Marketing So Good, It’s Bananas: How Jesse Cole Turned a Ballgame Into a Circus

savannah bananas

By Kerry Gorgone, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Jesse Cole had a vision.

Professional baseball had failed in the American city of Savannah for 90 years, but Jesse thought maybe college summer baseball could work there. This was no capricious whim. The move took planning and money. Jesse had to buy an expansion franchise that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

People thought he was bananas, to put it mildly.

But he believed in his vision. Even as his six-person staff gathered around a picnic table in a completely empty stadium, he could already tell that he had something special.

“There we were working around that picnic table, and we said ‘what are we doing for our fans first,’ he recalls. That became everything in our culture.”

The first order of business was getting the Savannah community excited about baseball. The organization held a competition, inviting people to name the new team. Ultimately, a local resident’s cheeky suggestion won out: “The Savannah Bananas.” Things only got zanier from there, and area residents embraced the team, revelling in the spectacle of it all.

Right from the beginning, Jesse was a leader in the “Marketing Rebellion,” and he didn’t even realize it yet. It was only after reading Mark Schaefer’s book, Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins and giving a report on it as part of a reading initiative at work that he saw the parallels.

“People do not want to be marketed to any more,” he observes. For Jesse, reading Schaefer’s book offered validation. In his quest to bring baseball back to Savannah, he has always put people first, and made sure that the public gets to know his staff and players on a personal level.

“Our mission is entertain fans first, always,” he explains. “But our biggest fans are our own people, so we put them first.”

Jesse and his core team actively cultivate an informal, zany culture for the Savannah Bananas organization.

Many companies claim to have a “customer-centric” approach to marketing, but they often fail to support their own employees. When a “people-first” approach doesn’t include your own people, employees become demoralized, and your customer experience is sure to suffer.

That’s not how the Savannah Bananas do things.

“Our culture is the strongest thing we have,” says Jesse, “and it has been from the start.”

The team even has a “Fans First Playbook” that they share with all staff members and players. “Professionalism is boring,” it declares. “We embrace our weirdness.”

The 25-page guide introduces all the staff members, shares the beliefs and principles on which the Savannah Bananas were founded, and provides plenty of examples for new members of the fold to follow in order to succeed.

What’s surprising about the playbook is that it encourages employees to focus on their own personal growth, because fulfilled employees will be better able to put fans first.

As a result, the Savannah Bananas front office has seen surprisingly little turnover, even with a staff largely made up of Millennials (“the job-hopping generation”).

“Our staff doesn’t even want to leave after games,” Jesse says. Then, sensing my skepticism, he elaborates. “After a game, we’ll stick around the stadium and play kickball until 1:00 a.m. sometimes, even after getting to work at 8:00 a.m. that morning! We just don’t want to leave.”

This fun experience and fans-first culture has led the organization to business success, as well. They sold out their inaugural season, then went on to win the Coastal Plain League championship, and the team’s gone on to sell out every game since.

You could rightly say that they are “the most human” sports team, and they certainly do their fair share of winning.

Marketing Lessons from the Savannah Bananas

savannah bananas

Put fans first (and that includes your employees)

Happy employees make for happy customers (or fans or clients). It’s human nature: when our cup “runneth over,” we’re able to give more to others. Support personal and professional development for your employees, not with empty mission statements, but with time and money.

The Savannah Bananas sent one staffer on her dream trip to Ireland. Another staffer got to attend a playoff game with his Dad (all expenses paid). The front office sent another Savannah Bananas staffer VIP passes to see a KISS concert. These investments in staff happiness pay dividends in the form of lower turnover.

Let people get to know your employees

“People buy from the people behind the brand, not just the brand,” Jesse emphasizes. So he invested in a full-time videographer to help people get to know the players and the staff.

“We post videos every single week of our people,” says Jesse. “We’ve had millions of video views on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. Everyone knows who our people are. We started showing who the people were behind the bananas from Day 1.”

The team has a video series called “Bananas Unpeeled,” which features staff members and players. Everyone gets some time in the spotlight, and they all become the face of the Savannah Bananas. If you’re only showcasing your CEO, you’re missing an opportunity to create a deeper connection between your employees and your audiences.

Embrace your weirdness

Jesse wears a yellow tuxedo, complete with top hat the color of sunshine. When he and his wife were expecting a baby, they held a press conference to announce “the first signing of the year.” (Incidentally, the “banana baby” is officially a thing now and I am so here for that.)

“We have to be a circus, and maybe a baseball game will break out,” says Jesse. There’s nothing ordinary about how the Savannah Bananas operate. They’re bold and audacious. The gameday experience is organized chaos: spectacles like players going on intragame dates with fans, lots of contests between innings, and plenty of family fun.

In a way, they’re anything but “yellow.” (Sorry.)

Embrace your own eccentricity. Don’t over-polish your personal brand. A little tarnish makes you more relatable.

Show gratitude

Jesse sends a handwritten thank-you letter to someone every day.

“I remembered how impactful thank you letters can be, so started a list and wrote down everyone—from past teachers to coaches to authors and really anyone else in my life. I just started writing it down,” Jesse explains.

“It was probably the most selfish thing I’ve ever done. It felt so good doing it. And all of the sudden, those thank-you letters started making bigger connections than I’ve ever had in my life.”

Gratitude looks good on everyone (and on every business), so make it a core value of your company and watch what happens!

Kerry O’Shea Gorgone is a writer, lawyer, speaker and educator. She’s also Director of Product Strategy, Training, at MarketingProfs. Kerry hosts the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast. Find Kerry on Twitter.

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