Transforming Into A Winner

The Cubs and the Ricketts family were committed to transforming the Cubs brand. To

successfully accomplish this goal, the team needed to renovate Wrigley Field in ways that

maintained classic elements of the ballpark while providing a winning experience to fans,

players, media, and sponsors.

In High Visibility, Rein, et al. (2006) explore three types of brand transformation –

minimal, moderate, and extensive. The restoration that began after the 2014 season on Wrigley

Field is an example of a moderate transformation. In the recent past, the Cubs focused on

minimal transformations of Wrigley Field. This included the addition of lights in 1988 and

changes to the bleachers in 2005. While these changes were important, they did not

significantly alter the venue. Many other sports projects of similar cost are an example of major

transformation. This includes the tearing down and rebuilding of a venue or building an entirely

new venue in a different location. The extensive transformation eliminates most, if not all,

components that define a venue and its impact on a team’s brand.

The Ricketts family realized that Wrigley Field did not need an extensive transformation.

The Cubs were committed to keeping critical elements of the in-stadium experience. A fan could

still expect to buy a Chicago-style hot dog, sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”, and view the

hand-turned scoreboard.

However, the team did need to change Wrigley Field to make the ballpark more

competitive with more modern facilities and communicate these changes to the team’s fans,

players, media, and sponsors. In High Visibility, the authors highlight four stages of

transformation that enable people and organizations to embrace their past while building a

successful new brand. We have adapted these components and applied a three-stage version of

the model to demonstrate how the Cubs implemented a transformational communication

strategy. These stages are brand regeneration, testing, and realization.

Brand Regeneration

Because the Cubs had an established brand that distinguished the team from other

sports and entertainment organizations, it did not need to focus on the brand generation that

the High Visibility authors typically recommend for brands. Rather, the Cubs were determined to

move on from the loveable losers identity. As Cubs Chairman Ricketts asserted, “The brand

lovable losers is dead to us. We’ll soon be lovable winners.” (Bearak , 2014).

The brand-as-person dynamic played a pivotal role in beginning the transformation of

the Cubs identity that the Ricketts family wanted for the organization. A cornerstone of the

Ricketts brand transformation was shifting the brand-as-person away from the stars off the field

to the stars on the field. This started with hiring Epstein as the organization’s president after the

2011 season. Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer made a commitment to rebuild the Cubs

Minor League farm system and trade for younger players to develop star players.

By the end of 2014 season, the Cubs had built a strong core of young players that had

star potential, including Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. In addition, the Cubs signed

pitcher Jon Lester and former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon to substantial, multimillion

dollar contracts. Maddon’s unorthodox approach to both fielding and hitting had been one of

the catalysts the enabled the Rays to reach the World Series in 2008 and numerous playoff

appearances in the following years. These personnel moves showed that the Cubs were

committed to finding the people who would give them the best opportunity to become winners.

Signing previously successful front office personnel, players, and managers clearly sent a

message to the Cubs’ audiences that the team had made a new commitment to winning. The

question then became: is this the message the audiences want to hear? More specifically,

singing new players impacts the team’s extended identity. Wrigley Field was part of the team’s

core identity. Would making the ballpark into the home of a loveable winner violate the

audience’s expectations? These are the questions the Cubs took into the testing phase of the

brand transformation and regeneration.

Testing

The Cubs recognized early that making the type of brand change that the team was

looking to make required consistency and repetition. In The Sports Strategist, Rein, et al. identify

three primary narrative types that can be used by sports organizations to most effectively

communicate with audiences – organic, directed, and shaped. An organic narrative occurs when

there is a story developed with little input from the organization. The directed narrative is used

when an organization plays the central role in creating a storyline or brand. The shaped

narrative can be employed as a combination of these approaches where the organization

“capitalizes on an existing storyline to add branding value.” (Rein, 2015, pp. 52-54).

For the Cubs, the shaped narrative approach worked best for the organization. However,

it did appear at first that the Cubs would use a directed narrative approach. In particular, the

Ricketts family and the Cubs organization clearly made a decision to move from loveable losers

to loveable winners.

