The presentation Blacktop Creative gave a group of Division II members in late February carried familiar messages: stories of how student-athletes crave personal connections, opportunities to play and real-world skills.
Division II – between its Life in the Balance positioning statement and its strategic platform, built on core values of service, sportsmanship and learning, among others – has rallied around those messages for the last decade. The division’s members, with years of familiarity, intuitively understand how they distinguish their division from its NCAA cousins.
But those defining virtues weren’t immediately apparent to Blacktop’s team as the company prepared to pitch its proposal for developing Division II’s new external brand strategy. The Kansas City-based marketing firm – which has worked with national brands such as Applebee’s and Chick-fil-A – independently conducted 29 interviews with people familiar with the division to learn what individualized it from the other divisions.
The need for initial independent research illustrated what Division II leaders already know: More investment needs to be made in communicating their brand beyond the membership.
“With the whole journey to distinguish what Division II is in our own minds, we have done a phenomenal job,” Management Council chair Karen Stromme said. “Now we need to articulate it a lot better than we’re doing to the external audience.”
That challenge now falls to Blacktop, which in March was selected by the Division II Management Council Identity Subcommittee to lead the external branding effort.
Blacktop already has several success stories to tout. Most notable among them was its work to rebrand Kansas City’s struggling Major League Soccer franchise and, in the process, see its matches become some of the most popular social events in the city.
The key to that type of success, according to Blacktop Creative President Shawn Polowniak, is finding the core truth about a company – the DNA that influences every interaction people have with it, from messaging to product satisfaction. The branding elements that emerge from that core truth then become what Blacktop refers to as a “brand experience,” or the feelings people take away from interacting with a company and its products.
Blacktop will take that approach with Division II. Its process will first focus on identifying the division’s core-truth DNA and then developing a strategy that the brand experience can rally around. That experience can then be marketed in a way that allows the core beliefs of Division II to attract external audiences.
“We need to identify, and then uphold, what it is they hold of high value,” Polowniak said of Division II members. “We have to create a tremendous amount of relevancy for those student-athletes for whom Division II is perfect.”
Blacktop conducted its initial research to gain an early understanding of what that core truth might look like. Its employees interviewed and surveyed 29 people who were either current student-athletes or alumni, along with high school coaches and athletics directors, to learn about their interactions with Division II schools.
That research isn’t statistically relevant, but even that small sample size revealed consistent messages. They heard stories about student-athletes’ thirst for competition and their desire to be challenged off the field. They learned that student-athletes value personal connections with their coaches. They felt their coaches wanted to get to know them during the recruiting process and wanted to see them succeed. And they voiced a desire to develop real-world skills by being part of athletics, and to support their families by earning athletics scholarships at schools close to their homes.
The anecdotes illustrated to Division II leaders that Blacktop understood their values.
“This branding opportunity will tell our story better,” said Brynn Seidenstricker, a senior on Shippensburg’s national champion field hockey team and a member of the Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, who sat in on Blacktop’s presentation. “I think Blacktop hit it on the head: We want to play. And we want to do it with the friends and family that are important to us.”
Blacktop’s initial research is only preliminary. The first step in developing the Division II external brand will include gathering additional data through online surveys, interviews and focus groups during the next few months. Once complete, the information will be used collaboratively with Division II members to determine the division’s core truth and the brand positioning that will ultimately drive the rest of the campaign.
The goal is to rally members around a single, uniting point and use it to define the Division II experience in a way that is engaging, interactive, and can turn outside audiences into advocates.
“They have passion, and you can see it,” New York Institute of Technology Athletics Director Clyde Doughty Jr., chair of the Division II Management Council’s Identity Subcommittee, said after watching Blacktop’s presentation. “I think they’re going to be able to draw the audience we want.”