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Michael Brown

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Marketing On The Edge

One of my more enjoyable pastimes is coaching an 11-year old girls soccer team. Years ago, I coached 11-year old boys. One of the differences between a girls team and a boys team is the boys are much more physical. Girls need to be taught to shoulder for position. If a team doesn't learn how to shoulder, they're likely to get physically intimidated and lose. After working on it season after season, I felt our kids would be able to physically hold their own against anyone. On Saturday, I learned otherwise.

Coaching On The Edge

The first half of the game was clean and we were dominating. The second half was another story. Our opponents came out and systematically mugged us. I didn't realize how bad until I saw the video of the game. The other team's players weren't going for the ball; they were body checking players. Elbows were flying. Kids were getting pushed to the ground from behind. One or two plays would have done a youth football coach proud.

Girls do not play like this naturally. It takes coaching. And they don't change their style of play between halves unless a coach instructs them.

Unfortunately, the ref was young. He was intimidated by the other team's coach. The coach blustered and bullied and the ref never shut him down. He never called any fouls. The game got out of hand. It was so bad that the ref and a linesman apologized to me afterward. That's a first!

After the assault and battery began, our kids started playing tentative. They gave up a goal. We were tied. Literally in the closing seconds, their forward knocked our best athlete to the ground and scored the winning goal.

The other coach probably feels pretty good about himself. He shouldn't. He was coaching on the edge. Really he was coaching beyond the edge. If his team continues to play like they did in the second half, someone (i.e., an 11-year old girl) will get hurt before the season ends.

I played soccer overseas and was the captain of one of the best high school teams in my state. I played for various club teams and I played my freshman year in college. I know a few dirty tricks myself. Our team has an assistant coach who played soccer at Michigan State, one who is about to attend college on a soccer scholarship, and another who played football at Texas Tech. We could teach our share of dirty tricks. *but we CHOSE not to!*

First, these are 11-year old girls. I do not want to see any of them get hurt so that we can get another trophy. It's not worth it. Second, even if no one gets hurt, I don't want to win that way. We coach the kids to be physical, but CLEAN. All of them know that they will get pulled from a game for play like our opponent exhibited.

This isn't the first time we've faced a team who played on or beyond the edge. Losing hurts, but winning the wrong way means you lose more than a game. You lose part of your soul.

Marketing On The Edge

What does the soccer game have to do with marketing? EVERYTHING!

Lots of people market on the edge. A few go beyond the edge. I don't even have to give examples. I bet you know exactly what I'm talking about.

The temptation to market on the edge can be strong. Business is not just a game. It's your livelihood.

I'll be honest. I've gone over the edge myself in the past, not often, but I've done it. I did it when I thought I would be fired if I took a stand. Since I needed a paycheck, I caved. I didn't think I had a choice, but I was wrong. I did have a choice. I could have done what I knew to be right and suffered the consequences.

Ironically, the consequences are rarely as dire as feared. When you do take a stand, people will often back down. It's as though everyone gets so covered in slime that they don't realize they're sliding downhill. No one has the strength of character to rise, take a stand, and say, "No. That's not right."

Once someone calls for what's right, it's like the kid proclaiming the emperor has no clothes. Suddenly everyone can see what should have been obvious. And everyone feels shameful.


There were not negative explicit consequences from the times I nudged the line or crossed it. I got rewarded. People told me what a great job I did.

It didn't feel great. At best, I felt relief. In time, I felt shame. The shame never ends. I still feel it.

Conversely, the times I took a stand didn't result in accolades. There was no feeling of relief when the moment passed. There was only anger, at the situation, at myself. "Am I being a self-righteous dope?" I'd wonder.

There was also fear. I wondered what price I would have to pay.

Only later did a sense of pride creep in. Now, I look back on those times as some of my finest moments.

The stakes in business may be higher than they are coaching a girls soccer team, but the consequences are the same. Cross the line or even nudge it and you'll pay a price forever. Do what's right and you may have to take your lumps in the short term, but at least you will still be able to look yourself in the mirror.

The Inescapable Consequence

Even if you look at yourself through a cracked mirror, there are still adverse consequences to dancing on the edge. Play on the edge too often and your reputation will become sullied. It's the one extrinsic consequence you cannot escape.

In sports, once you get the reputation for being a dirty player or coach, you never lose it. The referees look for you. They watch you closer. You lose the benefit of the doubt.

In business, a poor reputation can also weigh you down. You may feel the pull right away, but you will eventually. It's like a sea anchor that gradually gets heavier and heavier. Prospective customers and talented employees avoid you. Your competitors, unencumbered by a similar drag eventually pass you by.

Like Lincoln more or less said, you can fool a lot of people, but eventually most will figure it out.

It's Not Necessary

The soccer team we played is composed of a very skilled group of players. They've played together for a long time. Their fundamentals are excellent. It's one of the best teams in the league when playing clean. Maybe they won't win every game, but they'll win most. The coach doesn't need to cross the line.

Similarly, most of the people I observe dancing on the edge in the world of business don't need to compete that way. Usually, these are very talented people. After all, it takes skill to play on the edge.

So why do they do it when it eventually catches up to them, when it hurts them in the long run? I guess impatience, fear, desire, or maybe all three gets the best of them.

It's Not Worth It

Marketing on the edge, like coaching on the edge, is just not worth it. Yet, it seems that more and more people are doing it. It worries me that we may have lost our national moral compass. No longer do people seem concerned with what's right or even what's legal but rather, what they can get away with. I wonder if some people are even aware there is an edge.

The next time you're tempted to nudge the line or cross the line, think back to a point of shame in your life. You know what I'm talking about. Do you really want to add another? Is nudging the edge worth feeling bad for the rest of your life?

About ten years ago, I concluded it's not and I stopped worrying about it. It empowered me. Sure, it costs me from time to time, but the price of right is temporary and quickly fades. The price of wrong gets paid over a lifetime. And the tax on your reputation forever drags you down.

Like my girls soccer team, play a physical marketing game if you want, but keep it CLEAN.

I wonder what the youth sports coaches of Enron's Ken Lay taught him?

Source: Comanche Marketing. Reprinted by permission.

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www.serviceroundtable.com -- click on the Comanche Marketing tab

Copyright © 2004 Matt Michel

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