A deeper analysis shows how that was not the case. In fact, it was the Cubs’ use of an

organic narrative combined with the Ricketts’ directed approach that helped team gain support

for the renovation of Wrigley Field. In his book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning

Campaigns, author Sasha Issenberg explored how winning candidates and their teams were

using a new approach in audience analysis. In particular, successful campaigns were able to

identify and focus on the swing voter. There were certain voters who were unlikely to support a

candidate no matter how many commercials, direct mail advertisements, or emails they viewed

or received. It made little sense to continue to focus efforts on people who were never going to

change their mind. Conversely, there were certain voters who were going to likely support a

candidate without any campaign outreach. It also would not be an efficient use of the

campaign’s resources to target these voters (Issenberg, 2012).

The swing voter is the person who was undecided about which person to vote for and

could be persuaded to support a candidate if the campaign could determine the best message

and approach to reach that voter. As Sasha Issenberg contends, “Armed with research from

behavioral psychology, data-mining, and randomized experiments that treat voters as unwitting

guinea pigs, the smartest campaigns now believe they know who you will vote for even before

you do.”(Issenberg, N.D.) Campaigns shape messages to these voters using small experiments

where that message is communicated through different formats and content. This includes

sending emails to certain audiences using different languages or making different requests. For

example, President Barack Obama’s campaign realized that it could increase voter turnout by

having students sign a non-binding Pledge To Vote Card. Even though there was absolutely no

repercussion to not voting, the campaign increased young voter turnout using this approach

(Issenberg, 2012).

The Cubs understood Victory Lab’s approach as well as anyone in the sports industry.

Numerous senior leaders and managers within the organization had experiences with political

campaigns and government organizations. The organization recognized that this strategy would

be helpful in gaining support for the Cubs. By privately financing the Wrigley Field renovation

project, the organization knew it had the support of many fans, politicians and local businesses

that wanted to see the improvements. There were also some outspoken critics who would be

unlikely to ever support the organization’s renovation efforts or brand transformation. However,

the team recognized that a large number of people made up a swing audience. The key was to

determine which narratives could build on existing storylines to help engage with these

audiences.

This starts with core Cubs fans. The Ricketts family wanted to make the Cubs a winner,

but did Cubs fans want that as well? Starting in the 2008 season, it became clear that that was

the case. That year, the Cubs won their second Central Division title, but were eliminated in the

divisional round of the playoffs. Even though the Cubs rarely achieved this level of on-field

success, the fan sentiment had changed. As then manager Lou Pinella stated, “When I came

here a couple of years ago, if you told our fans we’re going to win two divisions, I think they’d be

happy with that. Now if you tell [them] you’re going to win a third and not have [playoff] success,

they’re not going to be happy with that.” (Rein, 2015, p. 6). Rick Kaempfer and Tom Latourette

(Kaemper, 2014) humorously summarized many Cubs fans’ displeasure in their song entitled

“We Can’t Wait 100 Years”:

“Cause we can't wait 100 years

But we can't wait even one year more

It's been a whole damn century

It's time to even up the score.”

The adjusted fan expectations could be seen in the on and off field results from the

2008-2013 seasons. The Cubs record during that time span was 453-517 with team failing to win

more than 83 games in the years after 2009. Attendance declined each year in this span and

television ratings decreased by 64% over same time period (Rein, 2015 pp. 5-6).

These changes in audience behavior show why the Cubs actually employed a shaped

rather than a directed narrative. Before the team could implement its ballpark renovation plan

or even before the Ricketts assumed controlled of the Cubs, it was clear that fans now wanted

the Cubs to be a winner. Rather than having to wait for testing results after having started its

brand regeneration, the Cubs had five years worth of data and an experiment to show that the

team needed to be more competitive to engage with fans. We call this approach deductive

testing. This enables organizations to use the results of a testing environment that already exists

to create a brand proposition that will work in the future.

That is a critical reason why the Cubs shaped the renovation as a way to be a more

competitive team. In its communication with fans during media interviews and on its own

website, the Cubs stressed how the new restoration would help the team become better in

direct and indirect ways. Before the renovation, Wrigley Field had dilapidated batting cages,

weight rooms, and training facilities. It is hard to attract and retain top players with these types

of facilities. Therefore a significant renovation was needed to Wrigley Field that incorporated

these elements.

In addition, the Cubs also could use this message to support why the ballpark needed

new signage. This was the most controversial element of the renovation plan but the Cubs took

steps to make this part less controversial. This included agreeing to a plan that would mandate

advertisements to be a minimum of 20 feet apart and a minimum of 65 feet on either side of the

center-field scoreboard, as well as reducing the video board to 3,990 square feet (Bearak, 2014).

