U.S. Olympic UniformGate: A Lesson in Remembering Your Audience

It was revealed this week that the U.S. Olympic uniforms somehow missed the Made in the USA label. Instead, they were made in China and just about everyone is in an uproar.  Opinions and questions from all sides!  The Olympics are the embodiment of patriotism and national pride and making our uniforms in another country just doesn’t seem right.

Ralph Lauren was so pleased to be chosen to design this year’s uniforms and now this.  We don’t know how this came to be, but can’t you just picture what happened? The Ralph Lauren team working on the design selects the manufacturer based on the normal criteria: price, trusted relationship, quality or production time. But, the big enchilada somehow was missed.   They forgot how their bigger audience views the Olympics.

No matter how strongly you feel – we’ve all forgotten our audience. A few years ago, my colleague Martha Duesterhoft and I led organization-wide focus groups for a client to gather input on how to make things better.  As part of this effort, we held focus groups with all the truck drivers. If you’ve ever held a focus group with truck drivers at 4:00 in the morning after their 12 hour shift – you know that the deck was stacked against us. We figured out quickly that our ‘post- it’ notes and flip charts had to be scrapped and we sat together, drank coffee and talked. We took some notes. We had to consider our audience and regroup.

Really remembering your audience is the first step in having influence or in just being heard. If you miss it, you are off track before you get started. For example, the manager who introduced the new, big project the Monday morning after his team had worked 24/7 all weekend to fix a problem; the new restaurant owner in a vibrant, young community that missed the need for a workable website and Facebook presence; or, the 12 step interview process for the coveted recruit from the successful start-up. The audience wasn’t really understood or, at best, an afterthought.

But, when the audience is at the heart of the plan – it can make all the difference. I recently heard Marcus Samuelsson, chef of the Red Rooster in Harlem, discuss being part of a group to revitalize the inner city. He said they added a DJ at the farmer’s market to encourage young people to come and purchase fresh fruits and veggies. He said their goal was to “meet people where they are”. Or, I recently heard about an organization that shares their job descriptions on YouTube so potential recruits can hear about the job from the hiring manager firsthand. The difference in these examples and others is not starting with ‘show and tell’, but starting with the interests and values of their audience.

This different mindset is essential for building interest and support for your plans. Before you introduce something new, make sure you have asked these key questions:

  • Who is my real audience?
  • Why do they care about what I’m introducing?
  • In general, what do they like and enjoy?
  • How can we appeal to their interests and values?
  • What blind spots do we have on how to share information or keep their commitment?
  • What knowledge gaps do we have that may affect the options we consider?

The  important point is to keep your eye on the audience and what they care most about – not just on your priorities – even if very important. This seems to be where the Olympic uniform planners missed the mark.

But, regardless of where the uniforms were made, we Americans will cheer on the U.S. Olympic team with national pride. And, on a side note, when did we start wearing berets? Did I miss that? Upon reflection, maybe I’ll hold that thought as it seems like they may have bigger issues to sort at the moment.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults and can be followed @PattiBJohnson or her company @people_results.