Weekend Thought: Running It Back

A football analogy to marketing...

Happy weekend to all of my Let Me Thinkers.

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Let’s think!

Weekend Thought

The NFL season is upon us. Fantasy football drafts are in full swing. My gambling itch is returning.

So let’s dedicate an entire newsletter comparing brand marketing to the plight of the modern NFL running back!

For those of you who don’t follow the NFL, there’s a revolution occurring.

It’s called, don’t pay your star running backs.

A running back is the player who takes the ball from the quarterback, and runs with it.

They are often some of the most recognizable players in the NFL.

Players like:

Next to quarterbacks, star running backs are extremely popular. Christian McCaffrey currently has the 10th highest selling NFL jersey, the highest of any non-QB offensive player.

Players like Derrick Henry and Saquon Barkley are the faces of their franchises, respectively, and are both the centerpieces of their teams’ offenses.

Running backs are fast, flashy, exciting, and can change a team’s fortune in a nano-second with a long run or a home run play.

So what’s the problem?

Well, teams have basically deemed running backs “non-essential” to winning.

The past two Super Bowl teams featured running backs without much fanfare. The Eagles featured a running back who is no longer on the team. The Chiefs featured a running back that was drafted in the very last round of the NFL draft.

In fact, the last 5 Super Bowl winner’s starting running backs are not exactly household names. Isiah Pacheco, Cam Akers (who ran for 21 yards in the Super Bowl), Leonard Fournette, Damien Williams, Sony Michel.

Only two of these players were first round NFL draft picks. One of them is no longer in the league, and the other one is currently unsigned by an NFL team.

So, there’s been tension and turmoil. Quality running backs are signing for cheap contracts, especially those who are later in their career - at only 28 years old.

Worse, the exceptional players can’t get long-term commitments.

Saquon Barkley is playing on a one-year deal because the Giants won’t sign him to the terms he wants for a longer contract.

He will make less this year than someone named “Cole Kmet,” who, I assure you, does not have a top 10 selling NFL jersey.

The marketing goober that I am see’s an analogy here.

Brand marketing is often thought of as flashy, exciting, and can change a company’s fortune quickly with a long run or a home run play.

But it often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to investment.

People want the flash, substance, and performance, but they don’t want to pay up for it.

Instead, they want to milk a limited investment for all of its worth, and get enough tread on the tires just to skate by.

And young companies can do it without feeling what a short-sighted investment in building for the long-term can do.

At first, they fish from the most qualified people interested in their product with cheap media, and expect it to get easier, not harder, as they scale with bigger bolder tactics.

Now, there are some areas where this analogy falls down. For example, the more carries you give to a running back, the worse they theoretically become in the long-term.

There are only so many carries that a Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey can take, before performance starts to slip.

Whereas, the rule of thumb is with more carries, brand marketing becomes more effective, more efficient over time, because it takes a while to gear up.

And running backs, given how much they take on, and the toll of it, are more injury-prone.

Which perhaps reinforces the quality of this analogy, given how often brand marketing plans hit potholes or don’t perform to expectation, given the weight its forced to carry relative to its investment or design.

But let’s park the nitpicks for a second.

If brand marketing is like a modern NFL running back…

…how do you do it?

How do you prove your worth?

How do you unlock more budget for yourself and what you do?

There are a few ways to go about it.

Hold out. Like any modern NFL player angling for a new contract, you can just - stop reporting for duty and see how the team fares without you. This option might not be available to you as a marketer, but it’s always an interesting exercise to observe how business performance, in both the short and long term, performs when brand marketing stops.

Similar to a star running back, the short term impact is indistinguishable, but long-term, you feel the effects, and your demand plateaus or falls off.

Reward your O-Line. Usually, a running back is only as good as the offensive line protecting them and opening up holes for them to run through. And I think that’s similar to brand marketing - it’s only as effective as the owned channels, landing page, and performance marketing supporting it. Work with them, share learnings, and thank them for helping you achieve the collective team goal. Buy them a flat screen TV at the end of the year (not actually, but metaphorically).

Too often these sides of the house are forgotten or villainized, and that’s not going to help anyone get paid or the team succeed and win.

Diversify. Remember that team last year who had a last round running back, and still won the Super Bowl? Well, they also had a quarterback named Patrick Mahomes, who can throw AND run as well as any running back in the NFL.

This often gets overlooked in modern analysis of NFL running backs - the best quarterbacks are often some of the best runners. Both Super Bowl teams last year featured quarterbacks who are exceptional runners, and this trend is likely to continue.

So, diversify. Create a brand marketing engine that does different things well. Like the running back who can catch passes, or the quarterback who can also run, test and develop different skills and tactics that can make you more valuable to the team / company.

Just make sure you become a jack of all trades, vs. a master of none - you don’t want to do a lot of little things poorly, underfunding or underplanning them just to accomplish a lot of different company KPIs or goals.

Be honest at what you can do well, invest fully in it, and then test a few bets that could help elevate your game in the future.

And finally the last one…

Perform. Go out there and perform. Don’t make excuses. Don’t say things are working when they’re not. Hit home runs, hit holes hard, and when you get tackled behind the line, learn and optimize instead of wallowing and complaining. Too many brand marketers are mired in a sea of WAHs! about how they get the short end of the stick, instead of going out and proving it. So prove it.

So, there it is. If brand marketing wants to punch above the modern NFL running back dilemma, and unlock money for the future, it needs to prove its worth.

Or else, it’ll just be the flashy face of the organization, with no investment behind it.

Stay thinkin,