Book Review – Winning the Customer, by Lou Imbriano

February 6, 2012

By Colin Robinson, Features Writter for iSportconnect

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were dramatic developments across major sports that changed the way we view them today. Rapid commercialization, brought on in part by increased TV coverage, turned many leagues and associations into fully-fledged, multi-billion-dollar industries. At the same time, the costs to manage large, new stadiums ate up club revenues while player salaries soared, with star players commanding greater and greater wages.

The global financial crisis has exacerbated such problems; owners are struggling to break even; even well-known clubs from the LA Dodgers to Real Madrid have had to cope with serious debts. It is essential that clubs maximise revenue from sponsorship, ticket sales and merchandising.

Resultantly, building and maintaining positive relationships with sponsors and customers has never been so critical. Lou Imbriano’s Winning the Customer tells the reader how to achieve these goals in an accessible and readable way.

Few people are more have more knowledge of growing sports franchises than Imbriano. When he joined the Patriots in as chief marketing officer in 1997, the team was playing at the outdated Foxboro Stadium, which lacked top-class facilities and amenities necessary to attract large crowds and wealthy customers, and, in almost 40 years of existence, the club had never won a Super Bowl.

Not long after the Kraft Sports Group’s takeover of the club, the team moved to the new state-of-the art Gillette Stadium and results as improved as ‘the Pats’ won the 2001, 2003 and 2004 Super Bowls.

Imbriano was instrumental in increasing the Patriots’ revenue by an unprecedented 600 percent in his first seven years at the club and enabling them to become one of the most recognisable sports clubs worldwide.

Undoubtedly, interest in the Patriots would have increased interest as a result of the new stadium and improved team performances, but Imbriano put the club in a position capitalize on those achievements with new approaches to marketing, which he discusses in his book. While much of Imbriano’s advice comes from his time with the Patriots, his book is more than a memoir reflecting on this highly-successful nine-year spell.

Imbriano’s deconstruction of the kind of strategies that work and fail, which is based largely on anecdotes, makes for an insightful and engaging read. It could explain, in part, why it is not always the clubs that achieve the most on-field success that the most attract fame, followers and major sponsorship deals. Indeed, Imbriano’s emphasises that, while a winning team is easier to market, it’s the club’s relationship with fans and sponsors that can sustain its growth.

The book’s focus on business relationships is particularly compelling; it explains the importance of, what Imbriano calls, “relationship architecture”, how it ought to be achieved, and how to avoid common mistakes in business relationships.

Too often, Imbriano argues, clubs and organisations have taken a transactional rather than relationship-orientated approach to sponsors and fans. Imbriano describes the need to work with sponsors to improve their business rather than merely sell them a set of rights. Imbriano recalls how he and his team set about creating “memorable moments” for partners and potential partners that included being escorted to the players’ tunnel as they ran out before kick-off.

Having fans is only part of the equation. Imbriano’s book promises to explain how to “get them to spend more”. To do this, Imbriano says to first categorize them by their dedication to the club, a technique he learned from his stint in sports radio in the early ’90s. Each group must be marketed to differently so that the customers become further engaged.

The book provides guiding principles for devising successful marketing campaigns that are simple, creative and dominating. Imbriano states the need to exceed fans’ expectations, “The ideal promotion will evoke both a little unworthiness and a little exclusivity”, he says. He assesses several campaigns, including those of Coca Cola, McDonalds and Starbucks, as well as those used at the Patriots, individually to explain why some succeed and others fail.

In 2006, Imbriano left the Patriots and founded his own consultancy company, TrinityOne, which advises businesses of all kinds. Much like TrinityOne, Winning the Customer is not limited to those involved in sports marketing it offers tips that could be of use to employees at all levels of any business. For example the book affirms the importance of all employees knowing their roles and elucidates why, and how, they should become “custodians of the brand”.

Imbriano’s anecdotes from his time working with the Kraft Sports Group at the Patriots as they went from also-rans, on and off the pitch, to one of the most successful and well-known clubs in the NFL are likely to interest many Patriots supporters, as well as fans of football in general.

The book is interesting, informative and, at times, entertaining and contains material of broad appeal, so it’s no surprise that Winning the Customer is winning readers and critical acclaim.

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