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Peyton Manning, the highly coachable marketing star

From a marketing perspective, there is no denying that Peyton Manning has established himself as one of history’s most versatile athletes. At present, we see him humming the Nationwide Insurance jingle (I can’t seem to stop humming “chicken parm it tastes so good”), slinging pies with Papa John (he owns several Papa John’s stores in the Denver area — a very smart and savvy investment) and, though he’s not officially a spokesperson, extolling the virtues of Budweiser after claiming his second Super Bowl title with the Denver Broncos.

Recently, Manning announced his retirement from the National Football League (NFL) — in a speech that was honest, real and respectful of the league, game and many of its most prominent people, including his longtime on-the-field nemesis, Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots. Manning’s natural ease when speaking in public throughout his career, including his farewell address, has been shepherded by the inimitable Kathleen Hessert, founder and CEO of Sports Media Challenge, a highly-regarded speaking, training and communications consulting firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Haddonfield, New Jersey-raised (as was I, serendipitously…fun fact) Hessert, who was in Austin for several appearances at SXSW, including a leadership roundtable presented by The CMO Club, has been a true trail blazer in the decidedly male-dominated arena of sports and media as the first female pit reporter at ESPN and anchor at WTVH in Syracuse, New York in the 1970s. But the impact she has made behind the scenes, since opening up shop in 1985, is remarkable.

Hessert has worked with scads of teams, athletes and organizations over the years. With Peyton Manning, however, it was evident that he had the “it” quality both on and off the field.

“I know a lot about sports but I would never presume to really know what makes an athlete great at what they do,” said Hessert. “I went to his (University of Tennessee) quarterback coach David Cutcliffe who he worked with over his professional career. He's now the head coach at Duke. I said ‘David, what makes Peyton so great?’ He said, ‘He sees things on the field that nobody else sees. He can consume enormous amounts of information and digest it and turnaround and do something with it.’ It's the what he sees that other people don't see and then can react to.”

Off the field, preparing for the hot glare of scrutiny as Manning and the Tennessee Volunteers were preparing to play the University of Mississippi (where his father, Archie and younger brother Eli, now the quarterback of the New York Giants, played college football), Hessert, who was media training the entire team, helped Peyton Manning think through the issues he would be challenged with from the press. Hessert obviously made a massive impact because, the next week, Archie Manning reached out with a new request.

“He called me and said ‘Peyton's got a big decision to make this year whether he goes to the NFL or stays in college one more year,’” recalled Hessert. “‘I think we could use some help. Can you come on board?’ That was 19 years ago, 19 plus years ago.”

Coaches raved about Peyton Manning’s work ethic, and the word that was often accompanied by it was “coachable.” Hessert noticed that it could be consistently put to good use from the very beginning of their journey.

“I remember the first speech he was going to do,” said Hessert. “NFL Films came in and they were going to do a special called Two Roads to Glory — and they were going to chronicle the road to the NFL from the end of Peyton’s college career and a D-3 (NCAA Division 3) player (Roosevelt Blackmon). He said, ‘Kathleen, I'm not going to do that. They're going to paint me as having a silver spoon in my mouth. Born and bred to be an NFL quarterback and this other kid working his butt off to get there.’ I said, ‘But they do wonderful work.’”

Hessert sensed the trepidation but also instinctively saw an opportunity to start building the foundation of what would become a very bright future for Manning.

“I looked at him and I said ‘Peyton, what three words or phrases do people use to describe you today?’ First on the list was ‘Archie's son.’ Second on the list was ‘intelligent.’ I don't remember what the third word was,” said Hessert.

“Then, I challenged him by asking, ‘what three words or phrases to you want the world to say as the essence of your brand?’ He said ‘hardest working guy out there.’ Didn't waste a second to say that. ’Intelligent’ was next. And I forget what the third one was,” laughed Hessert. “Then I said, ‘OK, we’re going to use this film to introduce the new Peyton Manning brand.’”

Hessert brought the NFL Films crew into the weight room to show that Manning “reeked of the hardest working guy out there.” To underscore the point, Manning answered questions in between sets, preparing for life in the NFL. That “coachability” and preparation combined for a successful introduction to the league.

Aside from the hard work and intelligence on the field, Manning’s intuition served him incredibly well as marketing agents began to pitch their wares to Archie and Peyton Manning — but it all has to start with the product he was being paid for first, being an elite quarterback.

“When he was going to go to the NFL, Archie and Peyton asked me to join them to review and analyze the marketing agents,” said Hessert. “Every one of the big agents came through and put on their dog and pony show. All of them said ‘We will make you Mr. Football. We will put you on billboards.’ He looked them in the eye and he said ‘I don't want that. I want to prove myself on the field first. The rest will come.’ To see that roll out over all these years has been a remarkable experience.”

The Manning family (including mother Olivia and older brother Cooper) have always been in Peyton Manning’s orbit, but the ultimate decisions related to advertising and marketing fell squarely on his shoulders.

“No one tells him to do something,” said Hessert. “Peyton leads in every way. It is his life. It is his career. He makes the decisions and he has a wonderful marketing agent in IMG’s Alan Zucker (now with Excel Sports Management) who has been with him all along — and that continuity makes a big difference. Peyton knew what his brand was. He knew what he wanted to build. He found a marketer in Alan who was willing and able to cultivate that and put him in the right positions, and Peyton makes the decisions like always. He controls his destiny.”

For his part, Peyton Manning has made all the right marketing moves throughout his career. To some, it may come across as over-saturation. But to many, it is clear that he has mastered the art of an athlete being more than just a spokesperson, manifested in classics from DirecTV, MasterCard (“cut that meat!”), Sprint and a United Way parody in his excellent turn as host of Saturday Night Live.

A personal favorite, however is a “This is SportsCenter” spot that was a little “field trip” to the ESPN studios. The work involved the entire family, who Hessert says is a source of strength for all of their children.

“They're a remarkable family. They gave the breadth and the scope to the children to learn who they were and what they wanted and how they were going to go about it, but they were always there to hug each other, to say ‘I love you.’ How many fathers say I love you to their sons?” pondered Hessert. “If you've ever watched the (ESPN’s) 30 for 30, The Book of Mannings, it is a really wonderful and accurate portrayal of the Manning family. I think they're a remarkable family — I really admire them and love being friends with them.”