Monday, December 13, 2004

Branding and the Boston Red Sox: Johnny Damon et al. as “Cabbage Patch Kids”

In 1983, the “Cabbage Patch Kids” phenomenon swept the world of toys and Christmas Shopping like wildfire. My four sons at that time ranged in age from 20 months to 9 years, so I was well aware of the mass hysteria that broke out as it became clear early in that holiday shopping season that demand would far out-strip the supply of the huggable and adorably homely “adoptable” dolls. People began to camp out in front of toy stores and malls to try to score a doll for the children on their shopping list. That Christmas morning, there were many smiles on the faces of new adoptive owners of Cabbage Patch Kids, but there was also no shortage of disappointed kids, parents and grandparents as the law of supply and demand remained in full effect that season. There simply were not enough Cabbage Patch Kids to go around to satisfy the mania that had gripped the Nation.

FYI - Check out this Website for an interesting history of the Cabbage Patch Kids:

This holiday season, “mania” is a good descriptive term for the phenomenon that has gripped a smaller nation: Red Sox Nation. On Wednesday, card-carrying citizens of Red Sox Nation began arriving at Fenway Park – American Express, Visa and MasterCards in hand. They were hoping to have a chance to swipe the cards on Saturday morning to score tickets to the Red Sox 2005 season. I got to experience the hysteria first-hand on Saturday morning.

You may be aware that for the past two seasons, I have been one of the regular volunteers helping the Red Sox operate a program called “Autograph Alley.” Before each home game at Fenway Park, the Red Sox invite back a former player who spends an hour and a half autographing pictures of himself that the Red Sox make available free of charge to their fans. Last season, I was privileged to volunteer at fifty such events. I have laughingly been called the Red Sox “MVP Volunteer.” So, I was not terribly surprised when I received an e-mail last week from Rod Oreste, Red Sox Manager of Publications. Rod also serves as Autograph Alley Coordinator, so we have come to know each other well. He was asking if I would be available to help out on Saturday handling the crowd that was expected for the Christmas at Fenway event surrounding the first day of ticket sales for the 2005 season and defense of the World Series Championship. (It feels so good to be able to write that phrase!)

So, I spent all of Saturday morning at Fenway Park amidst the thousands of eager fans – each hoping against hope for a chance to spend their money on ducats for the defense of the World Series Trophy. As part of the Red Sox efforts to entertain the fans while they waited for the number on their wristbands to be called, Larry Lucchino brought out the World Series Trophy. They then offered individual fans an opportunity to be photographed with the trophy in exchange for a small donation made to the Red Sox Foundation.

As I watched all of this chaotic pageantry unfold, and as I breathed in the ambience of excitement and anticipation that was in the air that circulated around Yawkey Way this weekend, I begun to reflect on the Red Sox “brand.” Through a heuristic combination of strategic brilliance, consistent commitment to superior customer service, a cast of characters straight out of the film “Major League” and a denouement to the post-season that even the Farrelly brothers would have rejected as implausible, the Red Sox brand has never shined more brightly. Yet, for all of the strategic and tactical brilliance employed by “Theo and the Trio” (General Manager Theo Epstein, Principal Owner John Henry, Chairman Tom Werner and President/CEO Larry Lucchino) in building a well-oiled organizational machine and assembling a roster of on-field winners, the secret behind the hysteria of Red Sox nation to want a piece of the action goes well beyond senior level stratagems and managerial machinations.

Part of the serendipitous brilliance of the Red Sox “brand” is that the current cast of self-proclaimed “idiots” – World Champions though they may be – strike me as the “Cabbage Patch Kids” of the sports world. They are quirky, adorably homely, and eminently ”huggable.” Most female fans I know would gladly adopt the Cabbage Patch Kid named Johnny Damon. “Big Poppi” – David Ortiz – engenders passion and loyalty as much for his homespun persona as for his homerun power. Throw in “Cowboy” Kevin Millar, “Dirt Dog” Trot Nixon, “A-Rod Nemesis” Jason Varitek, “bionic” Curt Schilling and “Mango Tree” Pedro Martinez and you have a well-populated Kenmore Square Cabbage Patch. Even though some of these “Kids” are in danger of being “adopted” by other teams over the course of the next few weeks, we can count on Theo and the Trio to re-populate the Cabbage Patch with new personalities that will keep the pulse rate of Red Sox Nation elevated through most of the coming 2005 season.

Bring on Opening Day and the Evil Empire to watch the World Championship flag hoisted for the first time in 86 years to wave over the most colorful “Patch” since Al Capp’s Dog Patch!

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