If you follow baseball in the Los Angeles area, Dennis Kuhl, chairman of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, wants you to know one thing:

“The Dodgers are not my competition,” he says. “When I go out and speak, people ask me about the Dodgers being my competition. But my competition is Southern California sunshine. You have to talk a family of four into coming to the ballgame instead of going to the beach. So you’d better have some things going on that are exciting.”

Kuhl came on board with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim shortly after owner Arte Moreno purchased the club in 2003. The team’s 2002 World Series title predates Moreno’s ownership, but under the leadership of Moreno and Kuhl, the Angels have become a perennial playoff contender and one of the leading attendance draws in Major League Baseball.

Moreno has bankrolled the talent that has led to the team’s on-field success, but Kuhl says it has been a group effort to keep fans in the stands at Angels Stadium of Anaheim, from the front office all the way down to the janitors, ushers and parking attendants that interact with fans before, during and after games.

It’s really no different from any other business: a respected brand plus great customer service leads to repeat customers.

“Our brand itself is well-known, but we also wanted to demonstrate great customer service,” says Kuhl, who served as the team’s president until 2009. “But that is only part of it. You have to reach out to the community in which you live. We have to let our fans know they’re a big part of us being here in Orange County and Los Angeles. That means you still constantly have to promote your brand, even with a well-known image. I tell everyone in the organization that they’re a salesman. You’re representing the Angels and you’re selling Angels everywhere you go.”

Know your colors

Kuhl and the Angels leadership team picked three items to serve as the outward identity of the organization: the color red, the name “Angels” and the club’s capital “A” logo. The use and appearance of all three factors is carefully managed to promote brand association throughout the fan base.

“You’ll never see our ‘A’ in camouflage or a different color,” Kuhl says. “It’s always red. We specifically picked the color red, and in our merchandise store, everything is red. Everything we give away is red. And the third item is the name ‘Angels.’ We don’t put ‘Los Angeles Angels’ on our stuff. We put ‘Angels.’”

The goal was to create a distinctive brand image, one that employees want to support and promote, and one that fans want to embrace. The Angels nickname and the club’s capital ‘A’ logo have been around for decades, but the club’s transfer to a red-dominated color scheme in 2002 is something Angels management views as the final ingredient, what makes the whole branding recipe work.

“Too many organizations tinker with their logo, change it every year, and we have not. We have taken that brand into the market and kept it the same, kept our uniforms the same. People have responded, because when you come to a game, you see a sea of red. They’re getting it.”

Kuhl says it’s counterproductive for a business to focusing on being many different things to many different people. You have to zero in on what it is you are trying to be as an organization, and work hard to put those essential elements in front of your customers on a constant basis.

It might be exciting to revise your company’s image and try new looks on for size. But if you water down your image with too many differing messages, you’re going to confuse your customers as to what you really stand for as a business.

“You can’t focus on 20 different things,” Kuhl says. “You have to focus on a small number of things and work hard on branding that name. When we go to a dinner or to a Rotary Club meeting, we take a bunch of inexpensive hats with us, and every kid there gets a hat. A lot of people think if you give away hats, they won’t buy them in the store. We don’t care right now. We want to see every kid in Orange County, in the whole Los Angeles area, wearing an Angels hat. You start with the kids, and if you walk into a store around here now, you see more red than you ever have before. It’s because we’ve stuck with our image and focused on it.”

Kuhl says the Angels aren’t looking to other baseball teams for branding inspiration. They’re looking at companies like IBM.

“You have to focus and pick your brand, and develop your mission,” he says. “Like with us, our mission is youth. You have to, as an organization, pick what your goals and brand are, and tie it in with the surrounding community. And you have to develop the culture within the organization. We have to have people buying in to what we are doing, what Arte’s goals are. That has to come internally.

“I’ve seen other great organization do that. In college, I watched what IBM had done, how they built their brand, and their brand is as strong as it gets. Nike is the same way. They believe in their culture, and that’s what we want from our people.”

Project your culture

One of the oldest axioms in the business how-to book says your culture isn’t what you say it is — it’s what your people believe it is. It’s also what your people project to your customers.

Even though the Angels have carved out a large and loyal fan base throughout Orange County and the Los Angeles area, they can’t take that as an indicator that they’ll reap the benefits of bumper-crop ticket and merchandise sales. As with other businesses, it still takes diligent work to constantly improve customer service and enhance customer experience. A guy in Orange County might have an Angels pennant hanging in his house, but Kuhl still needs that guy to take the step of driving to the stadium, buying tickets and taking in a game with his family.

To make it happen, Angels games need to be a customer-focused experience from the parking lot to the stadium and back. Which means everyone who works at an Angels game is an ambassador for the team.

