SBJ/August 22-28, 2011/In Depth

Clothes make the brand

More schools alter their looks in hopes that rebrandings will boost their exposure, but edgy isn’t for everyone

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Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s renowned shoe and uniform designer, used to visit sports camps all over the country and talk to young athletes to get inspiration for his next project.

He also was a graduate from the University of Oregon, one of Nike’s primary clients, and he often would ask the kids what they knew about his alma mater.

“They’d say, ‘Is that close to California?’” Hatfield said. “Now you can go from the sticks of Utah to the swamps of Louisiana and people know how to form the ‘O’ with their hands.

“That’s marketing. That’s a successful program.”

Oregon, with a lot of help from Nike and its generous chairman and alum, Phil Knight, created a football brand from nothing, becoming known for having more than 300 uniform combinations from all of its green, yellow, black, gray and white color schemes.

The football team without an identity is now famous for building its own.

The Ducks’ appearance in the BCS championship game last season was a coronation for Nike’s 15-year project to build Oregon football into a national power largely on the strength of marketing and branding. The Ducks created a cool factor for themselves that wasn’t there before. And cool means a lot to 17-year-old recruits.

“We had not had much success, so why not be bold and try something new,” said Rob Mullens, Oregon’s athletic director since 2010. “We used to be ridiculed for being out there, but now you look across college football and it’s the trend.”

N.C. STATE UNIVERSITY
At N.C. State, Adidas is rolling out a fresh uniform update that sticks with tradition.
GETTY IMAGES
The South Carolina Gamecocks will sport new looks, compliments of Under Armour.
Oregon’s ascent into a college football power has created an “industry-wide acknowledgement of the importance of brand development,” said Brad Bishop, co-founder of Dallas-based Torch Creative, which works with schools on their branding strategy and logos. “You didn’t hear athletic directors five, six years ago talking about their brand like you do now. There’s definitely much more of an evolving concern.”

The brand focus is reflected in the number of uniform and logo overhauls executed by Nike, Under Armour, Adidas and Russell going into this college football season.

Arizona State, Washington State, Oklahoma State, Wyoming and others in the Nike stable have opted for the “Oregon” approach with multiple helmets, jerseys and pants, all of which make their look more unpredictable.

Adidas brought new looks to North Carolina State and Under Armour did extreme makeovers for South Carolina and Maryland, among others.

That kind of revolutionary change does not fit every program, though. For every Maryland and Oklahoma State, there is the traditional look of a Penn State or Auburn, and that’s the balancing act today’s athletic directors must wrestle with when considering the brand image of their programs.

Stirring up the nest

It was 1996, on the heels of the Ducks’ blowout loss in a bowl game, that Knight brought his design team together and
asked them a simple question: “How can we help the University of Oregon attract better students and better student athletes?”

“He didn’t say ‘rebrand,’ he just asked the question,” said Hatfield, who teamed with another Nike creative artist, Michael Doherty, to plot a new course for the Ducks’ design away from the standard green and yellow with the interlocking UO on the helmet.

Some of the initial concepts wound up on the cutting room floor. Green on one side of the jersey and yellow on the other didn’t make it.

But there was a clear drive to “turn up the dial on being unexpected and edgy,” Hatfield said. “We wanted to be out there, to be purposely controversial. That’s a part of what we do that’s not very well understood.

“A lot of the sports writers at first hated it and that’s actually what we wanted. If you’re purposely trying to stir up the nest and increase visibility, you want them saying something. And what’s a more visible way to turn up the heat and create a personality than through the football uniforms? So many millions see them on TV that uniforms become your biggest branding tool.”

What the Ducks struggled to build on the field — an identity — they manufactured through design. Through their willingness to wear just about any color combination, they built one of the most unmistakable brands in college sports — one built on innovation and fun.

“That’s become Oregon’s brand — let’s see how crazy we can get — and it’s working for them,” said Torch Creative’s Bishop.

NIKE
Wyoming followed the lead of Oregon in opting for an extensive variety of options from Nike.
When Oregon squared off against Auburn in last season’s BCS championship game, it was the pioneering and adventurous folks from out West against the conservative, agrarian Southerners. Nowhere were the characteristics of the Ducks and Tigers more apparent than in their uniforms.

Oregon came out in one of its 300-some color combinations. Never had so much been written and said pregame about what a team would wear in the title game. (By the way, those highlighter green socks were technically called volt).
Auburn, meanwhile, wore the same colors and helmet design that it’s worn as the home team for more than 50 years, the interlocking AU on the helmet accented with two blue stripes and a thicker orange stripe.
 
The two teams represent both schools of thought in the way branding affects their look on the field these days.

Schools take a fresh look

Schools like Auburn, Alabama, Penn State and Southern Cal aren’t likely to change their look. They cling to words like tradition and history as core brand attributes and the uniforms are uniquely part of that.

Walker Jones, Under Armour’s director of NCAA marketing, recalled the conversation with Auburn officials when they struck their first equipment and apparel deal.

“Auburn has had their look for years and they’re very conscious of their tradition,” Jones said. “They take it very seriously. When we got the deal done, they said to be as innovative as you can be from a performance standpoint, but don’t try to change the way we look.”

But what if you’re a school that doesn’t have that history of success on the field? What if there is no tradition, or if the tradition is one you’d like to forget? Then you do what Arizona State, Oklahoma State and Washington State all have done this season. You create one.

“We can’t get to where we want to go until we know who we are,” said Washington State AD Bill Moos, who supported the redesigns at Oregon when he was AD there from 1995 to 2007. “When we looked at our uniforms here, we had different shades of crimson and our fonts were all over the place. So the charge was to have a uniform style that distinguishes us and appeals to the 17-year-old recruit.

“You don’t need to change Penn State or Michigan or Oklahoma. They’re recognized for having the same look for the last hundred years. But if you don’t have that tradition, you’ve got to find other ways to attract recruits and attract media attention. This rebranding is certainly one way to do it.”

At Nike, those schools and others like Michigan State have gone through a branding exercise with Nike’s Graphic Identity Group, or GIG, which is a team of designers and branding experts who examine everything from uniforms and logos to mascots, business cards and email signatures.

The typical GIG project lasts 18 months and the group takes on about four projects a year.

“It’s just a great process that causes schools to think more about themselves as brands,” said Kit Morris, Nike’s director of college sports marketing.

Nike doesn’t charge its clients extra for a brand overhaul, even though the service would cost $100,000 to $200,000 at most design firms, Morris said.

No sitting Ducks

So, if your brand identity is being the trendsetter in college athletics, as Oregon’s is, and others are trying to follow in your path, how do the Ducks’ stay ahead of the game?

Just when you thought it was safe to turn on your TV, Oregon is embarking on another brand overhaul. Nike’s brand and
design team is about to go to work on another new look for the Ducks.

You can’t be known as the pacesetter if you’re not setting the pace and the Ducks, along with Nike, have decided it’s time for a change. Or more change.

Did you expect anything less? Those jerseys with green on the front and yellow on the back might be making a comeback from the cutting room floor.

“The question every school has to ask is if they’re effectively reaching their fan base,” said Jamie Skiles, principal of Phoenix Design Works, a New Jersey company that works with colleges on logos and brand campaigns. “It gives licensing a boost, it sells merchandise, and it’s a way to connect with your constituents. Oregon is always reinventing itself.”

How do the creative forces at Nike find a way to make the Ducks even edgier than before? That’s the question they’re asking themselves.

Right now, they’re not saying. Oregon’s brand makeover will be executed over the next year to 18 months and probably won’t be unveiled until the 2013 season.

“Hey, it’s who we are,” Mullens said.

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