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August 2020

Bo Doesn’t Know Gen Z

By The Recruiting Playbook No Comments

Are you borrowing your brand identity from your predecessors?

Articulating an original brand could be a competitive advantage.

Recently, we partnered with a coach who branded his facility in part with a range of mottos and messages. Anyone who has walked a college athletic facility likely has seen walls adorned with definitions of core values, inspirational quotes and declarations of team culture.

This coach put his twist on motivational quotes. Some came from his coach when he was in college. Some were from his mentor.

Around this time, I happened to be reading a book about legendary coaches Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes, and I stumbled upon a familiar mantra.

At one point, the saying used by this current coach belonged to Bo. And here it was in a facility in 2020. Maybe Schembechler’s mentor Woody Hayes said at some point. Maybe if I did more digging I would have found the original source material with Pop Warner himself.

Make no mistake, tradition is a cornerstone of college athletics. What’s old can be relevant — coaches often innovate by rediscovering new takes on old schemes and strategies.

But should Bo Schembechler still be the voice of a college athletics brand in 2020? Or Bear Bryant or Adolph Rupp, for that matter?

Before you cry, “Heresy!”, understand this: Coaching legends, traditions and tried-and-true sayings should be a part of college programs. Yet there’s so much more to a program’s brand and culture than old coaches.

Believe me, every program has distinctive and authentic attributes. We call them differentiators.

As much as they brand a program, they help coaches identify who fits on campus and in the locker room — schematically, academically and culturally.

Guess what? Recruits are looking for the same thing. They are looking to coaches and programs that fit their schematic, academic and cultural preferences. They are looking for programs that will help them achieve their athletic, professional and social goals.

Advent has studied college choice among students and student-athletes for a decade. We’ve come to understand that recruits see college athletic programs as their tool for self-actualization. Use the university; Don’t let the university use you, they’ll say.

Programs that align with those goals on a recruit-by-recruit basis will have more buy-in, fewer transfers, less babysitting and better team cohesion. In other words, four intangibles unrelated to talent that lead to a lot of wins.

Bringing us back to Bo, the Bear and other legendary coaches: Do they connect with recruits and student-athletes? Do their quotes reflect how you as coaches and programs connect with prospects and players? Do those stories reflect how you want a young adult to perceive your program?

Are you borrowing a brand identity from someone else?

We define brand as a collection of perceptions and emotions in the mind of the customer that add value and enable choice.

Think of the recruit as the customer and a National Letter of Intent as choice. In that case, recruits and student-athletes commit and sign based on the value they believe and they feel you are offering.

Every program has a distinctive offering. That’s great news.

Articulating those differentiators is the key to connecting to Generation Z, a cohort that’s savvier and more pragmatic than its predecessors.

If you’re going to connect with that audience, shouldn’t it be in your current brand voice? Shouldn’t you shape the stories and the brand presentation that drives their decision-making?

Tributes have their place, but they’re easy.

To create an authentic brand — a differentiated and cohesive recruiting pitch — takes effort, but it will be unduplicated.

Innovation doesn’t have to be a new scheme or new tech. Innovation can be a reinvention of how you talk about yourself, how you communicate your culture to a teenager.

Does your recruiting pitch reflect who you are now or is it stuck in the era of — as Woody Hayes would say — “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

Learn More: The Recruiting Playbook

Brace your Programs for an Empowered Generation Z

By The Recruiting Playbook No Comments

How do you learn which part of your recruiting pitch and messaging are sending the wrong message to Generation Z?

Spring and summer is an inflection point for college athletics thanks to a connected Gen Z.

What are they learning and sharing from your program?

As Generation Z has entered its high school and college years, experts have told us this cohort is participatory and connected. They seek collaboration and dialogue.

If millennials saw social media as a mirror on their personal world, Generation Z experiences social media as a window. They experience the outside world through that window, but this goes both ways: They can open that window and shout.

Through the spring and summer, a handful of college programs learned how empowered this generation of players is.

They’re more willing to speak their minds, to call out injustice and to add their voices to growing social movements. And thanks to social media, they can bypass the traditional gatekeepers in the media and athletics communications departments.

Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, for example, delivered a heartfelt video amid the wave of protests that swept the country this spring. He used his newfound platform to launch Marvin’s Movement to teach young people financial literacy.

College athletes can add critical voices to a national dialogue. At the same time, shining a light on the inner workings of college programs has led to embarrassed head coaches or staff changes.

In some cases, student-athletes want their experience to be recognized, appreciated and understood. Facilities, building names and tributes don’t always reflect the full history and breadth of the student experience.

Spurred by student-athletes, the University of Texas announced a series of changes to honor the contribution of Black trailblazers on campus. The family of benefactor Joe Jamail went a step further and asked the field at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to be renamed for Heisman winners Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams.

This year is an inflection point for college athletics in many ways, but one will be the combination of a passionate and empowered generation of young people and the reach of social media at their disposal.

Coaches may continue to employ No Social Media policies, but they seem more and more likely to backfire.

Student-athletes believe they can — and should — make a difference in their communities with their platforms. Evolving legislation on name, image and likeness means athletes will have a greater stake in developing and growing their personal brands.

Non-athletic differentiators always have driven college choice. Academics, location and social options continue to be key factors in recruiting. Now, this includes an inclusive environment that recognizes the power and platform for student-athletes. More than that, missteps in these areas can become public embarrassments.

How do you craft a recruiting message that recognizes this new reality while staying within program core values and team concept?

Or more important, how do you learn which part of your recruiting pitch and messaging are sending the wrong message?

College programs must evolve to these new realities. Communicating values that embrace the preferences of Generation Z, visually and verbally, will be the key to running successful programs.

