When management fumbles, your brand suffers

February 19, 2014

On the evening of December 27th 1964, I was but a young boy growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland Ohio, and as I drifted off to sleep that night, clad in my Davey Crockett PJ’s, I had dreams of football glory dancing in my head. You see, my beloved Cleveland Browns, in one of the most stunning upsets in the annals of professional sports, had just defeated the mighty Baltimore Colts and their legendary QB Johnny Unitas in the NFL Championship Game.

It was the eighth time in 15 years they had played in the Championship Game, and the fourth time they had won it. As 1964 was coming to an end, my Cleveland Browns, as a brand, were to professional sports what Apple is to the technology sector, one of the preeminent brands in their category, representing excellence, class and most of all, success.  So why wouldn’t I be dreaming of future championships on that December night?

Ah, but fate is a cruel, cruel mistress.

Fast-forward almost fifty years to February 11, 2014. In a stunning move, the Brown’s current owner, Jim Haslam, unexpectedly fires the two men he had hired only a year and half ago to run his franchise. And this comes a month after firing a head coach who lasted for just one season. Which was the sixth season, in a row, with 10 or more losses. Predictably, as a result of the recent chaos, local and national media are savage in their regard for the Brown’s brand:

As for their loyal fans? The front office turmoil is merely the latest chapter in what has been a long nightmare, creating a level of ill will, frustration and anger seldom seen among sports fans:

Of course, in sports, the perception of a team’s brand is connected to winning and losing, and even teams that have significant brand negatives, like the Yankees with the easily dislikable Steinbrenner as owner, can sustain their brand if they win most of the time.

But what has happened to the once proud Cleveland Browns brand is truly astonishing, and it can’t be attributed simply to losing.  In a recent Sports Illustrated analysis of the outlook for all NFL teams after the 2013 season (which used a calculation combining pending free agents, cap space, amount of draft picks, and track record of management) the team that came out on top was the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team with the same 2013 record as the Browns, 4 wins and 12 losses.  Where did the Browns finish? Yep, 32nd, or DEAD LAST. And here is why. In their analysis they wrote “There’s a lot of talent on defense, and a few real playmakers on the offensive side of things. In other words, everything needed to build a real NFL powerhouse. Unfortunately, a front office that deserves a far lower rating than the one we were able to give it will almost unquestionably squander these great gifts.”

Yes, the Cleveland Browns as a business has fumbled away what was once a great brand, and it is a clear demonstration of how perceptions of management are a key driver of brand image. The only positive for the Cleveland Browns’ brand is that it is hard to imagine how it could get any worse, so there really is nowhere to go but up.  But for that little boy snug in his bed in Cleveland back in 1964, dreaming of gridiron glory yet to come, that is cold comfort after witnessing fifty long, hopeless, desolate years pass with nary a championship, or even an appearance in what is now called the Super Bowl.

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