Relaunching an old and established brand is tricky business. There’s always the risk that you will alienate your long-time customers as you try to appeal to appeal to a new generation of potential buyers. Knowing this, the marketing team at Hillerich & Bradsby Co. (the parent of Louisville Slugger) decided that rather than steer away from the brand’s illustrious past, they would embrace it while finding fresh ways to engage a new generation of consumers. Coming from Procter & Gamble, H&B’s new CMO Kyle Schlegel had to figure out how to put this plan into effect despite working with a modest budget (by P&G standards) and an entirely different corporate structure.
In the interview below, you will learn how Schlegel and the H&B team revitalized the Louisville Slugger brand by taking a “grass roots” approach, listening to their customers and engaging consistently in social media. You will also quickly understand why Schlegel was voted a Rising Star at last year’s CMO Awards.
Drew: You face a similar challenge with the Louisville Slugger brand that you faced with Old Spice: younger, “hipper” brands are infringing on your market share. What do you think Old Spice did in terms of marketing that made its resurgence so successful and how do you plan to apply those same lessons to Louisville Slugger?
On Old Spice, the team realized three critical dynamics to the future success of the brand. The future of the brand had to be rooted in its past in some way, it wasn’t going to happen overnight. We also had to be comfortable with a generation of consumers that may have been lost and focus instead on the entry point consumer that would be the lifeblood of the brand for decades to come. In restaging the brand around 2000, we explored the full history of the brand and worked closely with consumers on which, if any, of those elements were relevant moving forward. We next laid out a multi-year plan that would help get us get ever closer to the goal of the #1 brand in the market and, more specifically, the #1 brand with young men. Finally, we identified a couple of programs that helped expose and sample the brand to the next generation of consumers, including a sampling program in middle schools, where more than 90% of 5th and 6th grade boys received a sample. These choices set in motion the changes over the next decade and the global success that followed.
On Louisville Slugger, we are taking a very similar approach. Our team explored the history of the brand and the sport to understand exactly which elements of the foundation would stay in place and where evolution – or even revolution – was necessary. Next, we looked at a plan over a 3-5 year window where relevance could be regained, consumer by consumer. Finally, the team had to make changes to the brand and focus in ways that wouldn’t allow us to attempt to regain the “lost generation”, a necessary but difficult choice to instead focus on the next generation of players.
Drew: You just updated the Louisville Slugger logo for the first time since 1979. How do you balance modernization with respecting the traditions and history of the brand?
We did not take the change and steps to get there lightly. Throughout the journey, we engaged with every key stakeholder, from pros to amateurs, from retailers to employees and from ages 8 to 80. Each of these people are “players” when we think about our brand purpose…”we exist to make players great”. We quickly learned which elements of the brand were sacred (i.e. the oval within the logo) and which elements could cease to be used (i.e. TPX & TPS sub-brands) in service to the ultimate goal of rebuilding relevance with today’s players.
Drew: A CMO has a lot of choices in terms of where they invest their time. What have been your top priorities in the last 12 months?
I joined a company and team that had not placed a significant focus and investment on marketing in past years. My first 18 months in the role have really focused on building marketing fundamentals, clarifying strategies and helping to narrow these strategies on the most impactful activities. The brand restage was job #1 and took energy from everyone in the organization, leading into market in April 2013. Last fall, the full impact of capability building and the restage took center stage as the brand launched the first fully integrated marketing plan across retailers, grassroots, media and PR, supporting the 2014 product line launch.
Drew: Have there been any big surprises in terms of what’s worked really well and what hasn’t?
Going from Procter & Gamble to Hillerich & Bradsby, Co. has come with a learning curve for sure. Overnight, the structure, funding, scale and capability of P&G went away. In its place, a new set of circumstances took its place. While the reduced scale and funding are certainly challenges, the autonomy, flexibility and focus are refreshing. This biggest positive surprise was in the restage. We were able to pull off the biggest change in the history of a 129 year old brand, supported fully by a new campaign, and do so in less than 12 months; an incredible achievement by the full organization. On the flip side, we have made a choice or two that I anticipated would work better. One example was email marketing with top young players. Through our grassroots relationships, we thought access to databases of thousands of young players would allow great scalability in communication but we learned quickly that this generation of player was not receptive to email marketing campaigns and we had to quickly shift to more one-on-one communication.
