New Orleans Saints: A Team Up for the Challenge

February 9, 2010 | blog | By Mike Sullivan
TED JACKSON / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE Larry Rolling and CLown after during Super Bowl XLIV at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fl., Sunday February 7, 2010.

Larry Rolling and CLown after during Super Bowl XLIV at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fl., Sunday February 7, 2010.

It’s a fair bet that most marketers watched this year’s Super Bowl with an eye on the action during game breaks. The commercials are the show for folks like us. But truly astute marketers may have noticed something even more interesting unfolding on the field than the million-dollar ads from market leaders.

This year, the game served as the crescendo for a challenger brand narrative that’s been developing since Hurricane Katrina blew in from the Gulf of Mexico on a muggy August morning in 2005. In the aftermath of that storm, the survival of the city—let alone the New Orleans Saints football team—was an open question. This is the starting spot for most challenger brands. It’s called State of Market. Challengers like the Saints often have to overcome crippling handicaps with respect to resources and circumstances. Certainly, this was the case for the 3–13 Saints in 2005.
So, the team’s victory just four years removed over a favored Indianapolis Colts team quarterbacked by America’s most beloved football player, Peyton Manning, was as unlikely as it is satisfying for those of us with a soft spot for the underdog. For challenger brand advocates everywhere, the story is full of useful instruction.
There’s the subplot involving the protagonist, Drew Brees, who never got the memo about being too short to play in the college ranks, let alone the NFL. True challengers show up with what we call the proper State of Mind. Challengers must be either the best at something, or earnestly striving to be best at something. Brees was obviously striving to be the best college quarterback when he showed up on the campus of Purdue University—the only college to recruit him. And he made the most of the opportunity, leaving the Big Ten Conference with records in passing yards, touchdown passes, total offensive yards, completions, and attempts. He tallied those records against perennial football powerhouses like Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State. As he padded his resume, Brees led the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 34 years.
And now with the Saints, Brees found himself starring in the cast of yet another challenger crew. Like the rest of New Orleans, the Saints were decimated by Katrina. But their story followed a plot that took the boys of the Big Easy all the way to victory in the Super Bowl. How’d they do it? Under the leadership of a Saints Head CoachSean Payton, the team certainly adopted the proper State of Mind. Payton created total organizational alignment around the high aspiration of becoming the very best NFL football team. But the team’s performance in the Super Bowl game itself illustrates the third and most important characteristic of a challenger organization:State of Readiness.

Challenger organizations embrace a sense of willingness to break with convention. They demonstrate an openness and energy for embracing new modes of thinking and unconventional methods. They upset the natural balance of things to create opportunity for themselves. The Saints demonstrated a State of Readiness as they built a winning team, but it was on display for the world to see as the Super Bowl game unfolded Sunday night. On the first two possessions of the game, the Colts drove the ball right down the field. Before they knew it, the Saints were down 10 to nothing, staring at a point deficit that only one other Super Bowl team has overcome. But the Saints quickly adjusted, demonstrating an unusual and spontaneous flexibility and willingness to change. They didn’t keep doing what they had been doing. The Saints opened the second half with an onside kick—the first onside kick in Super Bowl history attempted before the fourth quarter. Had it failed, Peyton Manning would have had the ball at the Saints 40-yard line, already up 10–6. The Saints’ unconventional tactic caught the Colts by surprise and it created a huge shift in momentum to the Saints’ favor.

And the Saints’ defense did something all night long that also demonstrated the team’s State of Readiness. They threw crazy looks at Manning and confused him. It required more effort, but the Saints constantly changed their defensive schemes right up to the point the ball was snapped. Most teams call a defensive set, the opposing team comes to the line, the quarterback reads the defense, and then calls an audible to adjust. But once Manning called his audible, the Saints’ defense did something unusual. They adjusted again, totally throwing off Manning and his offense. The Saints were incredibly prepared, and in the end, they out-thought, out-worked and out-hustled the Colts. And the story ended for these challengers with a 31–17 win.
Oh, and here’s the epilogue: The six-foot quarterback who was too short to play in the NFL threw 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. He tied a Super Bowl record for most completions in a game, won Most Valuable Player, and brought the first title ever back to New Orleans. He also tied Len Dawson and Joe Theismann as the shortest quarterbacks ever to win a Super Bowl. How’s that for a happy ending to a challenger brand story?

Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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