Laura Petrolino

What College Football Teaches Us About Brand Development

By: Laura Petrolino | October 5, 2015 | 
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What College Football Teaches Us About Brand Development

By Laura Petrolino

In 1997, when Phil Knight challenged a Nike design team to tackle brand development for the University of Oregon, little did he know he had also unofficially launched a new and very profitable division of Nike.

Now 18 years and countless rebrands later, college football and athletic departments across the country are turning to Nike to led their brand development.

The success of the Nike lead charge at the U of O (go Ducks), at first glance, seems to be a case study in how a sharp new logo and brand identity can transform a team—and organization.

What it actually shows is all the elements required to make up a successful brand development—visual brand being only one.

Brand Development isn’t Only External

While some eye-catching uniforms helped the University of Oregon gain the name recognition they have today, they didn’t create the team. Instead the uniforms helped bring more attention to what was already great about the team and the football organization, which in turned helped drive sharper, better, and more talented recruits…..and create a winning team.

Brand development isn’t about the external only. The best logo in the world can’t fix a sloppy internal brand, poor culture, and faulty product or service. Your visual brand serves as an external representation of your internal sparkle.

One might strengthen the other—as U of O is a great example of—but they aren’t mutually exclusive.

Essential Elements of Brand Development and Strategy

While many will have slightly different versions of this list, the following are what I think are the three most important elements of successful brand development and strategy.

Consistency: Consistency, consistency, consistency. If you spell brand backwards it spells “consistency” (ok, not really…but that would be super cool, right?). You must be consistent through every consumer touchpoint, every team member, and every communications platform and media type—online and off. Without consistency you really don’t have a brand. Not to mention the fact you dilute consumer trust, credibility, and position of thought leadership.

Personality: Here at Arment Dietrich, before we ever begin any outreach for an organization we always put together a personality and voice document. Not only does this help give dimension and character to a brand it helps maintain consistency throughout all outreach. At a minimum, this should contain:

  • Key messages;
  • Mission;
  • Information about all target audience;
  • Voice and tone (personality);
  • Qualifiers; and
  • Any industry- or sector-specific guidelines or important language restrictions (both legal and emotional based on target audience).

(P.S. I have a detailed guest post on the Big Brand System on creating a personality document for your organization, complete with a downloadable guide to do so).

Love them or hate them, think about some of the best known college football organizations—each has a distinct personality. It is that personality which keeps their fans engaged and loyal (even when they have bad years), makes their rivals hate them passionately, and encourages new recruits to come calling.

Brand Storytelling: Great brands tell stories. Notre Dame is a fantastic example of this. Even when the school’s football program went through some really (really) low years, it remained thought of as a top football program because of the stories the program could tell. Those stories helped them rebuild, recruit well, and become a respectable program again.

Organizational Culture Drives Brand Development

The culture a coach creates on a college football team drives much of their success, as well as the brand they establish for themselves. The same is true from leaders in organizations. A brand “in theory” will never match the actual brand if the leader creates and motivates a culture which is counter to that brand story.

Take a look at how Tennessee has struggled to find their footing through multiple coaching turn-overs and upheavals. As one of the recent clients of Nike, the team is working on brand development on many levels.

New coach Butch Jones works to rebuild the team internally, Nike is works on external brand development and image—careful to build upon the stories which Tennessee football and athletics already have to tell (and the strength of the brand during the Fulmer and Manning era), and the new team itself (the “employees”) work to unite both.

As Sports Illustrated reporter Andy Staples, sums up well in regards to the Oregon brand development:

In Oregon’s case, Nike’s uniform designs and technological advances are vital components. But so is the blur offense created by former coach Chip Kelly and refined by successor Mark Helfrich and coordinator Scott Frost. And the most important factor is a culture that has remained intact through three coaching changes over 20 years. Those three pieces—flash, speed and continuity—turned Oregon football from a quaint operation on the edge of the country to America’s coolest program. How strong is Oregon’s brand? All it takes is one glimpse of the signature O and a fan or recruit knows exactly how the team looks and plays.

Strong brand development starts internally. Your visual brand is only as powerful as the organization it represents.

image: My Dad (the original “PetroPower”) and me at a recent Army Football game. Army was recently rebranded by Nike.

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks.

  • I agree with you —- and living within a community governed by college football in so many ways, it is obvious how this plays out daily, and generationally. I’ll try to think of something more to say to expand on your points. I have to be utterly honest and say one of the first things that comes to mind in this discussion is ALL. THE. $$$$$. Case in point, situations like this one: http://www.wsj.com/articles/nike-to-florida-state-coach-change-your-sons-sweatshirt-1406914196

  • kaitfowlie

    “Your visual brand is only as powerful as the organization it represents.” So true. There’s no substitute for real passion and dedication. Just no substitute. Also: a voice document is SUCH a good idea! Multi-channel consistency is so, so important today. Thanks for including that link here.

  • SpinSucks

    jccarcamo Thank you Julia. lkpetrolino will be happy to hear it.

  • michaelsmartpr

    SpinSucks lkpetrolino Didn’t know you were a fellow college football fan!

  • kaitfowlie Yes! I’ll definitely update when the article goes live. I’m also a big believer in a voice document. Too often organizations assume everyone on the team understands the message and voice they are trying to project, when they really don’t.

  • biggreenpen Oh…I’m sure we could have many a discussion about some of those issues!

  • lkpetrolino

    michaelsmartpr I knew I liked you! Honestly I don’t fully trust anyone who isn’t! 😉

  • michaelsmartpr

    lkpetrolino I often lace my speeches with college fb references. Last wk in Lansing I cited 3 MSU last-minute wins I watched live on TV.

  • michaelsmartpr lkpetrolino my husband is a Spartan

  • LauraPetrolino biggreenpen future guest post: brands that should be helping tell stories but get all ticky when the narrative is messed with by a kid. 🙂

  • Texas Football…in its really (really) low time right now!! But they took that brand, wrapped it around the rest of Longhorn sports, and spun up their own TV network while becoming the largest sports program in the nation (about $1B, if I remember).

    Of course, that has lead to greed and complacency…but the Longhorns logo is still one of the most recognized in sports (even when mired in mediocrity).

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