Baseball: A Metaphor for Life and a Lesson for Marketing

Baseball has long been known as “America’s pastime” and following its All-Star mid-summer classic last week, it got me thinking about how the rules of baseball are metaphors for life.

For example, we are all familiar with the slogans “playing in the major leagues” or “batting 1000%” to refer to someone who’s working at the highest levels and getting everything just right. There are also the adages “hitting a home run” or “knocking the ball out of the park” to describe a job extremely well done, or conversely, “striking out,” to label a job poorly done or worse yet, some sort of personal rejection.

As it turns out, there are rules in baseball that also apply to marketing––not metaphorically but in a more direct and pragmatic way. Here are three examples:

It’s all about Analytics: Baseball has changed over the years as analytics have entered the game. While there are multiple examples, it’s Billy Beane and his MoneyBall philosophy, which are often credited as changing the game through the use of data and analytics to evaluate player performance and help make game time decisions. Revolutionary when first introduced, analytics are now a conventional part of today’s game. In fact, baseball managers who do not embrace analytics are looked at as luddites, and may find themselves out of a job.

So goes it in marketing as well. Analytics fuel today’s marketing programs measuring a wide range of performance factors. There are tools to measure share of voice, media mentions and placements, social media engagement, and website performance (traffic, time on site, downloads, etc.) There are also tools to measure customer behavior––including pre- and post-purchasing trends. Collectively, these analytics help marketers to make smart decisions, adjusting, re-directing, or even sunsetting a campaign based on performance. And just like in baseball, analytics are now a must, requiring marketers to acquaint themselves with the various options or be left behind.

Focus on being better, not different: Several years ago, when I served on an Advisory Board to the Marketing Department at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, the group discussed how determining how an organization’s products and capabilities are different––is the heart of creating marketing campaign. One of the group’s members, the former head of Marketing for the Oakland Athletics, spoke eloquently about how his years on the A’s taught him this valuable lesson: since baseball is baseball regardless of the team playing, good marketing doesn’t have to focus on what makes you different, but it must focus on what makes you better.

Since there is little to no difference among competitive products in many industries, being better is often the winning point of differentiation. This can be a reflection of service, process, commitment, attitude, culture or other intangibles. For the small-market A’s, this meant a marketing focus on community outreach, family-friendly events, special promotions and creating a meaningful customer experience long before it became a part of today’s everyday marketing vernacular. “Being better” also supports what is considered a contrarian marketer’s point of view in that the best marketing is not about being “first to market” but being “first to mind.”

Getting it right when going global: When baseball’s World Series takes place later this year, it will mark the 115th version of the Fall classic. However, in today’s global world, “World Series” seems a misnomer. For starters, Major League Baseball (MLB) only features teams from across the U.S. and one team from Canada, despite the vast number of players from Latin America, where MLB teams have invested in player development programs, and Asia, where recruiting has focused on the Japanese leagues.

More recently, MLB has looked to expand its global audience in Europe and took two of baseball’s marquee teams and division rivals––the NY Yankees and the Boston Red Sox––to play the “London Series” in England. While the games were nationally televised in the U.S. and attendance in the UK was strong, the final scores were more like that of football than baseball. As a result, American sports commentators scoffed at the effort, thought the games were gimmicky and with laughable scores, did not feel this was a good way to present baseball to the European market.

These various circumstances present an example of both the need and desire to expand globally and, the importance of making sure it’s done in a well thought-out, and sensitive way. In today’s environment, you can’t just say you’re global, you have to be global. And to make headway, your marketing needs to be smart and not bungle the opportunity. As the old saying goes, you get one chance at a first impression so make sure it’s not only positive but real. With this lesson, baseball still has much to learn.

As a long-suffering Mets fan, I’m well acquainted with baseball’s foibles and I recognize how football and basketball have, in the eyes of American fans, superseded baseball. But it still fascinates me to see how the lessons of baseball equate to so much of life, and how the marketing lessons of America’s pastime, are actually quite current.