Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Important Marketing Lessons from the Ill-Fated Jabulani

By: Mike Logan

(Image from

    On December 4th, 2009, German Sporting goods and apparel company Adidas announced the release of the official ball for the 2010 World Cup: The Jabulani. Jabulani, adapted from the isiZulu word meaning ‘to celebrate,’ unbeknownst to Adidas, would leave them with little celebrate; however, the PR firestorm that followed taught Adidas, and the rest of the sporting world, a great deal about how to manage unexpected events and how to prevent them in the future.

  • Involve players, the key stakeholders, more deeply in the development of the product.
  • Don't develop your products in a vacuum. Complicate designs and make sure you are prepared to handle worst-case scenarios.
  • There should be no 'business-as-usual' issues for an organization. Handle small issues with swiftness and urgency, especially when your brand image is on the line.

     When goalies and strikers alike began complaining about the flight pattern and unpredictability of the Jabulani, Adidas simply shrugged off the issue and chalked it up to ‘business as usual,’ remarking that complaints arise before every World Cup as a result of unfamiliarity with new equipment. By ensuring that players, the customers on the frontlines, are involved in the testing and development of important new products like the Jabulani ball, Adidas and other sporting-goods providers can better protect themselves from negative press from product defects and errant complaints. Adidas has learned from this mistake and is testing their new products with professionals and amateurs to gather immediate feedback for product tweaks. As David Stern of the NBA once remarked, “Although testing [by Spalding] demonstrated the new composite basketball was more consistent than leather and statistically there has been and improvement…the most important statistic is the view of our players.”

     Product developers can further protect themselves by refusing to oversimplify designs and testing procedures. By accounting for the dynamic and unpredictable nature of field conditions rather than a product’s usefulness in a vacuum, producers will ensure that they have the most complete and well-tested product possible. Unfortunately, in sports, human error and subjectivity are incredibly important variables and should not be removed entirely from the equation. Though the Jabulani was the most spherical ball ever created, its unpredictability under play-conditions had not yet been accounted for before it was released on one of the greatest international stages in sports.

     Finally, Adidas failed to recognize the complaints of the players as a symptom of systemic distress rather than a common hurdle that has to be dealt with every four years. All organizations, dealing with sporting goods or otherwise, should be poised to respond to signals such as this swiftly and strongly rather than gambling and letting the issue grow into a much larger problem. 

    Adidas has clearly learned from this issue and is deftly moving forward in product R&D and crisis management. Every organization should be able to take these well-documented lessons and manage both the development of their products and crisis communications more adeptly.

Mike Logan is an M.S. candidate at Northwestern's Medill school for Integrated Marketing Communications. Follow @MikeAKAMaverick or connect at 

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