization for something like this can have an extremely negative effect,” said Cardinals team president Bill Dewitt III. “We didn’t want to set a poor precedent, nor make it a commercial campaign, which is why when we were offered by a cereal company to do a box cover with the ‘Flat Stand Up For Stan’ cover, we turned it down. We didn’t want it to be viewed by the White House as a self-serving exercise.”
Apparently, it did not. Ultimately, with a little help from Senators Kit Bond and Claire McCaskill and some other Missouri-based power brokers in Washington, the campaign built enough word-of-mouth buzz to ensure the administration of President Barack Obama heard the pleas both loudly and broadly.
To me, however, what makes “Stand For Stan” even more fascinating is its origins.
My initial assumption was that the program was developed by Fleishman-Hillard, my former employer that has a longtime relationship with the Cardinals. Quite frankly, I thought the program was too progressive, diverse, and well-rounded to come from a conservative organization like the Cardinals, as the marketing generally seen from teams of their ilk can be insular and without risk.
But according to DeWitt, the Cardinals president, the program was the brainchild of Watermon.
“This was somewhat of an experiment in social media for us,” Watermon said. “It enlightened us that social media needs to be a priority in everything we do.”
DeWitt also seems intent on leveraging the strength of social media channels moving forward.
“Clearly it validates the participatory nature of social media,” he said. “And I like that everyone who participated in the campaign can now feel like they own the result.”
In the end, sometime in 2011, Stan “The Man” Musial will, in fact, stand side-by-side with President George W. Bush, Maya Angelou, Warren Buffett and others as President Obama places the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck.
Not bad for a sports marketing initiative from a conservative Midwest baseball team, heh?