What you Must Learn from the NFL

“If Nike can Just Do It, why can’t we?” So argued a 1997 McKinsey Quarterly article encouraging readers to follow the Nike model for building a power brand. Why not, indeed? Brands aren’t the preserve of major corporations. Nike certainly didn’t start as one. Although the average non-profit is not out to leverage its brand for enormous profit, that shouldn’t stop them from aspiring to a strong brand, working to develop one, and deriving its myriad benefits.

In our age of enthusiasm for business, according to the February Harvard Business Review, some non-profits may be following this message a bit too closely: championing earned-income ventures so they appear innovative and businesslike. Escaping the insular world of nonprofit management requires looking to outside examples for inspiration, but unrealistic expectations about the costs of launching a successful commercial venture, and unwarranted optimism about their ability to do so, often result in a waste of precious resources.

Instead of such distractions, nonprofits must focus on getting the basics right – communicating effectively, ensuring every step contributes to the core mission, and being successful in their own realm.

When it comes to brand development, communicating unique identity, and motivating people to develop a relationship with your organization, museums stand to learn more from the NFL than Nike.

Just as Nike began modestly, professional football in the United States was a fourth-tier sport in the late 1940s. Less than 20 years later, it was the most popular and commercially lucrative sport in America. Like any revolutionary product that becomes a runaway success, we quickly forget the story of its journey. The NFL’s meteoric rise is captured in Michael MacCambridge’s remarkable book America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, which can be enjoyed by sports fans, but read profitably by businesspeople.

The NFL did two things to enable its rise above an increasingly cluttered competitive marketplace.

First, it imposed a highly unified sense of organizational purpose. While baseball evolved as a stratified structure, the NFL decided its own league was no stronger than its weakest link. To succeed its members would have to co-operate – to Think League First – and to spread these crucial egalitarian values to new teams joining its roster.

Second, NFL owners, knowing it was their “responsibility to shape football into the best possible commercial product,” understood part of that responsibility required aligning the quality of their storywith the quality of the on-field product.

The world was different in the 1960s. Major League Baseball was slow to cotton to television and believed fans would always prefer to attend games in person. Saturdays were reserved for college football; Sunday afternoon – television’s dead zone – was the only time pro football was allowed. Remarkable though it now seems, no one dared broadcasting any sport in prime time. The NFLsingle-handedly turned these unwritten rules on their head.

Realizing its growth and success lay in exposing its game to a broader population than those who could personally attend games, the NFL honed new techniques to exploit television: it turned sportsbroadcasts into storytelling sessions. When the public realized NFL Films’ carefully assembled highlight reels were as entertaining as the game itself – if not more so – viewers were hooked. Giving every game a narrative structure and a “sense of sport as a performance rather than merely a game” created myths and highlighted the league’s quality and sophistication.

And the dozens of books published by the league’s merchandising arm, NFL Properties, “wouldn’t make much money,” but that wasn’t the point. They were “created not to maximize profit but to increase the league’s prestige,” and the nostalgia and lore they manufactured impressed “virtually everyone.” As NFL Film’s head Ed Sabol commented, “You remember the quality long after you forget the price.” Commissioner Pete Rozelle understood this essential value and protected their autonomy.

The NFL succeeded so quickly and so spectacularly over baseball because their “imagination and ability to think and act on a grand scale” led them to conceive a broad set of marketing initiatives that unified the league and gave it clarity of purpose.

Can museums think and act that way? With the many competitive pressures on them today – from Internet gaming to outdoor recreational pursuits to spectator sports – they need a new vision. Museums need to focus on the mission and responsibility of being museums – not gimmicks, not bending over backwards, not changing everything around just to draw in the people who least care about their work.

How do museums cut through all the noise and build relationships that matter? Think One League. Then, collectively, reach out and tell your stories.

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), May 2005)

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