What the New York Yankees Can Teach You About Branding

Love him or hate him, George Steinbrenner did a lot for baseball and helped turn the New York Yankees into a brand recognized around the world. Sure you could say that it’s New York and everybody knows New York. But how many NY Mets hats do you see outside of the northeast? Outside of the United States? Do they recognize the name New York Knicks in the UK? How about the New York Jets in Germany? (They may think you’re talking about JFK or LaGuardia airports.) The fact is (and I hate to say it because I’m a Tigers fan) the Yankees are one of the most, if not the most recognized team brands in any professional sport. In my opinion, Manchester United, the British Football/Soccer team, is its only real competition.

NY baseball cap

The Personal Brand History. Steinbrenner took over the Yankees in 1973, a time when the team was mediocre or worse. He made them American League pennant winners in three years, and world champions in four. Although initially against free agency, he quickly became one of its biggest proponents. He also initially said he was going to “plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned.” Even someone with only a passing knowledge of baseball knows how that worked out. Steinbrenner was the most boisterous owner baseball has ever known. Beginning with Johnny Carson, he was late night talk show fodder his entire career, and a running character on Seinfeld. (George was apparently a fan of that caricature).

The reason Steinbrenner was so recognized (and reviled) by most of the country, was in no small part because he was so successful. You’re just eccentric, until you start winning. Winning still did not keep Steinbrenner from also being legitimately criticized for his abrasive management style.

  • He had 17 managerial changes in his first 17 seasons, firing Billy Martin 5 separate times.
  • He had a policy banning beards and mullets, while allowing mustaches
  • Hired a man to “dig up dirt” one of his players (Dave Winfield)
  • Publicly apologized to New York city for the Yankees loss in the 1981 World Series

The Team Brand. Steinbrenner wasn’t all bad, especially if you were (and are) a Yankees fan. Even with his ham-handed handling of the team, he brought the Yankees from obscurity back to the dominance in baseball they hadn’t enjoyed since the 1920’s. He was also the first owner in baseball to sell TV cable rights (MSG Network), and later was the first owner to start his own network (YES). His dedication to winning at any cost helped not only the Yankees, but also enriched players by expanding the free agency market to what it is today. Steinbrenner also brought a charitable side to the Yankees that was overshadowed by his controversies. A few examples illustrate this charitable behavior, which was then new in professional team sports.

  • He founded the Silver Shield Foundation in 1982, an organization that supports the families and children of slain NYPD officers.
  • Steinbrenner funded the West Tampa Boys and Girls Club. In 1984, he sponsored a dinner to raise $42,000 dollars for the club. (Tampa is the spring training base for the Yankees.)
  • In 1989, Steinbrenner visited two-year-old cancer victim and Yankee fan Johnny Russo in the hospital. According to Tampa Bay Online, he gave the toddler “Yankee equipment, autographs, and contributed to his hospital expenses.”
  • In January 1994, he donated $100,000 to flood victims in Iowa and Illinois following a chance meeting with Sen. Tom Harkin. Steinbrenner was so touched by Harkin’s description of damage from the summer of ’93 that he donated a portion of the net proceeds from an August Yankees-Royals game to help flood-ravaged farmers.
  • After Hurricane Andrew hit Miami in 1992, Steinbrenner “showed up at the Salvation Army in Tampa and drove a truck with bottled water overnight to the storm-ravaged area.”

The Brand Question. The Yankees would not be the brand (let alone the team) they are today without an aggressive and flamboyant leader. Different markets and industries call for different styles in order to stand out and focus attention on your brand. If you are like many of the change-agent clients we know, you will not be at all comfortable with Steinbrenner’s personal brand or management style, but there’s still a lesson to be learned here. After you have created a “winning” product with strong benefits for the buyer, you still need to answer the Brand Question: How you will make your brand stand out in the marketplace?