The signs were still a risky proposition to fan perception. In addition to potentially blocking the

rooftops, fans were not sure if having more signage would make the venue lose the nostalgic

elements of the ballpark and replace them with items more commonly found in more recent

baseball venues, including large digital scoreboards with advertising and promotions.

On Opening Night in April 2015, however, many fans expressed their support of the

videoboards. Comments ranged from, “I love it,” to another fan proclaiming, “It's about time.

I've been sick of arguing with people next to me about whether he (a runner) is safe or out. It's

good to be able to see a replay.” (Constable, 2015) Cubs fan Mike Smuda, who has been going to

Wrigley Field since the 1960s, stated, “"I like what I see. They're still keeping the old stadium

feel. They still have the iconic (manual) scoreboard that they're not touching, while

modernizing." (Madhani, 2015)

Bud Sonoda also articulated another popular position with Cubs’ fans on the

construction. Sonada stated he understood temporarily giving up his bleacher seats at the

beginning of the season while this section was under construction because the restoration

meant the “Cubs become a better team.” (Constable , 2015) Sonada’s comments is another way

to help show how Cubs positioning these moves as a way to generate more money that could be

used to sign more top talent was resonating with many fans. Rather than the increasing profits

and returns for the Ricketts, the Cubs were committed to use the money to make the team

better. While sympathetic to the rooftop owners’ point of view, many Cubs fans would prefer

the team did anything possible to sign the best players. The ballpark was now positioned as the

foundation for how the team would make that happen. This narrative was routinely repeated to

build and maintain support of the project among Wrigley Field faithful.

The team’s partnership with Wintrust Financial Corporation is another excellent

example of this approach. Wintrust CEO Edward J Wehmer understood the economic benefit of

working with the Cubs in helping to enhance the financial service firm’s brand awareness and

perception with its core customers that were also Cubs fans. However, Wehmer was also

himself a big Cubs fan. He was such a devoted supporter that Wehmer planted a Cubs white flag

with the blue “W” at his home.

He was also tired of seeing the Cubs lose. His company’s sponsorship enables Wintrust

to be a part of the team’s winning transformation. Wehmer realizes that the Cubs are using the

money primarily to create a better team, and he agrees with the team’s contention that

generating more money through Wrigley Field is an integral part of that effort. The Cubs deserve

credit for finding a sponsor who believes in their brand transformation and wants to take a

significant role in making it happen. However, Wintrust and Wehmer would not make this type

of financial commitment if the Cubs had not been consistent in its communication and actions in

support of the brand transformation (Faulkner, 2015).

The Cubs also identified another interesting swing audience group through the use of

deductive testing. While the country at large was impacted by the economic and financial

downturn that started in 2007-08, the city of Chicago, Cook County, and the state of Illinois were

particularly hard hit by this crisis. By 2014, the city, county, and state governments were facing

massive budget deficits and unfunded pension liabilities that forced a reduction in city services.

For example, the city of Chicago had to implement large-school closures that impacted 12,000

students in 2013 for budgetary reasons (Perez, 2013).

Not everyone in Chicago, Cook County, or Illinois was a Cubs fan. However, every person

who lived in these areas supported items that could bring in new dollars to local government in

ways that would not increase taxes. Unlike other recent stadium construction projects, the

privately financed construction would add new dollars to the local economy without direct

government assistance. In addition, the Cubs already had a track record of helping

neighborhoods grow as demonstrated by what happened to Wrigleyville in the 1980s. Therefore,

the organization prioritized targeting non-Cubs fans that wanted an influx of dollars designed to

aid governmental fiscal issues and enhance local economic development to be supporters of the

Wrigley Field renovation.

The central insight that the Cubs had in the testing phase was that the message had to

focus on the direct benefits to the swing audience. The restoration was clearly designed to

benefit the Cubs organization. To gain the support of the swing audience, the team had to

communicate effectively how the changes to Wrigley Field would improve their lives. For Cubs

fans, a winning team meant that they would get more out of being a supporter of the

organization. For local residents, the Cubs construction project would bring new tax dollars to

governments that desperately needed the funds. Making the individual benefits clear made it

easier for the collective swing audiences to love the new winning brand for the Cubs.

In addition, The Cubs employed a new approach to using brand testing. Rather than

determine a brand and test it with their audiences, the team decided to use the information it

already had to target swing audiences. As the team entered the refinement stage, it began to

use more traditional approaches to ensure that its messages continued to reach its target

audiences.