5 Tips for Creating Fans from the Top (Savannah) Banana

EditorsApr 25, 2024

5 Tips for Creating Fans from the Top (Savannah) Banana

Jesse Cole, founder of Fans First Entertainment, shared the “five Es” of building a fan base during his AGS Conclave keynote.

Jesse Cole Savannah Bananas
Jesse Cole, founder of Fans First Entertainment and owner of the Savannah Bananas, was a keynote speaker at American Gem Society 2024 Conclave in Austin, Texas.
Jesse Cole, founder of Fans First Entertainment and owner of the Savannah Bananas, took the stage as the opening keynote speaker at this year’s American Gem Society Conclave, held April 15-17 in Austin, Texas.

He shared the story behind his team, which is akin to the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball, and how he managed to build a loyal fanbase, with sold-out games and a waitlist of more than 600,000.

The path to success was complex, but Cole’s driving motto was simple—fans first.

“It wasn’t about money. We are focused on long-term fans and not short-term profits,” said Cole.

The Savannah Bananas offer a lot for fans to love, from its singing and dancing players; its grandma dance team, “The Banana Nanas;” its “Dad Bod Cheer Squad;” and babies dressed in banana costumes.

“I believe the future of business is not based on how many customers you have, it’s based on how many fans you have. Customers are transactional, they come and go, but fans never leave,” said Cole.

Jewelers already establish the necessary emotional connection for fandom, he said, as they’re part of the milestones in people’s lives.

The key is to create “you wouldn’t believe” moments, moments that make your customer say, “you wouldn’t believe what they did for me.”

“If you get people saying, ‘you wouldn't believe,’ you’ll never have to worry about marketing or promoting because they will do it for you. Right now, we spend $0 on marketing, but we spend everything on creating a great experience,” he said.

In his keynote presentation, Cole delved into the five “Es” an everyday jeweler can use to build a fan base of their own.

Eliminate Friction
To eliminate friction in a business, Cole recommended retailers put themselves in their customer’s shoes, a tactic he learned from Walt Disney.

“Walt Disney was obsessed with going into customers’ shoes. He would walk the park when he first built Disneyland and say, ‘Every single part of the experience, how can it be better?’,” said Cole.

In baseball, for instance, Cole surmised that the game was too long, slow, and boring for a lot of people. People also disliked the convenience fees tacked onto the price of the ticket.

A Savannah Bananas game is capped at two hours and fans don’t pay added fees.

He also has a team member go undercover at games and experience them as a fan to spot friction points they may have missed.

“How often have you done that?” he asked. “Even going through your website, how easy is it to talk to someone? This isn’t the most fun but the starting point of all innovation is to eliminate the friction,” said Cole.

Entertain Always
For the second “E,” Cole looked to another mentor, P.T. Barnum, who is credited as saying, “the noblest art is that of making others happy.”

If the definition of entertainment is to provide enjoyment, then in a sense, aren’t all retailers in the entertainment business?

Cole and his team mapped out the customer experience and pinpointed seven “stages,” or seven opportunities, to entertain, including social media, the parking lot, the stadium, the seats, the field, the front plaza as guests exit, and then the final impression.

When a fan buys a ticket to a game, they receive a fun video thanking them for their purchase and getting them excited about the upcoming experience.

If Cole’s team can do that for a ticket purchase, jewelers can step it up for a likely more expensive purchase.

“When people are buying something that could be a couple thousand dollars to thousands upon thousands of dollars, how do we celebrate them? How do we make it bigger, larger than life?” he asked.

For the first few years, Cole’s employees would call every fan who bought a ticket, an impossibility now that the team sells more than 1 million tickets per year.

“Often in the beginning, you have to do the unscalable,” he said. “For instance, when you have a new product or an event, can you do something that’s a little unscalable?”

Cole encouraged jewelers to think about what the experience could be like in their stores.

“How do you really make it fun? This is unlike any jewelry store in the world. What would that look like?” he said. “It may cost more. It may take away some short-term profits, but what about those long-term fans? What if people said, ‘you just gotta go there and be a part of it’?”

