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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

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