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4 Branding Lessons from 3 Top College Basketball Coaches

By: Gary Coraggio

Your brand is your most important asset. Without it, your business is nothing more than a commodity. And if your brand truly is “what people say about you when you’re not in the room,” how do you shape the conversation?

Interestingly, some of the most revered college basketball coaches of our time have figured out this important piece of the puzzle. They understood that to have a solid brand, you have to begin with the customer experience, a strong understanding of who you are (and who you’re not), why people should choose you over another, and why product and brand cannot be decoupled. And we can stand to learn a thing or two from them.

The legends and the brands

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has won five national titles, Rick Pitino two (one at Kentucky and one at Louisville), and Roy Williams also a two-title winner at the University of North Carolina. What’s their secret sauce? These coaches are well aware their brand is their most important asset and each markets their brand at championship levels.

They’ve built their brands so solidly, it’s hard to tell if their names are the brand and their schools are the product or if it’s the other way around. They knew brand and product had to grow up alongside one another. They cannot be decoupled. They also knew the brand and the product had to be built on the customer experience. Is your brand strategy using a customer experience game plan? If not, you could be taking shots at the wrong hoop.

Delivering on a promise and purpose

These coaches use a brand connection to link to their stakeholders (recruits, players, fans, and boosters) to their brand’s promise and purpose, and communicate from every turnpoint what that means for them as stakeholders. It’s the promise and purpose of a scholarship to their programs to get a top-notch education, a path to an NBA career and riches, winning championships, and being part of great traditions.

They’re using brand connections to land top recruits, incite frenzied fan bases and raise major revenues for their programs and academic institutions. Is your company’s brand connection as clearly defined for your customers as the ones delivered by these top coaches? If not, take their coaching and do so.

Answering the all-important “why you?”

Just as technology has shifted the power from the businesses to the consumers, the power in college basketball has shifted away from the college programs and into the hands of the recruits, players, associate coaches, and boosters. These top coaches understand their customers or stakeholders want to know “why you?” because they have other choices.

The way these coaches position what their brand can do in the hearts, minds, and lives of their stakeholders is the reason they compete at championship levels season after season. Does your company’s brand and products clearly answer the “why you?” question in the hearts, minds and lives of your customers?

Coach Pitino is a fine example of a brand answering the “why you?” question. Pitino was one of the first NCAA coaches to understand and embrace the 3-point shot, which was adopted by the NCAA in 1987. While many of the old-school coaches at the time thought this shot was somewhat of a gimmick, Pitino saw it as an opportunity to carve out his brand. In those early years of the new 3-point shot rule, Pitino’s Providence College and Kentucky teams were known as the “Pitino Bombinos” because of how many of their total points came from 3-point shots.

Recruits, players and fans were drawn to Pitino and his innovative brand where players were encouraged to put up the long-range shot. This green-light for players to shoot the basketball from long range became his brand and it thrilled his customers. The innovative niche that Pitino created was a tremendous success as he is the only coach to win an NCAA championship at two different schools. To this day, Pitino’s teams rank near the top in 3-point attempts each season.

The 3-point shot is now one of the most popular and widely accepted shots in basketball at all levels of play. Highlights of 3-points shots dominate the coverage of college and NBA SportsCenter every night. Pitino was an early-adopter of this style and built his brand on what was an important innovation in basketball at the time. By doing so, Pitino’s brand answered the all-important question his customers were asking, “why you?”

Defining who you are and who you’re not

Focus is essential to a successful brand. It defines who you are and who you are not. Coach Krzyzewski’s brand focus and how he uses it to recruit players is a tremendous example we can learn from. Coach K’s brand focuses on what he is and he recruits players to Duke with similar backgrounds, discipline, and hunger for being part of something larger than yourself.

Who is Coach K and how did it shape his focus? He is the son of hard-working, Catholic parents and was reared on the streets of Chicago. He is a West Point Cadet, where he played basketball for the legendary Bobby Knight. He build a dynasty program at Duke from scratch, and now is the winningest coach in college history, his five NCAA championships trail only John Wooden’s 10, and he is a three-time, USA Olympic Gold Medal coach. He used the tenets of “what he is” to recruit players and build a program at Duke—a high-academic, religious school—based on discipline, work ethic, and the tradition of success at the highest level. His brand also defines what he is not. He is not the slick-talking coach in a $10,000 suit with a made-for-TV face and a Hollywood personality. He uses what he is not, to emphasize what he is and has clearly defined the type of customer personas that best fit his brand. He sells that brand to recruits as well as anyone in college basketball, year after year, signing the top players to his program.

Taking a stand

Your company’s revenue hinges on whether your customers recognize that your brand stands for something and can provide them with a unique benefit. North Carolina coach Roy Williams demonstrates how what he stands for translates into a most unique experience for his players.

Williams is known as a player’s coach, one that truly bonds with and understands the psychological needs of his players. He is a North Carolina Tar-Heel to the core. He and his wife are Carolina graduates. He was an assistant coach for 10 years under legendary Hall-of-Fame coach Dean Smith.

Players want to play for him at Carolina because his brand stands for his commitment to them as people as much as players (he was instrumental in recruiting a young local North Carolina high school player named Michael Jordan to play for the Tar Heels). Players know when they sign with Carolina they will get the unique benefit of a coach who cares deeply for them. These players also benefit by having a coach who helped prepare players for the NBA after college. Williams’ success as a recruiter speaks for itself. He has coached 36 collegiate players that have went on to have NBA-playing careers. The relationships he builds with his players based on patience, confidence and support creates a bond that really stands for something unique in the hearts and minds of his customers.

Your brand is truly your most important asset. These great coaches provide some championship lessons to all of us about the importance of focusing on customer experience when building our brands and products.

Written by Gary Coraggio

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