The Case of the Secret Bananas

Savannah Bananas

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As one ventures East across the state of Georgia, nestled just before a thousand miles of roaring Atlantic Ocean, lives the charming southern escape of Savannah. A blossoming coastal town, eager to demonstrate hospitality, unique architecture, and even a few ghost stories. Yet, despite all the offerings available, manages to hide the best kept secret in all of minor league sports, the Savannah Bananas.

Secretly placed between the ocean and a military airfield, hides an aged, yet enchanting old ruin known today as Historic Grayson Stadium. Existing since 1926, the ballpark has survived countless franchises, numerous hurricanes, and even a presidential appearance. Yet, one constant stands above all, the existence of America’s pastime, alive and well in the game’s most pure form.

In an industry fraught with struggle, where limited operations frequently wrestle to make ends meet, the Savannah Bananas continue to blossom against all odds. Present day, the ballclub is the hottest ticket in town, continually selling-out the 4,000-capacity venue night after night. An astonishingly rare occurrence in minor league sport and truly a mystery worth exploring!

At the core of business logic today, lies an imperfect understanding regarding sales, and the effective acquisition of which. For decades, corporations stressed the importance of sales teams, littered with that innate ability to move product. From the door-to-door salesperson, to even telemarketers and infomercial hosts, the most successful in the trade are able to communicate the value one’s product carries for the customer. Present day, industry refers to this communication with a different name – marketing. And with it, the critical insight that marketing drives sales.

Throughout industry today, a growing number are now accepting this new principle. Historically, roles in operations or finance were fast-tracked to the top of the C-Suite. Yet today, more and more CMOs are chosen to lead growing businesses. In a 2018 collaboration with Deloitte, the Wall Street Journal reported that CMOs today “are primarily responsible for growth strategy and revenue generation” in comparison to the rest of senior executives. A clear admittance toward the importance of brand image in developing customer value.

Evident are lessons regarding one’s character in times of struggle. Likewise, a business leader’s true ability either shines or dulls in times of crisis. Yet, in analyzing history, almost predictable recurrences exist when businesses take a turn for the worst. Unspeakably, time-and-time-again, the team and expense cut from these struggling firms is marketing. Which today, remains one of the most baffling blunders in all of business. These same leaders who voice the importance of marketing and provide clear admission to the effect it has on sales, are seemingly the first to forget. At a time when additional sales are most needed, CEOs willingly discard the greatest tool at their disposal.

Savannah Bananas

Like so many before him, Jesse Cole dreamed of a life playing professional baseball, when aspirations were quickly cut short due to a hindering shoulder injury. Compelled still by a love for the game, worked his way up the front office ladder within minor league baseball. And before too long, found himself general manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies with opportunity still ahead.

Despite the notoriety and romanticizing that comes with working for a baseball team, the Grizzlies were in rough shape. Upon his promotion, Cole inherited a team that struggled to attract more than a few hundred fans a night, for a team losing over $150,000 annually. As the ballclub struggled to simply meet payroll for the select few full-time employees, future outlook of the business looked increasingly bleak.

A man with nothing to lose, Cole began pulling out all the stops in an attempt to create a fan-first experience. The product would no longer be the play on the field, rather a fun and enticing culture built around the experience of the event. From choreographed dances by the players, to burgers served inside donut buns, to grandma beauty pageants, the team tried everything imaginable. Cole quickly ignored what other teams were doing, and instead began passionately replicating the works of his heroes, Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum, in turning a night out at the ballpark into a literal circus.

Even more astonishing – the ideas worked!

Present day, Cole is the owner of the Gastonia Grizzlies and newly-transformed Savannah Bananas. Two franchises dramatically rescued from ruin, both now multi-million dollar businesses. All following a single constant, a drive to be distinctive.

From his book, Find Your Yellow Tux, from which the cover presents Cole in one of his six, canary-yellow suits, he writes, “My life has taught me that when you embrace the outrageous, the ridiculous, and the fun, you become a better business owner. Why? Because you’re creating a business that reflects who you are.”

Marketing success is far greater than the concept of differentiation. Rather, a remarkable understanding of what one’s customer is looking for, with the ability to provide that value in a way unique from competition. Cole’s success was not found in simply being different, but the appealing nature in which he expanded customer impressions of what a sports team could be.

“I say if it’s normal, do the exact opposite.”

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