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Plan B revolutionizes Minor League brand08/17/2007 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / Special to MLB.com
Jason Klein and Casey White, the duo behind Plan B Branding, embrace the concept of storytelling as a means to help Minor League teams define themselves. With that in mind, here's a story that helps to explain how Plan B came about in the first place.
On April 16, 1999, Kevin Brown returned to San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium as a member of the hated Los Angeles Dodgers, just six months removed from leading the Padres to the World Series. The 34-year-old ace hurler had abandoned San Diego during the offseason, choosing instead to sign a massive free-agent contract with the division-rival Dodgers. Brown, not surprisingly, got a rude reception from the hometown crowd, who viewed the right-hander as nothing more than a greedy opportunist.
White and Klein, who were working as Padres' gameday employees at the time, decided that they would tap into the crowd's decidedly anti-Brown bias by executing an audacious stunt. With "For the Love of Money" by the O'Jays blaring over the sound system, the duo hauled a life-size Kevin Brown piñata into the crowd. The bottom of the piñata was soon smashed through by the rabid throngs, and a seemingly endless stream of pretend money came pouring out of it. The ballpark went crazy with mean-spirited delight.
"It was nuts," said Klein. "I remember this kid got a hold of one of the legs, and was running down the concourse with this severed limb as fake money billowed out of it. After the game, Tony Gwynn -- who was never affected by anything when he was on the field -- said it was one of the few times in his life that something taking place in the crowd really distracted him."
"Needless to say, that night marked the end of our employment with the San Diego Padres. It was also when we decided that we never wanted to have a boss ever again."
More than eight years have passed, and Klein and White have stayed true to the decision they made on that fateful mid-April night. The duo, native San Diegans who first met in kindergarten, have parlayed their independent nature, love of sports and well-honed sense of mischief into Plan B Branding, a so-called "Ideas Company" that is helping to revolutionize how Minor League teams define and market themselves.
Plan B is the natural result of decades of collaboration between Klein and White, whose childhood projects included a videotaped stuffed animal football game as well as the production of "Back to the Future IV."
"It was the middle of summer, and Casey and I spent all this time indoors knocking out a 40-page script," said Klein, who serves as Plan B's media spokesman. "The movie took place during the Civil War, and Casey was the director while I was Marty McFly. We cast all our friends and made costumes, and the local ABC affiliate ended up doing a story on it."
Upon graduating from college -- Klein went to the University of Alabama, while White attended Brooklyn's Pratt Institute -- the two decided to go into business for themselves as team logo designers.
"The Minor Leagues seemed like a good place to start, so we sent out letters to 160 clubs," said Klein. "We got one response, from the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, who basically said 'If we like what you do, then we'll pay for it.' So we started running Plan B out of my bedroom."
"The name came about because we decided that if clubs didn't like what was going on with what they were doing, then maybe they would come to us. We were Plan B."
For West Tenn -- the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs -- Klein and White created "Dandy Jim," a mustachioed miner who wields a bat like a pick axe. The character was a financial success for the club, so Klein and White got paid. That gig led to work with Minor League clubs all over the nation, such as the Florida State League's Clearwater franchise, Tulsa of the Texas League and West Virginia of the South Atlantic League.
Along the way, Klein and White honed and expanded their approach.
"There are a lot of great designers that work in sports," said Klein. "I think that what helped separate us from the pack is that we spend so much time getting to know the clubs we're working with. It's a disservice to the fans to dream up the fan experience without having any knowledge of what that actually is."
"When we get hired by a club, the first role that we assume is that of investigators. We immerse ourselves in the culture, visiting mom-and-pop restaurants and local hangouts, talking to everyone we possibly can to figure out where they're coming from. We need to be able to effectively tell the team's story in a way everyone can relate to."
This hands-on approach has resulted in some formidable success stories.
"When we were working in Clearwater [in 2004] we went down to the docks, and one of the fishermen starts telling us about threshers, these amazing sharks that hit their prey with their tails and give them whiplash. We were like, 'That's it! That's the name! The Threshers!' We built up a whole new identity around that."
Clearwater fans, who had become accustomed to their team simply being known as "The Phillies," responded in an overwhelmingly positive fashion. The club doubled its attendance in its first season as the Threshers, and merchandise sales increased eight-fold en route to becoming the best-selling logo in all of Minor League Baseball.
"We want to create something that lasts -- the Minor League equivalent of the Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs," said Klein. "Teams shouldn't have to change their identity every 10 years. If the roots aren't deep enough, then let's just keep digging."
The quest to "dig deep" has put Klein and White in all sort of unorthodox situations, as the duo has met with coal industry representatives in West Virginia, oil wildcatters in Tulsa, Okla., World War II veterans in Lakeland, Fla., and Native American tribal representatives in Washington State.
That latter effort -- on behalf of the Northwest League's Spokane Indians -- resulted in one of Plan B's most publicized and successful efforts. By soliciting input from the tribes that reside in and around the Spokane area, Klein and White were able to create an identity for the club that respects and embraces Native American culture rather than denigrating it.
"We had wanted to change our logo, but didn't necessarily need to," said Spokane Indians President Andy Billig. "And at one point we even decided to stop the process, but they [Plan B] wouldn't let us. Soon after, we had a breakthrough."
"Locally, we've gotten an excellent response, as the involvement of the tribe has gone over extremely well. The positive PR just keeps going on and on."
An obvious prerequisite of being an "Ideas Company" is that you have to have lots of them -- and Klein and White obviously do. For instance, the duo periodically releases detailed reports on various aspects of the business of the Minor Leagues. The recently released "State of Promotions" study, for example, lists the most- and least-effective recurring promotions currently taking place around the Minors.
"A lot of clubs run promotions that draw less people than if there had been no promotion had been run at all," said Klein. "Teams should approach the season with a fundamental idea of what they know will work, and then take some risks on top of that."
It was that sort of logical yet unorthodox thinking that prompted Reading Phillies general manager Scott Hunsicker to work with Plan B.
"I remember meeting them at the Memphis promo seminar in 2005, when they led a round-table discussion on how to make fans into fanatics," he recalled. "We decided to give them a shot, thinking they could help us with out with our organizational ADD. We could never coherently answer who we were as a franchise."
"They ended up coming up with a new slogan for us --'How do you fan?" -- which was able to encompass the whole Reading Phillies experience. For instance, if you're into our mascot band, that's how you fan. Or, if you're into the history of the franchise and our link to Philadelphia, then that's how you fan. Or if your main thing is just having a beer out on the deck, that's how you fan. Essentially, they helped change the look of a historic franchise without violating what we've always been about."
While Plan B has landed some gigs in other areas of the sports world (including a job modernizing the Cincinnati Reds logo), it is clear that their focus will remain on the Minor Leagues for years to come.
"We're radically optimistic about the future of the Minor Leagues," said Klein. "The teams are small and nimble. Like, if someone gets an idea on Monday, it can be ready to go on Tuesday. We want to channel that energy until we get to the point where we've reached the platinum age of Minor League Baseball, where it's even more popular than the Majors."
If and when that day comes, Klein and White will be decades removed from their early days filming backyard movies and stuffing life-size piñatas of vilified free agents with fake money. Yet, that uncompromising and adventurous spirit will have always remained intact.
"After we retire, Casey and I can just hang out on the beach in San Diego drinking Coronas," said Klein. "Minor League Baseball will be America's sport, and we'll be watching the Clearwater Threshers take on the Lakeland Flying Tigers on TV, right there on the beach. It'll take a couple of decades, but we'll get there."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.