Drew: You operate in a relationship-based business. How do you improve loyalty among your customers?
Quite simply…show them you’re listening. We are working more and more with young athletes and reaching them in more channels. Each time, this gives us an opportunity to cede some control for where the brand is going and give them a say. When we show them we’ve heard them by baking their ideas into our brand, loyalty comes with it. This will be a bigger focus for us going forward.
Drew: One of the big challenges a CMO faces is organizational given all the different marketing channels. How are you addressing these organizational challenges?
We’ve taken a long look at our marketing organization and how the roles are split, leading to an evolution in the team and the responsibilities. We increased our staffing by nearly 40%, better clarified tasks (especially things like social media) and worked to provide the right training and the right time to help folks succeed. Our industry has some natural segmentation and we’ve addressed that within the organization but then, on top, gotten people into new roles that allow for future focus areas, like social media, graphic design and retailer marketing.
Drew: Innovation is a sexy word but not as sexy to a CEO as ROI. Have you been able to link your innovative marketing activities to the kinds of business metrics favored by CEOs?
The other big surprise, going from CPG to sporting goods, is the relative lack of timely, in-market data. At P&G, ROI could be broken down to every element of the marketing plan and was available within 2-3 months of execution. In my new life, shares cover only a portion of the market and often trail my more than 12 months. We’ve sought to offset some of these challenges by trying to triangulate around some of our biggest spending areas, including working closely with our field sales reps to help provide insight into what is happening at the store level and how that is being influenced by our marketing efforts. We have also shifted dollars into more digital programs (SEO, social) that allow us to better connect those activities with conversion data to aid judgment and future planning. Transparently, we’re not there yet, but we’re attempting to add new tools each quarter.
Drew: Marketing seems to be getting increasingly complex in terms of ways to spend and ways to monitor. Has it gotten more complex for you and if so, how are you dealing with that complexity?
My change from P&G to H&B has come with a good balance of increased and decreased complexity. The significantly smaller budgets led to a reduction of touchpoints (i.e. TV not possible) but the introduction of a robust grassroots focus comes with new challenges and decisions. So far as grassroots are concerned, we are a part of nearly 400 individual events but limit this complexity by working with partners in this space that work closely with our team to preplan, execute and track.
Drew: How are you integrating social media into marketing efforts at Hillerich & Bradsby? Have social platforms proved to be a valuable channel for your brands?
Social media was not part of the marketing focus 18 months ago but has become one of our top two marketing priorities, including our #1 media investment. In that period of time, we have increased our social following by more than 30X to nearly 500,000 fans across channels. With our limited media budget, we’ve used the majority of that spending in SEO and in driving increased engagement in social media. We now have an incredible audience and, in a sport where something newsworthy happens every day, we have a treasure chest of content and the highest engagement rate of any brand in the industry.
Drew: Do you agree with that notion “that marketing is everything and everything is marketing” if so how have you extended the boundaries of your job beyond the normal purview of the CMO? Asked differently, as CMO, have you been able to address the entire customer experience?
I completely agree with the sentiment. Anywhere and everywhere someone comes in contact with the brand should reinforce the brand purpose, the identity and should help get someone closer to demonstrating their allegiance. Beyond the marketing department, we’ve worked very closely with all other functions. The two where the most energy has been spent are with Sales and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. With Sales, we now have strategic marketing discussions with each retailer and have increased our priority here by creating the new position of Director of Retail Marketing. In the Museum & Factory, we have a built-in competitive advantage. With over 270,000 guests per year, this provides us with an opportunity to tell the history of the brand and provide a sense of the sport and where the brand is going next. With consumers from 8 to 80 “in house” every day, we’ve worked closely with the Museum staff to ensure the customer experience is complementary and additive to everything else we do.