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The UCLA Football Brand: Tarnished, Broken, But Repairable

The following is a special guest post from Copyboy, a good friend of ours who is has been a diehard UCLA football fan for decades. He also happens to be a partner in a digital production firm in Portland, Oregon that specializes in website & application development, content production, and branding. - BN Eds.

Regardless of what you think of Jim Mora as a football coach, it cannot be denied that UCLA made a significant break from its past when it hired him. Mora, unlike his predecessors, is not a company man, and notoriously cheap UCLA ("Wooden worked for peanuts!") is finally putting together a nationally-competitive financial package for its football staff. Does this mean that UCLA football has turned the corner? Will wins follow the money? Maybe. Hopefully.

But recent events, including the amateurish in-house marketing campaign announcing Mora's hiring, are a reminder that UCLA still has a lot of work to do, beginning by recognizing that its football program is a brand, and that right now, that brand needs a complete overhaul.

UCLA football players ditch practices by going "over the wall," without repercussions.

The athletic department withholds bowl stipend payments, meant to cover players' meal expenses while school is on break, to those who skip voluntary practices.

Shortly after Rick Neuheisel is hired in 2007, inheriting a team devoid of talent at the precise moment USC was competing for national titles, UCLA marketing produces an ad with his image and the headline, "The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over."

UCLA is blown out on national television at Arizona, and several players are suspended following an ugly, shameful brawl. Regardless, Neuheisel, widely seen as a lame duck even before the game, is allowed to keep his job. Etc., etc.

UCLA football fans rightly wonder why decisions like these get made. They should be even more curious about how they get made.

For example, just how did someone arrive at the decision to withhold those stipend payments? Put aside for a second your opinion on the decision and ask yourself, On what basis was it made? In the Morgan Center, is there a set of guidelines someone can turn to when such matters arise? Is there some widely-adopted language, a mission statement, say, to help ensure that issues like this are dealt with consistently?

From my point of view - as someone who has helped leading brands develop such language, and also as a longtime observer and fan of UCLA football and basketball - it certainly appears as if people in the Morgan Center, given all the inconsistencies we've witnessed, are making day-to-day decisions absent guidelines and brand strategy.

So what, you say. UCLA was right to make that decision. A strong message needed to be sent to those players who aren't fully committed, and Jim Mora is going to bring this kind of toughness anyway, so why not start right now?

Because, frankly, it's too soon. Because the UCLA football brand doesn't allow for it, not yet anyway. Even with the coaching change, UCLA is still widely viewed as being unserious and uncommitted to winning. That's what college football fans think, that's what many of our own fans think, and that's what the local and national media think.

Unserious and uncommitted. Folks, that's our brand. And don't kid yourself. Spending a bunch of money on a new staff doesn't automatically and by itself change that brand. The university still has a long way to go to convince people that it is all in. Which is why when the AD withholds some winter break stipends - for, ironically, the crime of not being committed - it reeks of hypocrisy, and the predictable result was a lot of ridicule and bad press.

Conversely, programs that are seen as being fully committed to winning can get away with this kind of hardball. Had USC done the same, the press accounts would have been sympathetic with its position. (Coverage summary: "Those kids should have known better. They're at USC for Christ's sake!") That's not because there is a pro-USC bias, at least in this case. It's because the USC brand supports policies the UCLA brand currently doesn't. And If you think there is a widespread anti-UCLA media bias, you're actually giving cover to the people in charge of caring for the UCLA brand, for they have failed miserably.

Okay, so how does UCLA change all that? It's not going to be easy, because it takes really smart and dedicated people, and a lot of hard and consistent work. People are going to have to stay late. On the other hand, it's not rocket science.

So listen up, UCLA Football.

Decide what you are going to be, and then be that in everything you do. Want recognition for being serious about winning? Then obsessively foster and embrace a culture of seriousness all throughout your house, from the head coach to the lowliest Morgan Center intern. (And oh yeah, mercilessly fire those who refuse to play along.) In other words, start behaving the way you want to be perceived.

Start walking the damn walk.

Immersing yourself in a brand strategy exercise with a real brand firm is mandatory. (Good news! Los Angeles is crawling with them. Maybe one has a UCLA alum on its executive board? Make some phone calls.) In wonky, circular terms, brand strategy serves as a filter for business strategy to align internal behaviors in order to bring about a deliberate, desired customer experience that achieves the objectives set out in the business strategy.

Through a process of research and stakeholder interviews (with boosters, fans, AD employees, coaches, UCLA administrators, etc.), specific language is developed ("We're serious," say) that helps you consistently and effectively articulate your business strategy ("Become nationally relevant," say) in order to change and align internal behavior, so that everything you do reflects this behavior.

The way you write your emails, for example. The way you craft your press releases. The way you blog and tweet. The manner you affect in meetings. Meetings with apparel partners, marketing partners, boosters, fans, the general public, members of the media. Meetings with recruits and their parents. So that everybody is pulling on the same rope, you see, at the same time.

And when you do this properly and enthusiastically and tirelessly, and you're brutally honest with yourself, all those difficult questions you've been facing get a lot easier to answer. In fact, they answer themselves. Questions like:

  • Does a serious football program have 80 yard practice fields and PVC uprights?
  • Does a serious football program employ Chris Roberts as its play-by-play man?
  • Does a serious football program allow its players to ditch practices?
  • Does a serious football program market tickets to visiting teams?
  • Does a serious football program let amateurs create its advertising?

No, of course not, on all accounts. But on the other hand, once people take you for being serious, you get to say "No soup for you!" to players who aren't giving their all, even during the holidays, and nobody will bat an eye. You get to behave in any manner you wish, provided it ladders up to your brand.

Hopefully soon, that day will come for you, UCLA.

Finally, let's consider an example of what great branding can mean to a college football program.

It seems all associated with Oregon football are pulling together on the rope of innovation, which I consider to be their brand. The coaching staff puts an innovative and exciting product on the field. The marketers, too, are consistently innovative, going all the way back to the "Joey Heisman" wallscape in Times Square, which accomplished exactly what it was meant to accomplish. And of course, the folks at Nike are innovative with the uniforms they're tasked with creating. The effect is a program with a consistent, singular message, and the results are enviable.

But just so I'm clear, let me finish by saying that it's not Oregon's flashy uniforms that need to be copied. Or their marvelous spread offense. Or their audacious media buys.

What UCLA needs to copy is Oregon's fetishistic pursuit of being one thing, and one thing only.

Find your one thing, UCLA.

And then just be it.

- Copyboy