[Ed.: “I Have An Idea…” is a series written for College AD by the author of Brands Win Championships, Jeremy Darlow.]
“You are never strong enough that you don’t need help.” – Cesar Chavez
You need help. It turns out you might not be a great marketer after all. But that’s okay because there are those who are. Marketing is an instinct game. Either you have it or you don’t. It’s a lot like sports. I wasn’t born with the ability to dunk a basketball or throw a football 70 yards from one knee. No matter how hard I worked on my game, I wasn’t physically able to reach those metrics. The same holds true in marketing. We all have ceilings, some higher than others. I believe I was lucky enough to come with the natural instincts that can make a great marketer. However, like sports, natural ability can only get you so far. It’s the work you put in that takes you from good to great. I’ve always prided myself in outworking my competition. Whether that meant outworking those individuals on my team or those employed by the other team. I was the first one in and the last one out on most nights.
But, despite being confident in my abilities, I knew there were those out there who could do it better and I wanted nothing more than to learn from them. So I read…a lot. From Seth Godin to Scott Bedbury, I read every night after work and four times on Sunday (because the other guys were only reading twice on Sunday…see what I did there?). My reading was a cry for help of sorts. I was asking Mr. Godin and Mr. Bedbury for help. Advice on how to become a better marketer and how to build better brands. As it turned out, they over-delivered. They over-delivered because they are part of an elite set of marketing minds. One-percenters. The type of individuals you bring in when you have a problem that you personally are not able to solve because of your own limitations. I knew I wasn’t at their level. At least not yet. So I read their books. I read their counterparts. I read blogs. I listened to books on tape. I listened to podcasts. I asked for help. Over and over and over again.
But that’s not typical. Especially in college sports. Marketing has traditionally meant half-time shows, t-shirt giveaways and, today, social media management. In most cases, programs refuse to hire expert help. In most cases, an athletic department will skimp on marketing minds assuming their in-house interns can build a differentiated brand. The problem is it takes a certain instinct and years of refinement to be a great marketer, just as it takes certain instinct and years of refinement to build a great brand. What happened to Apple under Steve Jobs’ watch is no accident. The rise of Nike and Starbucks during the years in which Scott Bedbury ran their advertising and brand marketing initiatives, is no coincidence. Marketing is innate. The great ones are out there, leaving behind a trail of successful brands. The one industry that seems to refuse to tap into the power of these great marketing minds happens to be college sports. An industry ripe for an unstoppable brand to emerge. A brand that is so far and away better at marketing than anyone else that it will have recruits knocking on their door, not the other way around. It’s as low-hanging of fruit as there is in sports today. Athletic departments are starting to realize the importance of brand marketing, but I have yet to see a department invest in the truly elite minds to build those brands.
Someone will emerge soon enough. And that someone will be the first to pick up the phone and ask for help.
Jeremy Darlow is a brand marketing professional who, during his time at adidas, has worked with schools like Notre Dame, Michigan, and UCLA, and athletes like Jimmy Graham, Dwight Howard, and Lionel Messi. He works to help NCAA athletic programs and athletes build and elevate their brands to elite levels.