Pros, coaches pitch for Louisville slugger

Hillerich & Bradsby Co. has long maintained low-key advertising strategies to market its Louisville Slugger brand of baseball bats. Its current marketing efforts center on in-store promotions and its World Wide Web site while its rare ads in trade publications feature testimonials from the latest baseball stars. The company also believes that word-of-mouth marketing among players and coaches is more effective than media.

Marketer continues to move bats using people – not ads

It says a couple things about Hillerich & Bradsby Co., Louisville, that its director of advertising is also the curator of its Louisville Slugger Museum. For one, it suggests – quite correctly – that the company’s heritage plays a major role in its marketing efforts.

And two, it suggests that overseeing the company’s advertising activities leaves time to tackle another job. In other words, Hillerich & Bradsby doesn’t do much advertising, at least not for its Louisville Slugger baseball bats, one of sports’ most enduring brands.

That’s not to say the company isn’t an effective marketer. It is.

After all, it’s been around since 1884, when John “Bud” Hillerich fashioned a bat out of a piece of white ash to help Pete “The Old Gladiator” Browning of the Louisville Eclipse baseball team, break out of a batting slump.

But the company finds ways to market itself without flooding the airwaves or newspapers the way Nike and Reebok do. Instead, promotions with local sporting goods distributors are the key to H&B’s marketing efforts, along with a World Wide Web site, http://www.slugger.com, that plays heavily on the company’s long and storied history.

“The heritage has been one of quality,” says Bill Williams, the company’s ad chief and museum curator. “If we didn’t have that reputation attached to our famous name, we wouldn’t have lasted for 112 years.”

Few, but consistent ads

On the rare occasions that it does venture into advertising for its Louisville Slugger brand, the company relies on the same sort of testimonials that it has for decades. In fact, a write-up in Class in 1916 (see excerpt, this page), almost exactly describes the company’s print advertising strategy today.

As Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were in the 1916 trade ads, current stars Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey Jr. are featured today in ads that occasionally appear in Baseball America and Baseball Weekly.

On its Web site, H&B periodically posts sales promotions involving players it’s signed. For instance, personalized “game reproduction” bats autographed by Mr. Ripken, Mr. Gwynn or Mr. Griffey can be ordered directly from the site.

“I don’t think they are real aggressive advertisers or marketers,” says John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence, a weekly newsletter in Glen Mills, Pa.

This approach is eschewed not for lack of funds. Privately held Hillerich & Bradsby doesn’t release financial statistics, but with more than $100 million a year in sales, it is believed to be profitable.

Word of mouth has worked

“The entire strategy is to make the advertising messages happen as close to the playing field as possible,” says Michael Littman, senior VP-director of account services for Doe-Anderson Advertising, Louisville, H&B’s agency of record for 25 years. According to the Standard Directory of Advertisers for 1996, H&B’s 1995 ad expenditures were around $2.5 million.

The company buys very little media because it places a great deal more faith in word-of-mouth advertising – the grapevine among players and coaches about what equipment works for them and what doesn’t.

“We sign players to use our aluminum softball bats, but the kids out there in Little League and in high school don’t really care if Ken Griffey Jr. uses our bats or not,” Mr. Williams says.

Part of this, perhaps, is due to the overwhelming presence of aluminum bats in amateur baseball that now has about 90% of the $90 million baseball bat market.

H&B believes the promise of emulating the home run prowess of a major league celebrity endorser with a wooden bat isn’t directly translatable to the world of lighter aluminum bats, a product that the aluminum industry invented and a market H&B that has been in since the early 1970’s.

Wood demand down

In the last 20 years, H&B’s wooden bat production has de-dined from 7 million a year to about 1 million a year now.

“What people know them for best, there hardly isn’t any market for anymore,” says Mr. Horan of the company’s flagship wooden bat business. To push the aluminum bat business, H&B has signed more than 50 college baseball coaches to contracts.

The coaches outfit their teams with H&B gear and use H&B products when doing coaching demonstrations. The presumed benefit is that younger players in college communities will get the message and use these bats, too.

“The kids will see our bat being used on the college field and say to the players, ‘Let me feel that bat,'” says Mr. Williams. “In time they will buy it. Our investment is in that exposure.”

Women’s sports key growth

There are some other growth areas where H&B seems to be targeting much of its promotion-oriented marketing strategy.

One is women’s softball. H&B has signed former Olympians Lisa Fernandez and Dot Richardson as spokeswomen. The pair tour the country giving softball clinics, which are promoted via in-store advertising and, sometimes, press releases sent to local newspapers and broadcasters.

The company seldom does any paid advertising to promote these local visits, but does on occasion provide co-op advertising dollars if the local sporting goods distributor wants to run a print ad.

Mr. Williams credits the 1970’s passage of Title 9, which mandated that women’s intercollegiate sports offerings be on a rough par with men’s sports, dramatically ratcheting up the demand for sporting goods and apparel for women.

Louisville Slugger’s apparel licensing agent is Winterland Productions of San Francisco, a division of MCA Universal.

In the fall of 1995, H&B signed an exclusive licensing arrangement with Springfield, Tenn.-based Innovo Group, a manufacturer of fashion and sports bags for women. The line now includes sports bags, backpacks, shoe bags and seat cushions.

“Their apparel licenses are a little hipper and trendier than the company [H&B] they are being licensed from,” Mr. Horan says.

H&B’s other main business lines are golf clubs, hockey sticks and a timber business. The company owns 5,000 acres of timber and sells any excess wood to the furniture industry.

Ads in Canada

Only in pro hockey – and only in Canada – does H&B remotely emulate the Nikes and Reeboks of the world.

New York Rangers star center Mark Messier has a lifetime endorsement contract and frequently plugs H&B-made TPS Gold hockey sticks on Canadian TV.

“The cost there is so much less” than on U.S. TV, Mr. Littman says.

Will H&B’s low-profile advertising approach ensure its continued success, or should it go for the cereal boxes?

“They certainly have credible products,” Sporting Goods Intelligence’s Mr. Horan says.

“But once you develop that product you really have to make sure you create demand for your product rather than give someone else the opportunity to engineer something around your patent and take that idea away from you,” Mr. Horan says.

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