Lynne W. Jeter MBJ Contributing Writer
JACKSON — When Todd Ballard ventured into the hallowed vault of the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, Ky., earlier this year to research a branding assignment for the 120-year-old bat making company, he was thrilled to see a collection of bats representing every specification made for professional baseball players.
After museum curator Billy Williams learned that Ballard’s favorite player was baseball great Willie Mays, he reached over and pulled out the bat blank that was used for all of Mays’ bats.
“I’m sitting here getting chills right now, just from the memory of holding it,” said Ballard, creative director for Jackson-based GodwinGroup. “That was a really wonderful image.”
‘Dream account, no doubt’
The visit inspired Ballard to create branding images that Louisville Slugger has used in its new marketing campaign, which melds layers of historic and contemporary photographs depicting Yankee Stadium in 1927, Louisville Slugger bat makers and Major League Baseball (MLB) heroes from Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter of all time, to current superstar Derek Jeter. The tagline? “The Official Bat of America’s Pastime.”
“It’s a dream account, no doubt,” said Ballard, whose enthusiasm is shared by senior team members Kenny Weaver, David Tejada, Bill Porch and Lauren Davis.
GodwinGroup had worked on various assignments for Louisville Slugger since 1998, but this was the firm’s first branding effort for the family-owned company, which J.F. Hillerich, the son of a German immigrant, established as a wood shop in Louisville in 1859.
“It was one of those serendipitous things,” said Ballard. “At the time, we were working for Russell Athletic out of Alexandria, Ala., handling three brands. Louisville Slugger was doing a co-promotion with Russell and saw our work. They were not necessarily unhappy with their ad agency, but they were looking to explore other options so they gave us an assignment. As we sometimes do, we probably overreacted and we put about 20 well-researched ideas in front of them.
“About six months later, they called us and asked if we would like to participate in an agency review. We did, and won the pitch against local agencies, including one four times our size, and a couple of national agencies. It wasn’t our first venture onto the national stage, but as far as a national icon brand, it doesn’t get any better than Louisville Slugger.”
The branding challenge: After dominating the wood bat category since the beginning of MLB, Louisville Slugger was feeling competitive pressure from small niche bat manufacturers, mainly in the marketing of maple wood bats.
The Godwin team recommended that Louisville Slugger create a program directed at minor league professional baseball players, to give them access to the same wood as MLB players. Godwin would demonstrate Louisville Slugger’s dominance of the wood category by giving the minor league player an option of having custom-fitted bats just like the majors. The company would introduce a custom maple bat (M9) into the major and minor leagues that was superior to any maple bat on the market, and Godwin would tie the innovation of the new product and new program to the heritage of Louisville Slugger.
“Louisville Slugger had been named the official bat of Major League Baseball and we needed to leverage that,” said Ballard. “But we also needed to include not just baseball, but any sport that uses a bat and a ball. How many times have all of these great moments in sports happened with a Louisville Slugger? For Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, pretty much every time.”
In some marketing material, the Louisville Slugger story was written in first person, with passages such as: “When you hold me, you will feel the pulse of America’s Pastime, and I will make your heart beat in rhythm with the heartbeat of the game itself.” A wraparound cover for Baseball America featured Louisville Slugger’s professional wood bat series, the M9, and a back cover heritage ad: “The Greatest Names in Baseball Have One Name in Common.”
“I’m most proud of the guys for capturing the essence of why this game has endured for so long and linking Louisville Slugger to that legacy,” said Ballard.
The ADDY-winning brand campaign resulted in the highest penetration of a new product in the history of Louisville Slugger. Demand has outstripped supply and caused the company to add a second shift in the bat factory, specifically to satisfy the demand for the M9.
Louisville Slugger is so pleased with the branding success that the company asked Godwin to produce a magazine that will be distributed to ballplayers from Little League to MLB. The publication will include useful how-to columns, including one penned by Roger Clemens about selecting gloves, and an article written by Bob Hill, author of “Crack of the Bat: The Louisville Slugger Story.”
“In almost 34 years in this business, Louisville Slugger is the greatest and most fun brand I’ve ever worked on,” said Ballard. “Nothing’s better than baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.