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Choosing Between Brand-Building & Marketing ROI

It’s a marketer’s dilemma. Do you play the “long game” and engage in brand-building initiatives that are great for your organization’s image, or do you focus on immediately measurable tactics? The short answer is both, but for organizations with limited marketing resources, it can be a very difficult juggling act.

Having worked in college athletics, where true “marketing strategy” is just one of MANY hats that a marketer would wear at any given time, it was hard to find the right balance. In my role with the University of Michigan Athletic Department, I was tasked with building the brand presence from many different perspectives and scopes.

For starters, most Power 5, and Group of 5 college athletics programs already have name recognition, and some would claim that they already had an established brand. “They” wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Additionally, given where human resources are allocated, something nebulous like “brand building” is often a luxury to be considered well after all the tickets have been sold for every home event. Lastly, most athletic departments have outsourced their partnership or sponsorship management to a third-party multimedia rights group, therefore much of the B2B communication of the brand is done by an outside entity. So, how can a good marketer incorporate more brand-building into their college athletics marketing efforts?

1. Brand Awareness vs. Brand Building

Let’s talk about the difference between Brand Awareness and Brand Building. In layman’s terms, awareness is mostly just recognition, answering the question “have I heard of them?“ or maybe even knowing someone who went there, some quick facts or which of their teams is highly ranked, could be included in overall recognition and awareness. These contribute to Brand Building, but the “Brand” is more than these things. It is the set of values that the brand exudes. It’s how someone “feels” when they encounter the brand. And so, you can see how this might be VERY important for the marketing team to ensure that the Brand is always positioned in a positive way.

Even in very measurable digital advertising channels, a brand can be positively represented and seen often, but what if the ad appears on the wrong page? Alongside potentially inappropriate content? Funny story, I know a colleague who fielded a call from a concerned fan who said that he saw his school’s ad appear on an “inappropriate” page. What had actually happened, and which is extremely common, is that the fan was served an ad after visiting the team’s website. The ad “followed” him onto that inappropriate page. The ad wouldn’t have appeared on that page, if the fan hadn’t gone to that page. So, while the ad was measurable and engaging (I mean, the ad prompted the viewer to take action right?), the overall Brand suffered here, because it was positioned alongside potentially “inappropriate” content, and created a negative experience for the fan.

2. Brand Building as a Luxury

As I mentioned before, Brand Building is a long-term strategy. It is truly the culmination of thousands (millions?) of interactions with a brand, including impressions, experiences, engagements, and more. Many folks think that wins/losses are the only measure of a collegiate brand, and while having more WINS than LOSSES definitely doesn’t hurt the brand, relying on just these metrics puts marketers in a tenuous position. Not only is this a “transactional” relationship, and encourages “fair weather fans”, it also takes all the control out of the marketers’ hands. I’m sure there have been a million books written about this, but at its core, a college athletics Brand needs to be about more than their record. Brand Building is about telling a story about who/what they are. What goes into the overall experience, why should you be proud to be a fan of this school? Are they producing good people? Are they creating positive experiences? Are they promoting solid “golden-rule” values?

In order to be truly effective at Brand-Building in college athletics, this shouldn’t be considered a luxury and marketers should NOT be doing this on their own. Every touch-point, every internal and external communication should be infused with a sense of the brand values. From the parking lot attendant greeters, to a formal communication from an Athletic Director, there should be a sense of purpose and pride in every level of engagement. The aggregation of every interaction culminates into the overall Brand. So every department, every staff member should consider their communications and interactions and answer the questions….does this help build the brand? Or does it diminish it?

3. Outsourced 3rd Party Sales

Historically, college athletics have taken a “hands-off” approach to their sponsorship sales. While this can save time, effort and resources, this also gives away a significant control of how their Brand is represented. How is the Brand being “pitched” to potential sponsors? What are the key “selling points”? What are some of the potential sponsor concerns? A key component of sponsorships is the brand affiliation. In successful sponsorships, there are shared values, and storytelling opportunities, and this aligns with the earlier discussion around values, perception and more. A sponsor is willing to invest money to be associated with the “brand halo” of a college athletics program, namely the positive perception of that Brand by a passionate fanbase.

Successful sponsorships are collaborative “Brand-Building” ventures, in which both parties derive value from the partnership. So, what happens when a sponsorship goes wrong? What if a sponsor generates a lot of negative publicity? This happened in the not-so-recent past in college athletics, with frantic efforts by college athletic departments to distance themselves from a sponsor who generated significant backlash. This would be considered a “brand-diminishing” partnership for the athletic department, and many times, the Athletic Department is powerless to dictate the next appropriate course of action, based on their “arms lengths” role in the sales and contracting process. Ultimately, responsibility for the Brand isn’t just an internal responsibility, there are numerous stakeholders involved.


So, instead of considering “Brand Building” a luxury, or only a long-term plan with very little opportunity to measure ROI, perhaps it’s time to apply a more “common sense” approach. Marketers and their colleagues should consider simple filters, when rolling out any marketing, communications or partner messaging.


What is the context for the messaging? When or where will it be received?

  • Consider the timing (did your marquee team just lose?), and location (does it appear on an “inappropriate” site?).

  • Be sure to consider your “worst” case” scenario, and then mitigate appropriately


Consider whether the action is Brand-Building, Brand-Diminishing or Neutral. (Spoiler Alert: No one should actively participate in Brand-Diminishing activities)

Brand Building – If the action is considered Brand Building - then it’s likely easier to prioritize or find a way to fit into the larger plan. Find ways to leverage EARNED MEDIA* instead of having to purchase advertising to tell many of the positive stories. Discuss content co-creation with your valued partners to mitigate costs. There are lots of opportunities here to reduce spending on Brand-Building initiatives, it just requires creativity and an understanding of your partner and media landscape.

Brand Diminishing - If the action is even potentially considered Brand-Diminishing – then it is imperative to ask yourself why this is happening, or what other alternatives are available. Perhaps there is a need to educate your fans regarding why the ad was appearing on that “inappropriate” website. Or perhaps there needs to be a serious conversation with the sponsor or multimedia rights team on next steps to mitigate the brand-diminishing action.

Neutral – If the action is considered “brand neutral”, then it is still worthwhile to pause and determine whether or not to proceed:

  • If marketing dollars are involved, and an action is considered neutral, then the dollars shouldn’t be spent. Marketing dollars are intended for positive outcomes (beyond ticket sales and including Brand Building!) This also pertains to sponsors. While a neutral option might be okay for the athletic department, perhaps ask the sponsor (or MMR) why the sponsor would want to spend money on something that ISN’T optimizing the sponsorship.

  • If no investments are involved, then a “Neutral” option is typically fine. It could be simply reporting facts or scores. But it’s always worth asking yourself, how can this be improved to be Brand-Building when appropriate.

Ultimately, the short-term ROI vs. long-term Brand Building discussion doesn’t need to be an “either/or” situation. However, it may require collaborative effort and ongoing education, both internally and with external stakeholders and partners. With a few tools, including easy “filters” that your staff can practice, everyone can get aligned to be looking at both short-term ROI platforms AND long-term brand-building efforts.

* Earned Media is not a regularly discussed topic in college athletics, but could be used to greater advantage.


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