As a founding member of Major League Baseball’s National League, the Chicago Cubs are steeped in tradition. From Harry Caray’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to fans throwing home run balls by opposing players back onto the field, experiencing the national pastime at “the Friendly Confines” of Wrigley Field is like taking a step back in time. The Cubs maintain a classic green and white theme throughout the ballpark: The scoreboard, iconic ivy on the outfield wall, seating and signage—even the advertisements—adhere to the color scheme.
Even as the Cubs were in the midst of their 104th consecutive season without a World Series title, the team looked to a future filled with promise thanks to baseball wunderkind Theo Epstein taking control of baseball operations. And with a front office brimming with optimism, it was time for the marketing team to reevaluate the club’s message.
“I charged [vice president of marketing Alison Miller] with doing the same as what brands like Harley Davidson, Converse or any traditional, wonderful aged brand that needed a refresh did,” said Crane Kenney, president of business operations. “She looked at everything from our uniforms to the font. The representation of our brand lost its uniformity with its color, the script of our brands. When you look at Cubbie Blue, there were probably a dozen different blues being used.” (Fans can now paint their homes or replica Wrigley Field in Cubbie Blue, along with Scoreboard Green and Marquee Red, thanks to Benjamin Moore, an official partner of the Cubs.)
After redefining the Cubs’ brand, the organization was ready to move forward with new messaging to highlight not just the team, but everything that makes Cubs baseball great.
Honesty is always the best policy
For over a century, one saying had always made the rounds in Chicago in October: “There’s always next year.”
But as the Cubs started turning the corner after the 2012 season, the team refined its message to something a bit more candid. The organization called the campaign “Committed” and focused on its fans. The Cubs laid out a baseball message that big things were coming but encouraged fans to be patient and wait a few years for on-field success.
“It was certainly unexpected and refreshing. Sports teams are famous for building expectations, and certainly every team starts the year with a clean slate,” said David Selby, managing partner and president at Schafer Condon Carter, the Cubs’ agency of record. “It’s easy to say, ‘This is the year’ and easy to build false hope. It’s very different and transparent to say, ‘This year will not be the year.'”
The team interviewed fans and told their stories as part of the campaign, honoring the people who make Chicago one of the best baseball towns in America.
The Cubs delivered the “Party of the Century,” as they called it, in 2014 to celebrate 100 years of Wrigley Field. Each homestand celebrated a different decade: The first stretch at home celebrated the 1910s, the second trip home honored the 1920s and so on. The Cubs dressed for the occasion, donning throwback uniforms during each homestand, and the team produced custom bobbleheads for every decade.
“It wasn’t just celebrating the birthday of the ballpark, but it was celebrating this incredible venue and its importance to so many people,” said Kenney, explaining that the Cubs avoided the growing pains of rebuilding thanks to having multiple brands to sell fans on. “Wrigley Field itself is an amazing brand. So is Wrigleyville where we play. Also, our former players are still heroes in many homes. [Miller] played on all of those other things during the rebuilding stage of the club.”
In 2015, the Cubs took a big leap forward with a treasure trove of prized prospects and a few veteran additions like starting pitcher Jon Lester and manager Joe Maddon. As the club made a postseason run, Miller sought inspiration for a winning brand strategy. “We had been watching what some of the other teams were doing, and we really admired the [Golden State] Warriors’ ‘Strength in Numbers’ campaign,” she said. Drawing on the unifying aspect of Golden State’s campaign, Miller searched for something Cubs fans could rally behind—and it happened to already be flying above centerfield.
The W flag tradition dates back to the 1930s when win or lose, the Cubs would display a flag above the centerfield scoreboard to show commuters on the L the result of that day’s game.
“Our fans adopted this habit of flying the W flag like the one we fly above the scoreboard,” Kenney said. “They’d bring those to the ballpark in knapsacks and shirt pockets and pull them out after games.” Miller embraced the flag, adopting the symbol with a simple phrase: “Fly the W.”
“It’s much more powerful if an idea is organically embedded in the DNA of the brand,” Selby said. “Identifying that and suggesting flying the W was a way to celebrate the promise of the postseason.”
Because Chicago is a city of neighborhoods with distinct personalities, Kenney explained, “the ‘Fly the W’ campaign was something that could be adopted in all the communities.”
By the end of the 2015 playoffs, W flags blanketed the Windy City. The Cubs handed out flags at games and delivered rally W towels to the team’s corporate partner, American Airlines, to give to passengers arriving in Chicago. Seemingly every museum, skyscraper and front porch in the city flew a W flag. Despite the campaign’s success, the organization put it on the shelf for the start of the 2016 season.
“We still flew the W flag after games, and fans still brought them to games,” Miller said, “but we didn’t start promoting them until we clinched a spot in the postseason, which was mid-September. That was our first chance to roll the campaign back out and get people excited. Because it’s about winning, it makes sense to celebrate the wins in the postseason and use it as a rallying cry for our fan base in October.”
In total, the “Fly the W” campaign generated 2 billion impressions online.
Reaching a national audience
In the late 1970s, the Cubs developed a new generation of fans thanks to the WGN superstation, which gave the team national exposure. Because the team didn’t play night games at Wrigley Field until 1988, WGN typically filled its afternoon schedule with Cubs games.
“I’ll randomly sit down in a seat next somebody, and I’ll ask them their story,” Miller said. “It’ll be a guy from Utah in his 40s or 50s, and I’ll ask him how he’s a Cubs fan from Utah. They’ll say, ‘As a kid, I’d come home from school and turn on the TV, and it’s either General Hospital or the Cubs.’ We played so many day games, and the advantage of being on WGN helped us build that national fan base.”
While the Cubs no longer have the advantage of frequent nationally televised games, the team has branched out into pop culture.
“We’re lucky that many people see Wrigley Field the way we do, as an amazing, iconic, historic venue,” Kenney said.
ABC’s The Bachelor visited the Friendly Confines in 2016 so that season’s bachelor could host a date. The Amazing Race hosted the final leg of its past season in Chicago and stopped at Wrigleyville and Wrigley Field for the final two challenges of the race. Miller had a hand in designing the CBS show’s trip to Wrigley as contestants delivered hot dogs to a rooftop that overlooks the field and then used the iconic scoreboard to display what place they finished in during each leg of the race.
“Most of those things are inbound where someone asks us whether the ballpark is available for something,” Kenney said. “And we choose selectively which ones we want to do.”
The team also helped arrange recently retired David Ross’ appearance on Dancing With the Stars—the catcher reached the finale, but ultimately came up short. While Ross’ agent did most of the work to get the former Cubs catcher on the show, Miller coordinated with MLB and ABC to get the Cubs’ jersey and song, “Go Cubs Go,” on the show.
In addition to pushing the Cubs and Wrigley Field onto television, the stadium also functions as a top concert venue with 10 shows lined up for this summer, including a Lady Gaga concert.