What coaching an eight-year-old girls' basketball team taught me about marketing

We are dealing with limited resources (practice time being the equivalent to a marketing budget), says the the group account director.

Every March I get giddy. The brackets, the big upsets, the buzzer beaters. I love it. Basketball has always been at the center of my life. So, needless to say, this winter I jumped at the chance to coach my eight-year-old daughter’s first basketball team.

But as I set out to teach these girls about basketball, what surprised me was what they taught me. They showed me firsthand the importance of attention, motivation and focus in reaching anyone you want to reach.

Rule #1: No one is listening
My first practice was a mess. Kids giggling. Doing cartwheels. Watching the other team that shared the gym. No one heard a word I said. I needed to figure out how to interest them.

This is not unlike the world we market to. We all have a zillion things going on, short attention spans, and at the end of the day, most humans, nice as they may be, are incredibly self-serving. We must accept this as rule number one and our starting point in all marketing. No one is seeking out your next ad.

So, how do we break through? Advertising has always been about being disruptive, but that alone is no longer enough. The best way to break through in our hyper-drive world today is for a brand to be useful. Whether that is highlighting the benefits of a product that makes your life better—like the latest work for the Google Assistant, which constantly pushes to improve the customer experience, or Domino’s continued mission to improve delivery. Be disruptive and useful and people will listen.

Rule #2: Nothing motivates like a dragon
In coaching my team, I tried being fun. I tried being strict. I talked about winning. I talked about being their best. Nothing worked. Then I had another idea. I bought a $10 stuffed animal on Amazon, named it "Coco the fire breathing dragon," called it our mascot, then told the kids that whoever listened the best and worked the hardest at practice each week would get to take Coco home for the week. And I’ll be damned if that didn’t turn everything around. All of a sudden, I had nine sets of eyes on me each time I talked and kids doing everything I asked of them on the court. I had finally figured out something that motivated my eight-year-old audience.

In marketing, too often we don’t understand what truly motivates people. Brands like Warby Parker understand that people go crazy for a designer feel at an affordable price. It’s the emotional reward of looking good while also getting a great deal.

Panera is another good example. While the rest of the industry was focused on fresh, Panera understood that people today are highly motivated to find great tasting food that is also free from additives and preservatives. They focused on not just fresh, but ‘clean’ food, and remodeled everything around that idea and are continuing to reap the rewards today.

Rule #3: One thing is good
We lost our first game 33-7. Yikes! I quickly saw this team was not loaded with future hall of famers. But I realized that whenever I asked the kids to focus on one thing that they could do it well. The most plentiful thing in eight-year-old hoops is missed shots. Tons of them. So, I figured if we could be exceptional at rebounding, we could begin to win. Every practice we committed significant time to building rebounding as a strength. And by becoming really good at rebounding, we quickly closed the gap on the scoreboard through this one competitive advantage.

Creating focus for marketing can be incredibly difficult. Our instinct is to include a long list of features about our product and hope that something sticks. But just like on my eight-year-old team, we are dealing with limited resources (practice time being the equivalent to a marketing budget) and limited attention span (eight-year-olds being equivalent to busy consumers). We have to make the tough choice of what to focus on, and what to leave behind. That’s the only way to win.

Look at how successful GEICO has been in repeatedly saying "15 minutes will save you 15 percent." Arby’s has also shown that you can grow a business with one thing. Through their "We have the meats" statement, they have broadened their offering, but still have the ability to focus on one powerful advantage.

I learned so much from my girls this year. They reminded me how important it is to grab attention. How to connect in a way that is motivating. And the power of focus. It was a wonderful season, and I can’t wait to see what they will teach me next year.

Joe King is a group account director at mono.

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