I’m not much of a stick and ball man, but I couldn’t help enjoying the kerfuffle around Johnny Damon’s defection from the Red Sox to join the hated (in Boston, anyway) New York Yankees last week. As skaters circled the ice at Rockefeller Center and the Empire State building glowed red and green, the big photo op in the city so nice they named it twice was Johnny getting his hair cut.
Because, if you’re going to be a Yankee, you can’t sport hair that touches your collar. And no earings. And no beards. Those pinstriped jerseys must be done up to the top button, and nobody gets their name on the back. Not even Johnny. Because no man is bigger than the Yankees. They call it The Code, and the infamous George Steinbrenner enforces it with fierce, fascist consistency. He’s been called baseball’s Hammurabi and other less interesting names, and you get the feeling from some sports writers that, even if they admire his intentions, they think he’s a bit of a loon.
Steinbrenner’s not a loon. He’s a brand manager.
Brands, you see, are basically entropic in nature. As concepts, they rarely get more pure and strong over time. Instead, they slowly decay, casualties of opportunism, careerism, greed, cynicism, corporate chicanery, neglect and direct mail advertising. For a brand to continue to mean something, it doesn’t need creativity and inspiration and fresh thinking. That kind of nonsense is death to a brand. What it needs is an iron fist wielded by a papal authority that believes no amount of innovation can eclipse a founding purpose. Steinbrenner gets this.
There’s a famous story that illustrates the point amusingly (feel free to steal this. I did): Some years ago, a hirsute Lou Piniella confronted Steinbrenner during spring training at the Yankees’ complex. Piniella wanted to know, since Jesus had long hair, why couldn’t he?
Steinbrenner said, “Lou, you see that pool over there?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Piniella.
“Well, when you can walk across it, you can wear your hair any way you want. Until then, you’ll do it my way.”
You own one of the greatest brands of all time. It’s part of the fabric of American history and mythology. It’s known and admired by people who aren’t even interested in what you have to sell. Which, by the way, isn’t much beyond the brand and a license to play a silly kids’ game when the weather’s nice. That, sir, is some hella tight brand management. That, sir, is inspiring.
I’m going to remember this the next time some wet-behind-the-ears MBA decides to make his personal mark on a brand of mine. Bust a Steinbrenner on his pinstriped posterior. Give him some old time religion. If you ask me, what good brands need right now is a little less innovation, and a little more smiting.