Full disclosure: I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Have been since the late-70s. The NFL and several its teams have done a great job of distinguishing themselves and creating strong brands. The Raiders, Cowboys and Packers are all great examples of teams with unique personalities, or really, brands. But I think the Steelers may be the best example for brand marketers. You can make an argument they are the most successful franchise in the NFL (if they win the Super Bowl in two weeks, they will have won more than any other team). Let’s take a look at several of the lessons the Steelers can teach us:
1. Stable ownership
While many pro sports teams have been bought and sold several times over in recent decades, the Steelers have been owned by the Rooney family since the teams founding in 1933. But it is more than just that, the Rooney’s have been smart enough to not only hire the right people, but to then get out of their way. In an era when so many owners think they are the most important part of the team, the Rooneys have quietly watched from the sidelines as their teams keep winning and winning.
The Lesson: Stick to what you know best, hire the best people and let them do their jobs.
2. Continuity matters
Since 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and now Mike Tomlin. All three coaches have taken the team to the Super Bowl. There were times when it would have been easy to fire Noll or Cowher, but management stuck with them and it paid dividends. We live in a “what have you done for me lately” world, especially in sports. But developing a winning team, in sports or business, takes a little time.
The Lesson: Sometimes success takes a little time, but altering course three years into a five year plan only puts you back at square one.
3. Know your market, know yourself
It’s interesting to watch teams from New York or L.A. get caught up making player moves just to get media attention. Or to see a team from try to one up its rival. The people in Pittsburgh aren’t flashy, don’t want to be flashy and don’t particularly like players who are flashy. As a result, you rarely hear about Steelers players writing books, starring in movies or dating supermodels. And when too much celebrity came to QB Ben Roethlisberger, the football Gods punished him with a motorcycle accident and an apendectomy. Big Ben learned his lesson the hard way. But the Steelers are a reflection of their city, and as such, have been, are and will always been synonymous with the city.
The Lesson: Understand your consumer and make your brand a reflection of what they respect and admire.
4. Don’t rely on the cult of personality, build on the strength of component parts
It’s funny how Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t get credit, because the defense is so good. And head coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t get credit because he stepped in to a winning situation. And the defense is so good because of the coordinator, Dick LeBeau. Or is LeBeau so good because of the players on the field? I’ve been following the Steelers for 30 years, and they’ve had plenty of great players, but never one that has stood head and shoulders above the rest of the team, like say Peyton Manning in Indianapolis or John Elway in Denver (both great players and very good franchises). The Steelers have always been team first and that’s why they have 17 players/coaches in the Hall of Fame, because they all made themselves and each other better.
The Lesson: Having a strong team beats having one superstar. Football, like business, is too complicated, with too many specialized skills, for one person to do it all. As great as Steve Jobs is, what’s going to happen when he steps away from Apple? (Best wishes to him during this current health scare.)
5. Understand the fundamentals of your business
Since 1972 the Steelers have had seven losing seasons. During that same time period the legendary Green Bay Packers have had 14 losing seasons. The Steelers success is based on their understanding of how football has worked since its inception: stop the other team and successfully run the ball. You can add other elements, like win the turnover battle, but really it’s run the ball, and have a great defense. That was the formula for their Super Bowl victories in the 1970s and it’s what they rely on today.
The Lesson: Focus on the two most important elements for achieving success, and don’t worry about everything else.
Stability, Continuity, Understand, Teamwork & Fundamentals. The foundation of a great team, the foundation of a great brand