Larry Lucchino, president and CEO of the Boston Red Sox, has noted more than once in recent weeks that the Boston Red Sox brand has “taken a few hits” as a result of last season’s precipitous September chicken-and-beer-fueled nosedive and this year’s unmitigated disaster on virtually all fronts on and off the field. What follows here is not an attempt to pick the sporting carcass of the 2012 Sox mess, nor will I bring up the interesting approaches to team motivation and communication taken by manager Bobby Valentine (another post entirely awaits there). The Boston Red Sox today, however, present a compelling example of how some organizations completely swing and miss (groan…) when it comes to understanding what is and what is not branding.

As I’ve said here before, branding is all about the emotional connection an organization makes with its audiences. Sports fandom is entirely about emotion and Lucchino is correct in saying that much of the brand damage has come as result of the fact that the Sox have sucked mightily this year and have not qualified for the playoffs in the last three seasons. In the midst of this on-field chaos, the marketing organization at Fenway Park has been relentlessly pitching an unending series of items and ideas from commemorative bricks and Red Sox Nation club cards, to a phony-baloney stadium sellout streak and the perhaps mock-kidnapping of Wally the Green Monster as a means to sell, sell, sell anything and everything to fans who are increasingly disengaged, if not actively hostile. A simple glance at reveals a commerce-dominant site, a fair amount of team-pushed news, little outside content, zero fan engagement, and social links at the very bottom of the page. Online, the Boston Red Sox don’t appear to be very interested in anything other than their own noise and purse. In what amounts to a season of failure, the team comes across as an organization that is utterly tone-deaf.

Today, there are so many ways for customers to interact with an organization that there can be no excuse for the organization not to participate in -- if not be the main catalyst for -- a richer exchange with its core audience. Engagement and transparency are requirements of a proper branding effort that the Red Sox lack today. In the PR world, we call this type of relationship development “building a reservoir of goodwill.” We advise clients that it is a mandatory investment of time and energy that has nothing at all to do with selling a product. By being seen as an open, engaged and trusted member of a community, any organization will be better served when, invariably, that organization’s prospects take a turn for the worse. However, like too many corporations, team execs only seem to engage when forced out in a crisis (e.g. last week’s flap over a news report that the team might be for sale) or appear with a new product gambit in hand.

By living into these requirements, the Red Sox, and any organization, can do so much more to help condition the environment around which their fans and customers emotionally connect with and reflect the team’s desired brand image. The Red Sox are not cultivating enough of these opportunities for legitimate engagement without a price tag attached. The communication, dialogue and engagement between team and fan, organization and audience, is broken and no amount of heavy shilling (no, not this guy) will rebuild that bridge of trust.