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Years ago, I started working for an institution that was a major rival of the college team I had supported exclusively—and overzealously at times -- throughout most of my life. When I started the new gig, I had every intention of staying a closet fan because, I rationalized, athletics and the institution aren't really the same thing.

Immediately I fell in love with the institution of my employ. The people, the work and the place felt like home, and I was completely immersed in the culture. Still, I tried to hold out. But after just a couple of conversations with athletics staff, a few home basketball games, football, baseball, soccer and track, I felt my lifelong allegiance eroding rapidly as it became abundantly clear: the institution and athletics are on the same team.

That's not always how it looks or feels in marketing and branding. Most places keep separate visual identity guidelines for athletics, use independent websites and have dedicated athletics marketing staff, and they should. That reality can contribute to a perception of division, especially if brand expressions -- through athletics and the institution as a whole -- don't go much deeper than colors, logos, mascots, wins, losses, stats and taglines. Doing that in ways that benefit everyone -- athletes and non-athletes alike --requires teamwork.

Storied Programs
The truth is that athletics drives a lot of attention for any institution. Successful programs can boost enrollment, heighten awareness, engage alumni and cultivate loyalty in ways that few other things can. For marketers, it's easy to leverage success. But for those marketers at institutions not known for highly visible (think broadcast TV), winning or historic programs, it's not always clear when and how athletics can play a significant positive role in influencing these outcomes, particularly among those not identifying as student athletes. The true potential of athletics in broad institutional marketing comes through stories, and what those stories say about the institution. From the individual journeys of student athletes and their uncanny ability to translate how being a part of your institution's program has dramatically improved their life, learning and future prospects, to the philosophies and mentorship of coaches, faculty, and staff, athletics is and always will be a rich source of stories that encapsulate the very best of your institution in myriad ways.

Know the Players
Finding great stories can be a challenge, especially if you don't know where to look or don't try. Fortunately, there are plenty of people who can, and will, help you find them. Sports Information Directors, for example, can be invaluable resources for schools big and small. They often know the stories behind the student athletes and the in-and-out-of-the-classroom pursuits that define them, the coaches, the staff and everything in between. Get to know them, and find ways to partner, whether it's shared social media assets and strategies, joint pitching to media outlets, regular meetings to share story ideas or opportunities to reinforce messaging that speak to different dimensions of the institution. There will be a lot of common ground, and a lot of insight into how what goes on in athletics expresses the institutional brand exceptionally well.

It's About the Intangibles
There can be a lot nuance in what makes an athletics program distinctive, in the same way there's a lot of nuance in what makes the institution distinctive. To be successful, marketers must seek out the ways in which these nuances align and showcase them. Hearing a coach from a small program that can't sell itself on wins and losses talk through a recruiting pitch can reveal some fascinating ways to think about, and describe, what makes a particular institution more compelling than the competition. Institutional values will intersect with team systems, practice mentality, work ethic, relationships, growth and development, academic opportunities, problem solving, time management and many other ways that can have enormous potential and resonance in every marketing endeavor.

Winning, losing or in the midst of a rebuilding year, athletics programs can bring great depth to every facet of your marketing when you celebrate the characteristics that matter most -- the people and the culture that make your institution what it is.

Tim Jones in the Chief Communications and Integrated Marketing Officer at Beloit College in Wisconsin.


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