Companies can learn from the branding power of college sports

August 1, 2012 in The Work

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With thousands of colleges and universities anchoring cities and towns throughout the United States, why are the names of only a handful of academic institutions recognizable to everyday people? The answer is simple: branding. And especially the transcendent branding of major collegiate sports programs.

For example, let’s look at two schools: Harvard University and the University of Michigan. Both schools are household names, while one is synonymous with being an academic powerhouse that breeds successful entrepreneurs and future presidents, the other is synonymous with Wolverine football.

Being among the top five research universities in the U.S., Michigan’s academic programs have plenty of clout in their own right, with several Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winners (as well U.S. president Gerald Ford) as proud alums. Still, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Michigan is the the maize- and blue-wearing athletes of its storied football program.

Meanwhile, Harvard, a school with a football program nearly as old as the sport itself, has been off the map competitively with top tier programs for generations. And I bet you didn’t know they’re called the Crimson, did you?

While both schools are both incredibly valuable brands with storied traditions, one is celebrated for its athletics and the other its academics.

So what makes a collegiate sport brand so valuable?

Academics aside, there’s no doubt that top-tier collegiate sports brands are incredibly valuable. Michigan capitalizes on selling out its 100,000-plus seat Michigan Stadium, merchandise sales (where fans essentially pay Michigan to advertise for them), not to mention its other successful sports programs such as men’s basketball. It all adds up to about $90 million a year in revenue for the school.

Marketing guru Heidi Cohen shared some insight in an article she wrote in 2011, “What Marketers Can Learn About Branding from School Teams.”

According to Cohen, college brands are so successful because:

  • They have icons. Fans can rally behind mascots as well as popular athletes (think of superstar Michigan alum Tom Brady). Cohen notes the similarities of advertising-inspired icons like the Jolly Green Giant. We can add in Steve Jobs as an equivalent of Brady.
  • Team names that inspire. The fierceness of a Wolverine or, using another example, the power and strength of being a Florida Gator, lets fans become a part of something that is bigger than themselves. In the marketing world, Cohen notes, “At their best, iconic brands become synonymous with the product such as Kleenex or Xerox.”
  • College teams use distinct colors and athletes wear uniforms. The Nebraska Cornhuskers are famous for their “sea of red” at their home football games, where 85,000 fans all wear red in support of their team. And the players on the field are dressed to match. Companies can use the same trick to be just as memorable — think of how Coke uses the color red, so Pepsi uses the color blue, as Cohen notes, and FedEx and UPS have company uniforms that distinctly match each company’s individual colors.
  • Fight songs/cheers. Hearing Michigan’s “Hail to the Victors” fight song can send chills down opponents’ spines while at the same time rallying the Wolverines and their fans. It’s the equivalent of Oscar Mayer’s “The Wiener Song,” except Michigan’s fight song will never change — nor would their millions of fans stand for it. Maybe companies, who routinely change their branding every couple years, should take note.

What else can companies learn from the branding power of college sports? Let us know in the comments.

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