One of my hobbies is collecting autographed footballs from former Alabama teams. Often, former teams will have a 25th anniversary or even 50th anniversary reunion, and I like to attend these when I can and get members from that team to sign a football for me.
I attended one of these reunions for a team from the 1960s one time, and as the players were signing my football, I noticed how neat the signatures were, and how they stacked on top of each other as you see in this picture:
As one former player signed my football, I mentioned how neat and organized the signatures were. The player then told me why that was the case. He said that every summer, Coach Bryant would take the entire team to the cafeteria, and have everyone sit down, and they would spend all day signing footballs. So these players that signed my football so neatly, were simply going back to what they had done years ago when they were in college! Those footballs were then sent to fans who had written to the University requesting autographs!
If you think about it, this was exceptional marketing for the Alabama football program. The media landscape in 1960 was obviously far different than it is today. Many people in the Deep South at that time still didn’t have a television, radio and newspapers were how most people got their news.
Also, think about who would most likely write to the University of Alabama asking for autographs. It seems likely that most of the requests would come from children. The parents probably helped their son or daughter write the letter, and they probably expected a signed photo of Coach Bryant at best, as their reward. Then to receive a football signed by the entire team? It must have been a huge thrill for both the young fan and their parents!
This would have cultivated lifelong fans of the University of Alabama. These footballs and likely the letters accompanying would become display pieces that would spark admiration and the owners would recall how they acquired the football for years to come. Even today, brands do things like give children a small gift on their birthday. The idea is to create a devote to the brand early on, so that these people grow up to become adult customers.
Whenever I talk to companies about how they could better connect with their customers and grow advocacy efforts, I always stress that the WANT to connect with your customers has to be there. The tools and the tactics and programs are great, but you have to want to create and cultivate better relationships with your customers. It needs to be in your brand’s DNA to value your customers and to want to better understand and connect with them.
In the early 1960’s, Coach Bryant was still building the Alabama football program. He’d already had some success, but at the same time, in-state rival Auburn University was enjoying its own level of on-field success. So if we go back to the limited media landscape of the early 1960s, think about how important it was to create fans of your program at an early age. In the state of Alabama, most college football fans pick either Alabama or Auburn at a very early age, and rarely do they switch allegiance later in life. Most people are truly lifelong fans of one school or the other.
Coach Bryant was smart enough to know this, and that’s why he made sure that he surprised and delighted young fans with team-autographed footballs.
Knowing how to better connect with your customers is the easy part. But you have to WANT to do so, as well.