A Free Pass

Today is Black Monday in the NFL – the first day after the regular season ends when coaches (and some general managers) of underperforming franchises are shown the door. In 2012, 7 out of the 32 coaches in this elite group departed. This year, it looks to be about 5. So there’s a 15-20% turnover of staff rate in this job. Now I’m not suggesting anyone is shedding tears for a guy like Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski who is reportedly pocketing a guaranteed $10m+ for the remainder of his contract. But it does raise an interesting point when you look at a few of the individual circumstances and see how managing expectations is so critical for a coach … or a brand.

Take Mike Shanahan (ex-Washington Redskins) for example. This storied coach, winner of Super Bowls as head honcho in Denver, actually guided the Skins team in 2012 to the playoffs. One year later, the exit door. Shanahan in particular had a tough few months down the stretch, with rumors of discord between him, the owner, and his star quarterback. Benching a healthy RG3 in the final few weeks not only upset the fan base but was virtually asking to be shown the door once their miserable season concluded.

Now if we view Shanahan as a brand, it’s clear that where he fell short was his ability to retain the confidence of the ticket buying public and the owner. In a similar way, a brand need to retain the confidence of the brand buying public and it’s corporate owner. The marketing world is littered with examples of brands which let down their customer franchise and paid the price – from the Ford Edsel to New Coke, from Bic disposable underwear  to Sony Betamax. Letting down the corporate owner (shareholders, private equity, etc) may seem like a more diffuse concept, but it’s not. Underperforming brands which don’t yield the margins or deliver on some strategic goal invariably are starved of resources, to the point of selling off or extinguishing the brand. As an aside, we could say that the Jerry Jones situation in Dallas, where head coach Jason Garrett is ‘starved’ of responsibility for choosing a defensive coordinator or calling the offensive plays is a similar situation. Although he’s not extinguished … yet.

Yet there are also other NFL coaches whose names are not surfacing on Black Monday, even though their resume of success is comparable to Shanahan. Take Joe Philbin, holder of a losing record for the Miami Dolphins and unlike Shanahan without any success in getting a team to the postseason in the last couple years. To top it off, Philbin had his control of the locker room called into question earlier this season with the infamous Incognito/Martin bullying affair. Yet here he sits on Black Monday, safe for another day. How did he manage to survive? No doubt his case was helped by legendary coach Don Shula, who prior to the last game of the season publically endorsed Philbin . Here we have another parallel to how suspect brands survive – get an accredited endorsement to build the customer’s confidence. Jamie Lee Curtis endorses Activia yoghurt, and now the brand is #1 in the category. Kate Middleton wears Marks & Spencer shoes, and sales rocket for a brand which previously was languishing.

At the end of the day, whether calling the plays on the sideline or gaining display at Walmart, both coaches and brands need to keep people happy. Brands need to deliver on their brand promise; coaches need to deliver on their ‘brand’ promise of winning football. Both can find themselves out the door quickly for failure to perform, and/or failure to manage expectations. And both can sometimes resurrect their fortunes through astute endorsements.


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