It’s a funny thing – I live in Atlanta, home of such enormous brands as Coca-Cola, Chick-fil-A, Delta, Georgia-Pacific, Home Depot, and Rubbermaid, but from August through early January (and arguably longer), those brands take a back seat to another set of brands – college football’s Southeastern powerhouses. To be fair, it isn’t just the Southeast – that is just my own little window. These brands inspire such intense emotional reactions, and garner so much loyalty and advocacy from fans that it’s no wonder more traditional brands fight like mad for the endorsement rights. It occurred to me over the last few weekends of watching college football that there are a lot of things traditional brands could learn from these football programs. Here are four good examples.
Build a sustainable, long-term connection with your customers. Florida has sold out every home game since sometime in 1989 – more than 100 straight, ditto for Alabama who had 92,138 watch a Spring game with thousands more outside the stadium. I could rattle off similar stats for Miami, Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee, FSU, LSU – you get the point. But here’s the real kicker – the connection these football brands have with their fans is so strong that more often than not, the allegiance is handed down from one generation to the next. How many other brands can claim that kind of advocacy?
Create symbols or iconic images that help consumers personify or closely link their personal identities to the brand. The Gator chomp, Georgia’s blackouts between the hedges, Tennessee’s parade up the river to Neyland Stadium, Auburn with the eagle circling and its rabid fan base maxing out the in-stadium noise meters, Ole Miss and The Grove, Alabama and its Rammer Jammer cheer. These aren’t just things the fans do or places they go – these are the things they live for, the things they pour their hearts and souls into every fall weekend.
Make the consumption occasion about being part of a community and social networking. The tailgating and social atmosphere surrounding the game is just as big a draw for most fans as is the game itself. At most big Southeastern programs, the RVs start arriving Tuesday night (you know, assuming they actually left after the previous weekend). But these social networks extend way beyond the 5 to 10 miles surrounding the stadium. No matter where you run into fans of your team, the sense of camaraderie remains every bit as strong. Earlier this year, my wife and I were greeted with several “Roll Tides” while in New Zealand, which, I am pretty sure is just about as far from Bryant-Denny Stadium as you can get.
Leverage the history of your brand. College football teams do this amazingly well in a variety of ways, but two areas stand out above the others. The first is leveraging the legendary figures that have made these brands what they are today – figures that will live on in Southern memory for time eternal like Bear Bryant and his drinking buddy/arch rival Shug Jordan, Bobby Bowden, Herschel Walker, the Manning Brothers, Joe “Willie” Namath, the Ol’ Ball Coach, Bo Jackson, and so many more. Georgia Tech and Clemson used to have this coach named Heisman – I hear there is an award named after him. Then there is the current crop of SEC coaches who may go down as the greatest collection of coaches ever. And don’t forget the radio voices of the programs, personified by the recently retired Larry Munson who called Georgia games for longer than most Georgia fans have been alive (“We stepped on their face with a hob nailed boot, and broke their nose” – just classic!).
Second is the focus on historical rivalries as a rallying point for fans. Georgia vs. Auburn, the Florida vs. Florida State vs. Miami trilogy, Alabama vs. Tennessee with its victory cigars on the third Saturday of October, Georgia vs. Florida in the (formerly) World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Egg Bowl, the Bowden Bowl, the Iron Bowl, the shear animosity between Alabama and LSU. No matter how bad the season has been or how heavily favored the opponent may be, you can be guaranteed that these games will sell out and that the fans will cheer their team on like its the national championship. Rivalry might not work for most brands, but I bet there is some other aspect of their histories that can be leveraged