There are many things that come to mind when you think of John Madden: Super Bowl-winning football coach, Emmy-award winning announcer, his fear of flying that lead him to travel by bus to each assignment.
But we also think of him as the guy pitching for Miller Lite and Ace Hardware, among other products and brands. While it’s not unusual at all for an ex-athlete or coach or even a sportscaster to appear in TV ads, what’s most remarkable about Madden’s popularity is how far it extends.
Which brings us to Madden Football, the EA Sports video game that revolutionized the way sports were played in our living rooms and taught many of us more about the pro game than if we actually played.
Even though he is retiring from broadcasting, Madden’s power as a brand won’t. Unlike many celebrities, Madden developed a brand so powerful that it became a sincere reflection of the customer – the definition of an effective brand – in complex ways. His name so synonymous to gaming itself that gamers say, “Let’s play Madden” whether they’re playing the EA Sports version or not.
How did it get this way? His personality is certaintly infectious and he’s been described as having the common touch. Those qualities, however, went one step further by giving him permission to reacher deeper into the strategy and details of the game than anyone before him – thus, allowing us to be much more expert in football than we had before.
If you think about the best brands in the world – such as, let’s say, Apple – they become so deeply ingrained and coveted because they are an aspirational reflection of the customer. (In Apple’s case, we see ourselves as innovators moving ahead the field, which is why us Apple loyalists can’t help but show off our iPhones or the Keynote software on our Macs.)
Madden allowed the football fan to feel like the fan knew the sport. Because of his common touch, he made, for example, offensive line play interesting and important – like we had discovered the key to offensive success on our own. (It was from Madden that I started learning to watch a football play from the offensive center to the line then out.)
That was why his brand translated so well for the intricate video game, which could have felt too complex if not for Madden’s attachment to it. It’s a game in which you set offensive and defensive formations, call plays that take advantage of weaknesses in the opposition, and gradually develop game plans based on the talent on your team. That kind of insight and increasingly gained knowledge gave birth to sports talk shows in which callers now talk about the zone blitz, the cover 2 defense and the West Coast offense like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Madden’s burliness, voice, often ruffled hair and, at least when he was a coach, his shirttail hanging out gave us the permission to think like a coach (or a GM or a player) without it feeling like navel-gazing or above our heads.
Think of it this way: The brand of Bill Walsh, who coached the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowls, would not have had the same effect. The studious Walsh, who was often called a genius and had the manner of a college professor, was brilliant. But if the Bill Walsh EA Sports video game was the brand, it would have felt overly complex, a bit stiff and would not have reflected most football fans.
What Madden taught us was that we had more knowledge than we thought we did, and his brand reached even deeper than reflecting who we want to be. The Madden brand showed us who we were all along, but only needed someone to notice it.