[Ed.: “I Have An Idea…” is a series written for College AD by the author of Brands Win Championships, Jeremy Darlow.]
“Slow and steady wins the race.”
While recently listening to one of my favorite podcasts (Freakanomics Radio) I couldn’t help but correlate the learnings from host Stephan Dubner to college athletics. In the opening of this particular episode, Dubner said something that inspired today’s article. He said: “…much progress, if not most, throughout history has really been from a series of incremental gains.” These words are music to a brand manager’s ears. Reason being that professionals in this particular vocation are charged with building a fortifiable brand over time. It’s the ‘over time’ idea that is equally important and controversial. Brands take time to build, which can be a difficult concept to accept in the ‘win now’ culture of college sports. But, when a program has patience and allows an administration and coaching staff to build a brand, the results can be extremely positive.
Before 2010, the Clemson football program hadn’t won ten games in a season in twenty years, two of those years under current head coach Dabo Swinney’s watch (including a 6-7 season). Since 2010, however, the Tigers have won ten or more games in five consecutive years and are no doubt today considered one of the elite programs in the country. But for me, more so than wins, the best barometer of brand strength in college sports is recruiting success. As I say in my book Brands Win Championships: “teens pick brands, pros pick contracts.” The stronger the brand, the better the athletes who commit to a given school. Clemson proves that point. The Clemson staff began their brand building process when they took over in 2009 but it wasn’t until 2015 that the program started to truly break through on the recruiting front. In that year the program brought in its first top-five recruiting class under this staff (#4 overall). Prior to that, from 2006 to 2014, the Tigers’ average recruiting class ranked at #17. In the last three years that average has jumped up to #6. Most importantly, the brand has been able to sustain that success, following up that #4 ranking in 2015 by finishing #6 in 2016 and as of this writing, #7 in 2017.
In 2009, the Tigers had five losses, a trip to the Music City Bowl and the 39th ranked recruiting class in the country to show for it. In 2016, those same Tigers are coming off a national championship game appearance, are led by a Heisman trophy contending quarterback and have yet to lose a game.
If that’s not an endorsement for incrementalism, I don’t know what is.
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.