No one manages its brand better than the SEC. How great is that SEC brand? Better than the real greatness of any of its member football teams.
As brand guy, I give keynote speeches on what corporations can learn from the SEC brand in terms of brand management. The SEC brand manages media reports, sport commentary, game day analysts and the supposed independent polls that make up the college football rankings. They manage the message and the message is BIGGER than the talent in the league.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the teams are bad. Far from it. They are a good football conference made up of very good football teams who manage the SEC brand’s polish by trying very hard not to give the outside world any means to judge the actual talent level of the individual teams. They have succeeded in this. They do this by playing virtually no one of substance from outside of their own co-conspirators.
Before I get into the examples of the conference’s brand management for this year, I want to point out that last year the vast superiority of all the SEC teams found a rough landing in the post-season bowl games. The ongoing claim of the inherent mediocrity of everyone (except SEC teams) really showed its ugly side in post season.
In a recap of last year’s SEC performance, Alabama lost to Ohio State in the first round of the National Championship series. Ole Miss was spanked by TCU in the Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl. Mississippi State (Number 1 in the polls for a bit) was handily beaten by Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Notre Dame beat LSU 31-28 and Auburn lost to Wisconsin. South Carolina was one of the few bright spots in the postseason by beating Miami (whose current coach is on the hot seat) 24-21. Arkansas beat a 6-6 Texas team 31-7. Missouri beat Minnesota, Georgia beat Louisville, Tennessee beat Iowa and Florida beat ECU. So in the final tally last year the SEC brand was 6-5. Not a bad record but by no means a dominating performance by a conference with that much hype. Why such a letdown? Does such a poor finish matter?
Nope. Not a jot. Let’s look at Alabama this year and see exactly what is going on. Alabama was ranked third in preseason polls. It moved up to second with a 35-17 win over Wisconsin (3-2 at this writing with no wins over any major program). The Crimson Tide remained in that spot until it was defeated and nearly spanked at home by Ole Miss 37-43 (Ole Miss another SEC brand school and my sister’s passion). So what happened to Alabama with that loss? Alabama dropped to 12th and Ole Miss rolled up to 3rd. After all, one team beat another SEC team and the other team lost to an SEC team. Neither scenario should matter in the eye of an SEC fan.
This past weekend, Alabama (an underdog for the first time in years) beat an undefeated SEC Georgia team. It had major repercussions in the national rankings because it was an SEC game. I am not even going to get into the shenanigans in the polls after The Gators beat the Rebels last week. Good grief.
This is where the SEC brand power diverges from the reality of the actual team performance. Georgia was favored and ranked 8thnationaly. Yet, when you look at the Georgia schedule, the Bulldogs have no major wins under their belt—unless you consider any win against any SEC team a signature win (I guess many do). Georgia beat lowly South Carolina and a 2-3 Vanderbilt team. The rest of its wins came against schools that were scheduled as gimmees. Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Monroe (who also played Alabama). Louisiana Monroe, by the way, is like the SEC version of the Harlem Globetrotters’ arch rivals, the Washington Generals. You play them to ensure a win. They play you for the money. After this Alabama win, the ‘Bama schedule toughens up until the matchup with their arch rivals Charleston Southern on November 21.
Why the SEC Brand and not SEC football?
So why is this about brand and not about reality? I am sure this blog will excite all sorts of emotional reactions from SEC fans. It’s hard to dispassionately argue with the patsy scheduling and the lack of a desire to measure the conference mettle against quality non-conference foes. But considering the brand blindness exhibited by the fans, I don’t blame them (the SEC brand managers). Why risk upsetting the brand battlewagon by stretching into no-win scenarios like playing a Pac 12, ACC or, dare I say, the AAC powerhouses? Ole Miss might have made a major mistake in scheduling Memphis, habitually a gimmee, but an undefeated squad this year. I’m sure Memphis is not up to SEC standards because it is not in the SEC.
By playing only each other, the mystique of the SEC conference remains intact and no one will ever fault them for losing to other SEC conference teams. All true SEC fans know that every slot of the top 14 rankings rightly belongs to the SEC conference teams.
The power of a brand is always seen in emotional attachments that have very little, if anything, to do with product performance or side-by-side comparisons. Adherents will defend a brand choice with virulent emotional defense because, when the brand is attacked, they feel as if they have been personally affronted. I always count on this power of retention in creating brands and the SEC is chock full of such devotees. At the end of the day, the brand is not about the schools or the conference. Like all successful brands, it has transcended all that and the brand is about them, the fan. This is not an accident.
If you are an SEC fan and you see this blog as an attack on you… You prove my point. This is not an attack on the SEC teams. They play VERY good football. It’s just a brand reality that can be said of many other schools and conferences. What other football teams and conferences envy is not the caliber of the athletes or the fame of the coaches. They envy the SEC brand and the emotional connection that the SEC brand has created with fans who see no correlation between the reality of a 6-5 finish last year and their own personal recollection of the season. (Read our market study on University Brands and college branding here)