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Customers Don’t Give a Duck

In a Post Marketing Era—Experience is All That Matters.

By Dante Pannell

“For almost 100 years the Ducks did almost nothing but lose.”

When it comes to the University of Oregon football team, there’s no need to beat around the bush: they were bad. The program has existed since 1894, but generations of fielding losing teams left the Ducks with  no sense of heritage, and no pedigree for talent. A century of failure is hard for contemporary fans to reconcile with the program’s recent success, and the attention lavished on their annual uniform reveals. The catalyst for that change? One famous (and wealthy) alumni who decided he would do whatever it took to turn his alma mater into winners.

Phil Knight, the billionaire co-founder and chairman of Nike, attended the University of Oregon in the late 1950s. As Oregon’s single most powerful alumni, it pained him to watch as other major schools won championships while his beloved Ducks continued to drown. After consecutive losses in the 1995 Rose Bowl and the 1996 Cotton Bowl, Knight forced a meeting with Head Coach Mike Belotti and the school’s athletic director, in which he asked one question: “What do you need from me (to win)?”

Knight poured over $300 million in combined donations into the university. The program’s leadership told him what they needed to be successful. Autzen Stadium, the home of Ducks football, was renovated. A tutoring center was built, and a state-of-the-art performance compound was constructed. Top recruits had long-shunned the idea of moving to Eugene to labor away for a losing program — now Oregon had facilities that surpassed any of the SEC powerhouses.

And, yet, the Ducks continued to lose.

The leadership at Oregon failed to accurately diagnose their challenge. When prospects eschew a brand, it’s easy to invest in product improvements, or a marketing campaign that touts a killer new feature. But today’s consumers live in an era of post-marketing — and for a brand to succeed in this oversaturated period where marketing delivers fewer returns than ever, they must recognize: features and benefits are secondary to the experience a brand delivers.

Phil Knight’s money bought what Oregon wanted, but it didn’t make the program any better. Sure, recruits and alumni were impressed by the new facilities and tricked-out luxury boxes. But marginally better features couldn’t compete against  Alabama’s storied past, national championships, and the ghosts of Hall of Fame coaches who still roamed the sidelines of Bear Bryant Stadium. And it couldn’t match Penn State’s roster of former linebackers who’d been first round NFL draft picks.  Oregon was doing everything “right” to build a great brand, but no one cared.

Frustrated by his lack of ROI, Knight turned to his team at Nike. Their outside perspective recognized what had been overlooked internally: Oregon was missing a story, the reason why a student athlete would want to suit up for the Ducks. Enter the uniforms. Nike’s designers begin churning out countless variations of the Oregon kit, in paints and color combinations not available to any other team. Suddenly, playing for Oregon meant looking like no other football player on the planet.

The uniforms gave Oregon‘s customers what they had been missing for over 100 years; an experience that not only made them feel amazing, but connected them to the brand in a way that was unique to the Ducks. These new shiny, flashy, jaw dropping uniforms captured the attention of recruits who would have never previously considered Oregon, gave them a reason to commit.

Oregon finally had a story. A loud, green, yellow, and white—but sometimes black and grey,or a mix of white, metallic silver and pink, or any of another 140 something variations—story. Oregon could not create history, but they could define the experience of playing for the Ducks.

Building a brand from the ground up is defined by experience, not product. But what about when a brand already has its story, but its audience is beginning to tune out?

Unlike the University of Oregon, Harley-Davidson has a storied history. In 1903, brothers Walter and Arthur Davidson, and friend William Harley conceived of adding an engine to the standard bicycle. By 1920, Harley had over 2,000 dealerships worldwide — the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world. And, by the 1960’s, the Harley brand had been fully embraced by the anti-establishment, and had become iconic to the reforged American dream: a free-wheeling, contemporary mirror of the heydays of Westward expansion.

