Creative Intelligence Blog

Third and Long: Marketing Lessons from a Key Football Stat

October 7, 2010 by David Heitman
David Heitman

It’s Fall.

It’s football season.

College conference play is underway, and in the NFL, the real contenders are starting to emerge from the the rest of the pack.

One of the most important statistics of any football team’s success is its third down conversion rate. Super Bowl teams are perennially at the top of the third down efficiency list.

Third down represents a tipping point for the offense. “Three-and-out” is an offensive coordinator’s worst nightmare. It indicts the team’s inability to sustain a drive and score some points.

Third down, by its very nature, is predicated on previous failures. First and second down have not moved the chains, so now it’s do or die. Fail, and you punt.

Nobody likes to punt. (Well, except the punter, I suppose.)

Third down is a lot like life, and a lot like business. Very few of us are lucky enough to get things right the first time, every time. A couple failed plays before we get to third down is the norm, not the exception. Perhaps some lost yards or a penalty have created a third-and-long situation.

That’s not necessarily bad. Third and long merely suggests that we might have taken some risks or perhaps failed in execution, but we’re still in the game. We have another shot.

In football, converting on third-and-long usually requires two things:

1) Innovation–doing something the opposition doesn’t fully anticipate
2) Specialization–relying on a highly reliable core competency

This is what makes for a great brand in the business world. Differentiating by doing something a bit unexpected, and basing your effort on a core competency, a virtue or specialization that you absolutely own in your marketplace.

Just as great football teams enjoy a high third down efficiency rating, so also, great companies have the ability to overcome adversity, rely on innovation and specialization, and surprise the competition with a first down.

There’s nothing quite like seeing the refs move the chains and getting a fresh set of downs.

Unless of course you like to punt.

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