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Adidas’ World Cup soccer ball and communications strategy are both too perfect to be perfect

July 8, 2010

Having just returned from World Cup crazed England, football (soccer to us), was the subject of daily conversation as well as TV and newspaper punditry, and the new Jabulani ball was in the crosshairs. FIFA, the global Football (Soccer) governing body was taking serious heat for both the ball and bad referee calls, which in turn, could be partially blamed on the ball’s unpredictability, forcing players to act in unfamiliar patterns. Even now, with the finalists used to this ball, the one remaining gap is Adidas’ communications explaining how they got here. Rather than talk about all the engineering behind the design, how it changed the game (making a positive out of a negative), all their website says is 1) every team needs one and 2) where to buy it.  Life just caries on as beautiful as ever.

My English friends say the soccer ball was first perfected in Sheffield, around 1866, but the Romans had their perfect ball, as did the Chinese around 50BC.  The Vikings are reported to have used the heads of their enemies.  Having just recently seen Viking remains in York, England with their advanced blades and no unearthed evidence of comedy clubs, this is not entirely surprising.  Soccer did not drive ball technology; ball technology actually helped define and evolve soccer and now the Jabulani ball, in use at the World Cup in South Africa, is defining soccer once again, but not to the benefit of soccer, FIFA and Adidas.

FIFA’s webpage has a section on perfect spheres, looking like a lesson in Geodesic domes and how all balls over time have sought to attain that elusive goal.  Adidas focused on inside stitching, fused panels and other refinements all in pursuit of this perfect sphere and worked with leading University researchers.  The entire world was going to see the Adidas logo on this perfect product everyone would need.  Testing was performed in wind tunnels, resulting in what was considered to be, pre-game, the perfect ball.  Here’s the complication. Balls move.  The testing was static.  Once complaints came in, dynamic testing showed the ball was actually flawed by being so perfect (as a shape and not in function) it slowed mid-flight and didn’t spin, both causing unpredictable paths.  NASA’s Ames Research Center just recently found that once the Jabulani ball exceeds 44 miles per hour, it can “become unpredictable”.

Adidas tried to build a truly perfect product, but delivered a ball one player said “was no better, maybe worse, than a supermarket ball”.  What they also failed to deliver was follow-on communication about the ball and its properties, not telling their side of the story being told daily on every channel in the world.  Life just carries on as beautiful as ever.

I used to think lack of communicating was a non-US business culture trait, such as Toyota denying it had problems spanning the mechanical (engines and accelerator pedals) and software (now debunked) , or several overseas companies I have worked with who failed to over-communicate during their own internal crises, loosing employee morale and buy-ins from their largest customers and vendors. When I asked the leaders of these firms why not communicate to retain their credibility with all stakeholders, I was told “this is not our way over here, but I know it’s an American practice”.

Then along came Apple.  I’m a rabid iPhone apps user, but even I admit as a phone, the 3G stinks.   Having never admitted any short comings in design, Apple said (in their never take blame kind of way) this would be fixed in the iPhone 4 via a better antenna, part of which is the metal band around the 2 case halves.  Well, proving that Heaven has a good sense of humor, the problem is now worse, manifested in the well-publicized ‘death grip’ needed to keep the phone from dropping calls or getting no reception at all.   After denying it and having Steve Jobs call all critics idiots, Apple is now graciously selling a $29 silicon antenna cover and will soon deliver the supreme fix – dumbing down the signal strength bars formula to show fewer bars, pretty much preparing you for lousy reception. Apple states the new formula was supplied by AT&T.  This being the case, why doesn’t AT&T’s website mention this fix? AT&T’s website is very happy to sell you a new iPhone, however.  Life just carries on as beautiful as ever.

Bottom line is, Apple went from being perceived as the good guys to, as Jon Stewart told it recently, “Appholes”. There’s a letter on Apple’s website which includes this very revealing phrase – ‘accused … of having a faulty antenna design.’  The failure again, was not just the product, but the lack of communications, the sense that ‘everyone is out to get us” baked into their culture.  Its defensiveness turned into denial.

What causes normally great marketing firms to revert to the ‘hummina’ theory of corporate communications (just like their executives do when testifying in front of congressional committees)?  In the UK it’s called ‘ring fencing’, in the US it’s ‘circle the wagons’. It’s more than defensiveness, which can be temporary.  It’s the more dangerous feeling of being embattled and the resulting culture of seeing outsiders as either friend or foe, mostly foe.

Embattled companies usually describe their current bad situation to their employees with the implied message “they don’t understand us”. I was working with a global Financial Services firm during the meltdown, and this was repeated 24×7, 360 degrees, up and down the org chart.  Many CPG and restaurant companies, with potentially unhealthful products (too much calories, fat, sodium and sugars) talk about how “life is about choices” when confronted on TV.  True, but it just says embattled, backs to the wall.  Others are extremely arrogant based on past market dominance and profitability, but have failed to recognize a major change or crisis. Embattled companies believe life just carries on as beautiful as ever and this will all go away once stakeholders re-understand them.

Embattled companies also say “we have all the brain power internally we need to address all our issues”.  Once again, only insiders and a select few outsiders are friends, the rest being foes. By saying only a select few get it, what it shows is extreme defensiveness to the point of probably not really fixing root causes and resultant issues.  As Upton Lewis wrote in The Jungle, his 1906 expose about the meatpacking industry’s shortcoming at the turn of the century, ‘it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.’

One of the most interesting areas in neuroscience is the ability of a patient to deny not the expected such as paralysis or progressive loss of key functionality, but the unexpected such as having a perfectly working body.  Neurologists call this anosognosia, a medical term derived from the Greek term for ‘you don’t know yourself’.  Various flavors exist, such as Time Agnosia, where someone loses the ability to comprehend the succession and timing of events, and Integrative Agnosia, where the person is able to recognize individual components yet is unable to integrate these elements into a comprehensible and manageable whole, i.e. unable to see the big picture to take action, dealing with each issue piecemeal.

How many times have we seen entire companies in denial, or strategic initiatives blowing up while its leaders carry on the same linear path?  Embattled organizations think they know themselves, but in reality suffer from ‘organizational anosognosia’ which combines both the Time and Integrative forms, not seeing where they are or how they got there with internally comforting mass denial.  That global Financial Services firm mentioned above had 6 crisis PR spokespersons at the height of their issues, each dealing with just a small piece and came across as defensive and uncoordinated which was the case.

The best cure requires moving from the comfortable gang mentality of feeling embattled and life just carrying on as beautiful as ever by over-communicating  based on facts and a realistic assessment of how we got there and where we need to go.  What’s the prognosis? Personal Anosognosia typically results from brain injury and is irreversible.  Luckily, Corporate Anosognosia results from denial and the cure starts when the organization and its leaders decide to meaningfully communicate.

Rich Eichen is the Founder of, and, a Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, who’s website is http://www.growroe.com and is one of their senior turnaround leaders/CROs, Program and Interim Executives with over 25 years’ experience reshaping companies, Operations, IT and key initiatives. He can be reached at richard.eichen@growroe.com

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