Harley’s story had naturally evolved over time as its audience became attached to the brand’s lore, and its connection to how they saw America. Despite the Harley product being legendary, imported Japanese motorcycles began winning away market share in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Compared to their American competition, Japanese bikes were cheaper, easier to fix, and offered a much different performance model. As Harley’s dominance eroded, company executives found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy by New Years Eve 1985. America’s largest and only motorcycle company was on the verge of collapse.

The easy thing for Harley to do would have been to adjust their product. Most commercial brands would choose to build cheaper bikes, modify designs, or otherwise compete directly against their new market entrants — after all, that was the exact strategy Harely’s automotive peers attempted, to their ruin. Harley was savvy enough to know the answer wasn’t looking outward — but inward, to their story. Harley chose to emphasize who it had been all along: the bike that Americans want to ride into the sunset.

Harley rolled out initiatives that further immersed its customers right into that story. HOG, the Harley Owners Group, was introduced to develop the  relationship with riders: it educates family and friends on motorcycles, and is the world’s largest factory sponsored motorcycle club. This provided the foundation for the most essential transformation a brand can make in in the post-marketing era: away from transactional advertising, and into a lifestyle brand defined by customer experiences.

“Most people can’t understand what would drive someone to profess his or her loyalty for our brand by tattooing our logo onto his or her body—or heart,” raves Richard Teerlink, Harley’s former CEO. “We… understand very clearly that this indescribable passion is a big part of what has driven and will continue to drive our growth.”

Oregon looked outward to create and define its story, and Harley looked inward to recommit to its own. In both cases, each organization smartly understood who their customers were, and how to place them at the center of the brand. In the post marketing era, experience connects a brand and its customers. Hummer, on the other hand, chose to ignore its experience and double-down on advertising and marketing. In the process, it pushed the brand into oblivion.

Hummer has a heritage to rival Harley. The development of the ‘Hummer” began in the 1970s as a Jeep replacement for the U.S. Army; by 1983, the Pentagon awarded AM General Corporation a $1 billion production contract to manufacture 55,000 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV): the Humvee.

The HMMV was deployed when the United States invaded Panama in 1989, and were ubiquitous in the first Gulf War. These conflicts were the first to be covered by the 24/7 cable news cycle, and the HMMW became an instantly recognizable sign of the modern, agile American military that stormed across the desert. Film action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger was so captivated by the vehicle that he clamored for them to be available for civilian purchase. AM General made the Hummer commercially available for in 1992, and, of course, the first was purchased by Arnold himself.  

Driving a Hummer was ultimate the symbol of power: it was a vehicle proven in the crucible of war, and ownership of one gave domestic audiences cachet unattainable in any other way. As the vehicle’s popularity increased, GM purchased the Hummer name in order to bring it into the mainstream.  

Immediately after GM purchased the Hummer brand, the line began to grow. First, GM launched the H2 (it had since rebranded the original Hummer as H1).  Then in 2009 it launched the H3, a plastic-accented light truck which quickly and undeniably confirmed the war chariot had lost its way.

Hummer neglected to appreciate what made the experience of ownership so unique. In pursuit of expanding the brand, they could have added ancillary products in line with the original Hummer story (a path well-worn by Italian sports car brands), or launched other heavy trucks. Instead, Hummer marketed to soccer Moms who wanted an alternative to their suburbanite vans. While this may have appeared to be the largest possible market, it was a clear example of forcing product and experience to conform with marketing expectations — a fatal mistake in the post-marketing world.

Experience, and the story that defines it, are what propels marketing forward. Not vice-versa.

As audiences continue to fragment, and consumers become more driven by the behaviors and references of their peers, ballooning marketing budgets barely move the needle for a growth-oriented brand. In this post marketing era, experience makes all the difference. Whether a brand is building itself from the ground up, fending off a competitor, or trying to find new avenues of growth, it’s about kitting customers up, placing them in the driver’s seat, and giving them an experience they can’t help but share.

Dante Pannell is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.