Experiment Constantly
When building his company, Cole turned away from all things normal.

“Normal gets normal results,” he said. “If you are doing normal, people aren’t going to talk about it. They talk about things that are unique and different.”

When designing merch, his team came up with “Dolce & Banana” underwear, a pair of plain white briefs with a Savannah Bananas logo on the front.

“We sell hats. We sell shirts. But the crazy thing is, we’ve sold over 2,000 [pairs of underwear] in the last year. I don’t know who’s buying them or why they’re buying them,” he said.

The important thing is that the novelty item got fans’ attention.

Cole shared a story about an author who bought a bookstore and stocked it with one book, the one he wrote, garnering media attention worldwide.

“Attention beats marketing 1,000 percent of the time,” he said.

Creating attention is key when trying to create a fun, memorable experience.

“I've learned you either have a success or you have a story and sometimes both. And so everything we do, we think about how do we create attention and do something different?” he said.

Sometimes ideas don’t pan out, said Cole, but idea generation is important.

He advised retailers to sit down with their teams and discuss how to create a more memorable experience, encouraging retailers to incentivize creative stories over sales.

A team only needs one good idea.

The Savannah Bananas team is known, especially on TikTok, for its dancing, but the players didn’t start out dancing.

Cole was trying to convince an HR executive to bring her team to a game. Her team didn’t like baseball, she said, but Cole assured her it was more than a baseball game, they also danced.

The players, in fact, did not dance, and Cole had to bring in a choreographer before the HR executive and her team showed up.

It’s important to try things, he said, adding that he’s written down 10 ideas every day since 2018.

“That’s thousands of terrible ideas,” he said, “but we all have to work our idea muscle. I have plenty of bad ideas, but quantity leads to quality.”

 Related stories will be right here … 

Engaging Deeply
Jewelers have a unique opportunity to engage with customers as they help them celebrate life’s milestones but taking it to the next level requires something special.

“Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone,” said Cole, quoting Pastor Andy Stanley.

Cole recalled visiting the Magic Castle Hotel in Hollywood, a well-regarded hotel despite its location in an older apartment building, sans spa, gym, or restaurant.

The hotel staff was welcoming, he said, offering drinks, a snack bar, laundry services, and a free ice cream bar in the lobby.

While walking past the hotel’s small pool, he spotted a red phone with a sign above that read “Popsicle Hotline.” And, sure enough, soon after he picked up the receiver, an employee came out with a popsicle on a silver platter.

Inspired by his experience, Cole asked the hotel’s CEO how he managed to create it.

“Listen carefully, respond creatively,” the CEO replied, sharing how he instructed his staff to ask a lot of questions.

Cole, in turn, advised his team to do the same and look for opportunities to create special moments.

When a fan reached out to the team to thank them for being a bright spot during a dark time in her life, Cole invited her to a game and gave her the VIB (Very Important Banana) experience, even coordinating an on-field dance with one of the players.

Empowering Action
Stop standing still and start standing out, advised Cole.

As a child, he was shy and introverted, a far cry from the man in the bright yellow suit up on stage at Conclave.

His dad, who raised him due to his mother’s struggles with drug addiction, wanted to help him get out of his shell, so he entered him into a contest to be an honorary bat boy for the Boston Red Sox.

Cole wasn’t much of a baseball fan, but, after winning the contest, he gave it a try. And after a 20-minute talk with Hall of Famer Lee Smith, Cole loved baseball.

He recalled his dad taking him to his first T-ball game. As he went up to bat, he froze.

“Swing hard in case you hit it!” his father yelled, a mantra Cole has kept close to his heart.

He swung and missed a lot, but he made pretty good contact when he did manage to hit the ball.

Cole said he has taken the same approach to life and realized that those who “don’t” may just be afraid of missing.

He looked to the baseball greats for inspiration, like Reggie Jackson, who struck out more than anyone else but is best known for his three home runs in game six of the 1977 World Series.

“We’re not remembered for our failures. We’re remembered for our hits,” said Cole.

It’s important to empower your team to take a big swing and try things. If it goes wrong, that’s one step closer to something working, he said.

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