By: Daniel Sweeney On: August 29, 2013 In: Advertising & Marketing Comments: 0

Viral videos, life-size cutouts, ten-story billboards, direct mailing pieces, custom logos and promotional collateral galore. If you’re looking for innovative marketing and PR campaigns with some real passion and spirit behind them, look no further than college football’s annual Heisman campaigns.

The Heisman Memorial Trophy Award is given annually to the sport’s most outstanding player. Each year a panel comprised of sports journalists from all over the country, as well as previous recipients of the award, vote for the player they deem the most deserving. While the voting committee is urged to look solely at on-the-field performance, critics claim the process is more of a popularity contest than anything else.

Almost as much of a tradition as the trophy itself is the preseason hype and hoopla surrounding individual players’ campaigns. In the world of college football, athletic departments and university boards can’t put a price on the exposure a Heisman Trophy winner brings the school. The reach of a Heisman campaign goes far beyond the football field, breaking down like this:

Heisman winner = more TV time, more eyes on the school = more applicants, more students = more alumni = more donations. Cyclical and convoluted, sure. But a Heisman Trophy winner can mean big bucks for a university.

Doubting how much big money is at stake with college football and Heisman campaigns? In 2001, the University of Oregon spent a reported $250,000 on a billboard in Times Square touting its then-quarterback Joey Harrington as Joey Heisman. He came in fourth that year.

A successful Heisman campaign can potentially bring about more riches for the school than any advertising campaign could. Heisman hopefuls are basically glorified brand ambassadors for their respective institutions, representing their brand before millions of viewers each Saturday in the fall. Just like any advertising and PR campaign, creativity and originality are in full-effect with Heisman campaigns.

To generate buzz for their quarterback Dan Persa, Northwestern launched its PersaStrong campaign in 2011. In addition to high-profile billboards in the downtown Chicago area, the Wildcats sent out seven-pound dumbbells to sportswriters all over the country, touting Persa’s statistics, complete with the campaign’s theme, PersaStrong.

In 2008, the University of Missouri showcase their talented signal caller Chase Daniel’s candidacy with the cleverly named and View-Masters with shots and stats of the quarterback. Baylor had a direct mailing campaign for their quarterback Robert Griffin III, with the catchy slogan, “In the 2011 Heisman race, keep your eye on third…” and the tagline RGIII (Griffin’s nickname). RG3, as he’s called by his fans, went on to win the trophy that year.

While the time and money spent on these Heisman campaigns is often criticized, the results of a successful campaign are very real. With high profile brand ambassadors like a Heisman candidate, a campaigns gives a university the incredible opportunity to boost its profile before millions of fans, promoting the entire institution beneath the banner of one star athlete.

A website may appear to simply be touting the statistics of  a student-athlete like the one FSU created for Christian Ponder in 2010, but don’t doubt for a second that these Heisman campaigns aren’t well thought out promotional campaigns for the universities themselves.

Pundits have start saying that the popularity of YouTube and social media has made the Heisman campaign a thing of the past.

“The downfall of Heisman campaigns is often credited to social media. But another reason, school officials say, is Manziel,” says Ben Cohen of The Wall Street Journal.  As a redshirt freshman, Manziel wasn’t a preseason Heisman candidate last year, yet he easily won.”

Sports Illusrated’s Martin Rickman gives credence to Cohen’s theory, but looks at the importance of the Heisman campaign for smaller schools like Northern Illinois and Utah State in his latest excellent post.

Do you agree with Cohen that social media and a player’s statistics being easily accessible have dimmed the Heisman campaign spotlight? Or, as Cohen argues, smaller schools still see great value in a creative campaign touting a player and, in turn, a team’s accomplishments? Tell us below or on our Facebook page.


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