What College Football Teaches Us About Brand Development

Nick Saban’s mug is all over ESPN.

Commentators are visiting college campuses around the United States.

And that can only mean one thing.

That painful time after the Stanley Cup and NBA finals and before the start of football season is finally coming to an end.

College football is upon us.

What does college football have to do with communications, you ask?

You people asking that obviously didn’t go to an SEC (Southeastern Conference) or Big 10 school.


And for the purpose of this post, it has to do with brand development.

Phil Knight and Brand Development

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 22 years and countless rebrands later, college football and athletic departments across the country turn to Nike to lead their brand development.

The success of the Nike rebranding 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.

And while that is obviously true, more importantly, is what it shows us about the elements required to make up a successful brand.

Brand Development Isn’t Only External

While some eye-catching uniforms helped the University of Oregon gain the name recognition they have today, that didn’t build a winning team. Instead, the uniforms helped bring more attention to what was already great about the school and their football program.

It showed the country what was special about a previously non-attention getting school in Oregon.

In turn, this newfound celebrity drove sharper, better, and more talented recruits…..and created a winning team.

Brand development isn’t only about external communications.

The best logo in the world can’t fix a sloppy internal brand, poor culture, and faulty product or service.

But your visual brand should serve as an external representation of your internal sparkle.

Essential Elements of Brand Development

If you look at the University of Oregon or any branding Cinderella story, you’ll see many similar elements.

In my opinion, the following four are the most important for successful brand development.

Be Consistent. Be Powerful.

Consistency, consistency, consistency.

If you spell “brand” backward, 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.

You also dilute consumer trust, credibility, and connection to your brand and the products or services you offer.

You’ve Got…Personality

On one of our agency owner calls last week, Casie Yoder mentioned how blown away she was by the fact she kept talking to major organizations who didn’t have style and brand guides, and often even looked at her blankly when she asked about one.

Not only does this omission prevent a brand from line item one above, consistency, it also limits their ability to have a brand voice which people can connect with.

We work with every client from day one to develop a personality and voice document.

We believe this is as important as your organization’s mission statement and brand values (although it does incorporate both of those).

It provides dimension and character to a brand and it helps maintain consistency throughout all outreach, all channels, all levels of the organization.

At a minimum, this should contain:

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

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.

Brand storytelling is a crucial part of effective brand development.

And it helps keep a brand relevant through the normal ebbs and flows of a business.

Notre Dame is a fantastic example of this.

Even when the school’s football program went through some really (really) low years, we still thought of it as a top football program despite their dismal record, 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.

It matters in recruitment.

It matters in execution.

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 that is counter to that brand story.

Take a look at how the Tennessee Vols has struggled to find their footing through multiple coaching turn-overs and upheavals.

As one of the 2015 clients of Nike, the team has been working on brand development on many levels for years but has struggled to find the right leader to amplify it from the inside out.

Nike worked on their external brand development and image—careful to build upon the stories Tennessee football and athletics already had (and the strength of the brand during the Fulmer and Manning era).

Now, new coach Jeremy Pruitt is working to rebuild the team internally.

And the hope is the new team itself (the “employees”) works to unite both.

Inside Out. Outside In.

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.

Alabama: The Brand. The Story. The Internal Structure.

Bama is a great example of a team that has consistently brought all of these elements together and created a brand that continues to seed itself.

Nick Saban, love him or hate him, is a leader who commands a strong and consistent brand loyalty in everything the team does.

The Bama brand story pulls recruits, fans, money, and a reputation that intimidates any team they play.

The Bama persona is strong, consistent, and plows through every town they visit, every interview they have, and their presence online and off.

I’m not a Bama fan and as an SEC grad I feel personally attacked by them, but as a communicator, I want to build a Bama level brand every time.

Image: My Dad (the original “PetroPower”) and me at a recent Army Football game. Army was recently rebranded by Nike in 2015.

Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

View all posts by Laura Petrolino