“The people in the office, like myself, we might touch the fans, but we don’t touch them like the ushers, like the parking lot attendants, janitorial people and concessionaires,” Kuhl says. “Those are the people who have direct contact. We need to educate them on the service we want to see from our employees. We want them to smile, say thank you and look customers in the eye. We want them to know if customers aren’t getting good service. That’s why I say we have team ambassadors.”

Turning employees into ambassadors for your organization takes training. But as part of the training, it takes a great deal of dialogue. Employees won’t feel empowered to represent the business if they don’t feel engaged in the process.

Kuhl wants his employees to know how to provide a good customer experience. But he also wants the people who work at the many customer interface points at an Angels game to tell the management team what needs to be done better, and where new ideas could potentially flourish.

“When we meet with game day employees, the first thing I do is go talk to them,” he says. “I thank them for the job they did the previous year, I ask them if they have any questions about the organization. It’s important that those questions come from the top. But then, we let them speak out, and we want to hear some of the problems that they’ve had and some of the areas where they think we could be doing a better job.

“When you let people speak out and give them the opportunity to tell you what is going on in the stadium, you can find out what is missing, what else we need to do. If someone in the stadium needs a wheelchair, we don’t want them to find you. You go get it, and you don’t have to ask. Just go do it. That gives them a sense of belonging. That gives them a sense that ‘I belong to this organization, I am a representative of this organization, and I’m going to do the best I can.’”

Feed yourself some feedback

Fans write letters to Kuhl all the time. He takes the time to read them all, but he’s particularly interested in letters that provide some sort of constructive criticism regarding how the Angels can make the game day experience better.

“Last year, one of our issues was that there were not enough healthy alternative foods at the games,” Kuhl says. “So we go together with our food service partners and put together a menu selection with some more gluten-free choices and other health-food alternatives. We developed it, we’ll promote it on the scoreboard and we’ll see how it goes over the course of the season. You have to take a look at what people are looking for.”

And if people aren’t finding what they’re looking for and they’re taking their dollars elsewhere, you need to find out why.

If a season ticket holder doesn’t renew for the following year, Kuhl and his staff want to know the reasons why. It might be related to the recession, or it might be something that the Angels could have done better.

“Our customer service representatives call every season ticket holder after the season, then again around Christmastime,” he says. “It’s amazing the feedback you get. But you have to make the effort to go out and reach out to these people. If somebody didn’t renew their season tickets, we want to know why. We want to know what we could have done better. If you’re not interested in season tickets, would you be interested in a mini plan? Things like that. But you have to go out to the market; the market is not going to come to you. You need to set up a customer service organization within the company, go out and seek them.”

In the end, Kuhl says, you’ll probably find that customers want a good product that doesn’t break their budget. If you have those two factors, you’re off to a good start.

“You sit down and say ‘OK, what do the fans want?’” he says. “In baseball, people want a winner, and Arte’s been working to put a good product on the field. Off the field, you want to get the people into the seats. And once they’re in the seats, maybe they buy a hot dog. And if you get them in here and they enjoy the experience, maybe they come back again. That’s why you concentrate on having that good fan experience, good customer experience. We have to focus on giving them value for their dollar. That’s the way I feel, and that’s how our plans are constructed.”

How to reach: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, (714) 940-2000 or losangeles.angels.mlb.com

The Kuhl file

Born: Boonton, N.J.

Education: Business administration degree, University of Arizona

First job: I was a caddy in a country club in Boonton when I was a kid. It was interesting being around a lot of successful people. They had money and belonged to a country club, and you kind of looked up to them. You respected them. And they always treated us very well. I was always impressed with the way most of them treated the caddies. And what I learned was that you always treat people with respect. That made an impression on me at age 12 or 13, and I’ve always carried that with me.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

One of the things I wished I was better at was being more of a visionary. I’ve been working a lot of years with Arte Moreno, and he’s a very visionary person. One of the lessons I’ve learned from him is to never make decisions looking at the past. Always make decisions for the future. Don’t look to the past; always move forward as you’re running a business.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

A real business leader has to see four or five years down the line, and then communicate a plan to the employees. You have to hire the right people and know who to put in charge. You need to really believe in your vision and communicate it to your team.

Kuhl on changing the club name to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2005:

We believe our baseball team is in a big time market. We want to make sure we acted like a big market team, not small market. We wanted our advertisers to know we live in a very large metropolitan area. We felt this was one of our steps that we needed to take to let everyone know that we are a part of the Greater Los Angeles area, and it has helped us to be recognized as a big market team.

Published in Orange County