It’s the competition behind the competition.
Over the years, the annual race for the Heisman Memorial Trophy — awarded to the player widely regarded as college football’s best — has sometimes been accompanied by promotional blitzes that seem to rival the rollout of a new product or opening of a new venue. From alluring swag to impassioned letters, college campaigns for Heisman candidates have often pushed college gridiron greats with the same zeal, creativity and marketing savvy as any great product push, with many schools calling direct mail’s number to lead the way.
While there’s no publicly acknowledged connection between clever marketing strategies on behalf of athletes and the final decision made by judges, communications staff at universities sometimes go just as hard to sway public opinion as the players go at opponents on the turf. In years past, schools have sent out binoculars, bobble-head dolls, music videos and even envelopes containing a single leaf.
Last season saw its own share of creative overtures, as direct mail campaigns played a role in the Heisman candidacy of several top players — most notably the Heisman Trophy winner, Baylor University quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Between July and the award voting deadline in December, Baylor mailed thousands of trading cards featuring Griffin to Heisman voters, the media and others. The cards featured five assorted designs and illustrations, including one with a close-up photo of the back of the quarterback’s jersey, which reads “Griffin III.” The flip side of each card carried the catch line “In the 2011 Heisman race keep your eye on third.”
“I don’t think big, flamboyant marketing campaigns win individual awards like this, and if Robert’s jersey said ‘Alabama’ or ‘Michigan’ or ‘USC’ across the chest, I don’t know that we would have done much campaigning at all,” explains Baylor assistant athletic director Heath Nielsen, an architect of the campaign. “But at a smaller school like Baylor, we felt the need to keep pushing his name, subtly.”
Naturally, Nielsen is quick to point out that Griffin, considered a long shot for the trophy before the season began, earned the award by way of several outstanding on-field performances. But he adds that the mailings didn’t hurt: “Robert won the Heisman through his play and his teammates’ play, but I credit these mailings as being key to keeping his name on the forefront of voters’ and media members’ minds.”
Nielsen says the mailers earned positive reaction from their targets. “We heard from several voters and media,” he says. “They said they loved the cards.”
The Baylor push wasn’t the only noteworthy Heisman marketing effort, however. Another was “PersaStrong,” Northwestern University’s campaign for quarterback Dan Persa. To symbolize Persa’s strength, Northwestern communications officials concocted a mailer that included two purple, seven-pound dumbbells — representing one of the school’s colors and the quarterback’s jersey number.
They also packed pitch letters into the boxes and had them delivered to 80 prominent college sports journalists, says Michael J. Wolf, assistant athletic director for communications at Northwestern. The letter included a link to the PersaStrong.com website, where journalists found video of the player in action on the field, plus photos and stats.
Although Persa ultimately wasn’t nominated for the trophy (partly because he got hurt after the promotion began), “PersaStrong” got tremendous buzz. Moreover, the school, along with Baylor, became the latest additions to a long-running marketing tradition that draws on the power of mail. Says Wolf: “We wanted to create a gimmick that would get people talking, and the mailings definitely did that.”Case Studies, Marketing Tips, Personalization, Strategy, Targeting