In my home state of Iowa, the annual college football rivalry game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Iowa State Cyclones is a pretty big deal. Every year since 1977, a trophy called the “Cy-Hawk Trophy” has been awarded to the winning team. The Cy-Hawk trophy is kind of simple and homely-looking, with just an anonymous football player and a plain football on top; it lacks the pizzazz of some of the other prominent football rivalry trophies like Paul Bunyan’s Axe. So in 2010, the two university athletic departments decided to retire the Cy-Hawk Trophy and replace it with something new: a corporate-sponsored trophy presented by the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

Although everyone involved in creating the new trophy surely had the best of intentions, when the new trophy was unveiled, it was a PR disaster. The trophy design featured a farm family, wearing blue jeans, standing around a bushel of corn. It looked like a bad Norman Rockwell painting, and it had absolutely nothing to do with football. (I remember writing on my Facebook page, “This is the lamest thing I’ve ever seen.”)

People throughout Iowa were puzzled at best, outraged at worst by the new Cy-Hawk trophy. Surveys showed that 95% of people hated the new design. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad even expressed disapproval of the design during one of his weekly news conferences. The new Cy-Hawk trophy got scathing reviews and national media coverage on ESPN and other sports news sites.

After four days of public outcry, the Iowa Corn Growers Association decided to scrap the new trophy and go back to the drawing board to come up with a new design – this time by soliciting ideas and feedback from the public.

What are some lessons that small businesses can learn from the Cy-Hawk Trophy debacle?

  • The brand belongs to the customers. In this case, the “brand” of the Cy-Hawk Trophy and the Iowa-Iowa State football rivalry was bigger than any corporate sponsor – it was something that every football fan in Iowa felt connected to. When a new design for the trophy was introduced that seemed blatantly self-serving for the sponsor (and disconnected from the meaning of the game), people felt like the value of their experience was being diminished (and their intelligence was being disrespected).
  • Customers want to be part of your brand. The mistake made by the creators of the new Cy-Hawk trophy is that they didn’t ask for customer input until it was too late. They created this trophy design in secret, and then unveiled it to the public. I wonder if they did any focus groups or market research along the way, or if this was just a “top-down” decision where some high ranking executives and officials decided what they thought people would like? That type of creative process doesn’t work in the era of the Internet. Customers will want to “co-create” with you if you give them a chance – whether it’s participating in Facebook surveys (“what kind of special pizza should our restaurant serve this week?”) or online design contests (“help us choose a new logo and slogan!”). The Cy-Hawk sponsors should have set up an online contest where people could submit ideas and design concepts, and then put it to a public vote – it would have built a ton of buzz for the new trophy and also achieved buy-in from the fans.
  • Passion is good, even if people disagree. Even if people don’t like what you’re business is doing, it’s always better to hear their feedback, complaints and suggestions. Any kind of feedback from your customers is better than silence and indifference from your customers. In the case of the Cy-Hawk Trophy, the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the university athletic departments quickly realized that their new idea was not going to be a success, and they deferred to the wisdom of the crowd. Even though the new Cy-Hawk Trophy was a national laughingstock and a PR debacle, it would have been even worse if the creators of the trophy had held their ground and refused to change the design.

Most small businesses will (hopefully) never be subject to the level of scrutiny and criticism that the new Cy-Hawk Trophy received. But we can all learn a few lessons about how to better interact with our customers and “fans.” Ultimately, our companies’ brands do not belong to us – they belong to our customers: the people who fill the seats and foot the bill.

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