If these recruits open the window to your program, what will they see?

Learn More at The Recruiting Playbook


Know Yourself, No Transfers?

By The Recruiting Playbook No Comments

How effective communication of a brand can help programs navigate a coming wave of transfers

What’s become clear over the last several months is the pandemic is not going to impact only 2020. The ramifications to college athletics are going to last.

While most conferences are trying to figure out how to keep student-athletes healthy and weighing how much, if at all, to compete in 2020, the long tail of this interruption to college sports could be felt in roster management in 2021 and beyond.

Recruiting experts predict a wave of transfers after all the disruptions to recruiting due to the pandemic. The 2021 and 2022 classes could be the most poorly evaluated in years.

One reason is the lack of the typical scouting cycle. Coaches aren’t on the road. Camps have been canceled. Recruiters must rely on game tape or pre-COVID camps and evaluations — and that’s assuming high school sports are played this season. Many coaches may find that incoming players simply aren’t a fit for the roster or able to compete at the level they need.

The other reason is the difficulty in assessing cultural fit. Of course, this goes both ways for the coach and the prospect.

Spring and summer are critical in recruiting for rising seniors, and now none of that has included face-to-face contact. Presumably, a number of recruits will choose schools they’ve rarely or never visited or programs with coaches they’ve rarely or never met face-to-face.

That sounds like a recipe for a wave of transfers. In that case, preventing roster churn could become a competitive advantage. Stability and the experience and team cohesion that comes with it could give some programs a leg up.

To make the most of limited interactions with recruits, coaches will need to find the most accurate way to portray their programs. They’ll need to create a common language not only to message to recruits, but for a staff to coalesce around shared program values.

Alignment among head coach, assistant, player and recruit will build a more robust culture and help a program exit the pandemic and lockdowns with more buy-in.

Through our work on more than 200 athletic projects across the country, we’ve found that the most effective recruiters and the most effective programs at retaining talent understand their identities. Then, they use those differentiators to permeate the entire recruiting process.

A misaligned recruiting experience — from pitch to official visit to close — can handcuff a program. Misperceptions can mean a good fit for the team is kept out and the wrong fit is let in.

This is hard enough to achieve under the best of circumstances — and these are not the best of circumstances.

The programs that thrive after this disruptive phase may be the ones that hold their teams together. They’ll overcome recruiting over Facetime and virtual tours because they know their brands. And more important, their incoming players do, too.

Learn More at The Recruiting Playbook

Your Team is a Family. What Kind of Family?

By The Recruiting Playbook No Comments

If recruits should understand your team is different, why do many programs use the same language?

College athletic programs are a lot like family, so we hear.

In some ways, it’s true. An older person is in charge of a handful of younger ones. The older ones set the rules and expectations. The younger ones generally get along, but every now and then they clash. The amount of play(ing) time can be a major source of friction. And there’s an expectation that soon after graduation, the younger ones will leave.

Through our work with 200 college athletic projects across the country, the word family comes up in nearly every branding conversation.

Programs want student-athletes — and their parents — to understand they are in a protected environment. Coaches say they watch after their student-athletes just as they would their own children.

Advent’s College Choice Study shows that perceptions of safety and security drive the decision-making process for prospective students. Prospects also look to colleges to provide them the path to a fulfilling and stable career.

Safety, security, protection and mentorship are what many coaches mean when they talk about family. They’re also thinking of the teammates who become brothers and sisters.

But athletic programs aren’t talking about a family by birth, but a family of choice. In recruiting, if you’re choosing a family, why should recruits choose one over the other?

If your team is a family, what kind of family is it?

To escape a sea of sameness with competitors, we encourage athletic programs to delve deeper.

How would you describe your team culture without using the word family? Or other common words your competitors use like blue-collar, excellence, passion and accountability.

This is not to say those words are unimportant. Quite the opposite.

The most effective programs brand themselves using those concepts, but articulate them in a way that is most authentic to their core values.

Recruits are savvy. They don’t experience your program in a vacuum. They’re sampling and evaluating an array of choices. If they’ve heard one program try to sell them on the idea of family, they’ve heard it everywhere.

But a brand that’s original and distinctive? That’s memorable. And what’s memorable keeps a program top of mind for recruits. Recruits then use those memories and those emotional connections to make their college choice.

Programs that stand out — programs that are authentic — for stronger bonds and get chosen more often. Programs don’t have to be stuck in the rut of using the same attributes as every other program in the country.

Here are a few ways to get out of that rut:

Give yourself constraints. Write a list of taboo words that you’ve overused or you’ve seen other programs use to excess. In a separate list, describe your values without those words. You can use single words or a string of phrases. Grab a thesaurus or dictionary and explore both the taboo words and your new list. You may find a more accurate way to describe your brand.

Unpack the cliché. Take a key word of your brand and recruiting pitch and break it down to its elements. As we asked earlier: If your team is a family, what are the elements or expectations of this family unit — love, brotherhood or sisterhood, discipline, structure, for example.

Think of stories. Think of the student-athletes who best represent what you want your program to be. How would you describe their attributes? What part of their experience do you want to replicate in your program?

Talk to your core constituency. One way to figure out if your message is landing is to talk to your audience. Can players and recruits repeat your core values? Don’t be discouraged if your messaging is not repeated verbatim. Use their language to rebuild or rediscover your brand.

Once you’ve spent time disassembling your brand or core values, it’s worth asking if your recruiting environment backs up what you’ve learned about yourself. The recruiting pitch, the staff, digital recruiting materials, the facility and the official visit should all reflect what you’ve uncovered.

You might call them house rules.

Learn More at The Recruiting Playbook