Brands Win Championships: Love Thy Neighbor

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By Jeremy Darlow, Brand Marketing Professional & Author, Brands Win Championships

In many cases, rivalries are made up of two teams who are essentially the antithesis of one another, which can be a very good thing for you – if you have a tight brand story and positioning plan. Playing your rival can bring out what makes your team unique.

This article is excerpted from Brands Win Championships by Jeremy Darlow. For more info, visit

Some of my favorite college football stories come out of rivalry games. One of the best originates with former Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes, who in 1968, with his Buckeyes up 50–14 on rival Michigan, late in the game promptly called for his team to go for two following a touchdown. Asked later why he went for two with such a comfortable lead, Hayes emphatically said, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”

It’s that genuine hatred that keeps college sports thriving and keeps programs in the news. It doesn’t matter if Michigan is struggling or if Ohio State comes into the game with zero wins, the Michigan vs. Ohio State matchup is going to get covered by the media because of the history and animosity they have built up.

But don’t be fooled. It’s not all about on-field play when it comes to this rivalry or any other – it’s marketing. That quote from Coach Hayes was genuine and uncontrived, making it a PR professional’s dream. The more you market your rivalry as a game chock-full of intensity and pure hatred, the more the media will cover it.

Imagine you are Don King promoting a prize fight. Your goal is to build as much hype around your rivalry as you can, and sometimes that means creating and manufacturing your own storylines. Leverage every medium you have to get people learning about your game and why it’s so unique. Work with your rival – yes, your rival – to make your game against one another a household name. Do what you have to do to stir the pot, and from there, educate, educate, educate.

From books to documentaries to interviews, find ways to get literature out there about your rivalry. Get fans, recruits, and media excited and talking about it. Building a rivalry – just like building your brand – is a marathon, not a sprint. A rivalry is what you make it.

Do The Right Thing

Philanthropy support is a benefit on many levels. Most important, it’s fulfilling to support a cause and help improve society in some way, and with that, provide your program with invaluable PR. Three things are important to consider when thinking about what cause to support.

First, find a philanthropy that complements your brand story. For instance, supporting Farmers of America makes sense for the University of Iowa because of its blue-collar brand story and because of its geographic location. Farming is already an important piece of Iowa culture, giving citizens another reason to pledge allegiance to their Hawkeyes.

Second, make the media aware of your philanthropic efforts by building relationships with your local media affiliates. From there, provide your newfound partners with content through which they can tell your story, such as press releases accompanied by video and photography of your efforts. The media are so focused on the negative, it will almost be viewed as unexpected to see a program volunteering its time to support a cause. Involve your players and coaches as well as the community. Make it a joint effort. And don’t wait until you make a bowl game like every other school does. That is so cliché at this point that it feels forced and inauthentic. Do it when no one expects it, and do it because you care.

Third, support local school athletic programs. Helping your local school system develop its programs is a benefit to the future of your program, the sport, and the local school system. Consider helping build fields, stadiums, and facilities for local schools through physical labor. You likely have some of the strongest and most fit individuals in the community on your active rosters; encourage those among you to volunteer.


Brands Win ChampionshipsJeremy Darlow is a brand marketing pro 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. In 10 years, the most consistently successful college athletic programs will be those with the strongest brands, not simply the strongest defense or most explosive offense from year to year. It’s not just about Xs and Os anymore. It’s about polarizing uniforms on the field and massive billboards in Times Square. It’s about making your brand sexy to 17- and 18-year-old blue-chip athletes. Brands Win Championships is your guidebook on how to reach them. Inside, you’ll find three simple brand-building steps that can take your program from bad to good or from good to great.

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