Coach Prime and the Power of Anti-Branding
For men of a certain age (…ahem) Prime Time did not mean television programming from 7 pm to 9 pm. Prime Time represented an aspiration so unattainable that having one two-sport, star, pro athlete in a generation was truly amazing but two… well, that is something we may never see again. Both Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were exciting to watch as athletes. Sanders, as a defensive back, return specialist, and prolific base-stealer was always primed (pun obviously intended) for an explosive highlight and who can forget Nike’s infamous “Bo Knows” ad campaign. Those days, of course, are long gone.
Fast forward to December of 2022 when the University of Colorado Boulder announced Deion Sanders, aka “Coach Prime”, as their new, head football coach. Prime Time was back in a way no one could probably fully comprehend at the time, except for Coach Prime, of course. In his introductory press conference he said, “We’re going to be good, we’re really going to be good.”
Anti-branding is similar to the anti-hero concept found in storytelling. Nearly the opposite of the traditional idea of a hero, the anti-hero still manages to win our hearts, come out on top, and do some good along the way. Similarly, anti-branding bucks traditional ideas of branding and does the opposite of all the things they tell you to do if you want to successfully build and promote a brand. Imagine a stuffy conference room with corporate marketing committees debating taglines and colors. Anti-branding is the opposite. Often disruptive, the anti-brand does not follow traditional branding “rules”.
A recent example that epitomizes anti-branding is Liquid Death, the canned water company. I mean, come on, naming a brand that sells water “Liquid Death”? Their tagline is “Murder Your Thirst”. Can you imagine generative AI suggesting “Liquid Death” and “Murder Your Thirst” for a brand whose only product is canned water? The non-boring approach has paid off. The seemingly ubiquitous beverage company was valued at $700 million late last year. So much for traditional branding.
Early on it was clear that Coach Prime was not going to be playing “by the book”. Criticisms, ranging from his extensive roster rebuild to praying with his team, began stacking up. Much like his speed on the field or fields of yesteryear, none of the present-day criticisms slowed down Coach Prime. A thrilling, season-opening upset against ranked TCU turned more than a few heads. “Do you believe now?” was Coach Prime’s post-game press conference theme, a theme that has continued through week 2 (with additional personal slights) and into week 3.
Week 3 brought continued controversy in the form of Jay Norvell, head coach of the Buffalos’ in-state rival, Colorado State University. An interesting phenomenon of anti-branding is it is almost always ridiculed and dismissed by the more traditional approach and its strict acolytes. Coach Norvell, referencing Coach Prime’s decidedly nontraditional style said, “When I talk to grown-ups, I take my hat and my glasses off.” The criticism was quickly taken personally and I am not sure you could ask for a greater gift from the anti-branding gods. Coach Prime claimed the personal slight as both motivation for his team and a perfectly timed money-making opportunity, pre-selling $1.2 million in “Prime 21” sunglasses on the Friday before the game (a number which I am sure has only gone up, UPDATE: it has, $5 million in 3 days).
All of this anti-branding has led to unequivocal success. University of Colorado’s profile has been significantly raised, and the price per ticket for a Buffalos’ game has gone through the roof. The Buffalo’s week 4 rank is #19, merchandise sales are way way up and any recruitment issues are a thing of the past. Other teams recruit, Coach Prime wears a hoodie that reads, “I AIN’T HARD 2 FIND”. Anti-branding at its finest.
So what anti-branding lessons can we learn from the Coach Prime experience?
- Do the opposite of boring, traditional norms. You have to tap into the same mindset that would name your water company Liquid Death. Instead of apologizing for not following traditional decorum, sell $1.2 million of the sunglasses “tradition” suggested you take off. Find ways to go in the opposite direction. Following traditional marketing strategies makes you one of many. Taking the road less traveled makes you one among few or better yet, standing alone. It’s not easy, but it can more than pay off.
- Let individuals shine. Any creative professional will tell you that anything truly innovative or disruptive rarely comes from a conference room. You have to be willing to let individuals do their thing and fulfill their vision. Now, Coach Prime is hardly a novice, but you can’t tell me that university officials weren’t more than a little nervous in the 9 months leading up to Coach Prime’s first game. However, to their credit, they let him do his thing. I’m not sure they had much choice. Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall in some of those meetings? Let your individual, visionary stars shine.
- Have the courage to stick with the plan. Tradition and the people who rigidly follow tradition will criticize you, even mock and deride you. You have to stay strong and realize that criticism is part of the anti-brand path. Coach Prime would tell you, as he told his team before their CSU overtime victory, “This ain’t about the naysayers, the nonbelievers, the haters, the doubters. This is about us… We ain’t coming no more! (chants from his team “WE’RE HERE!”). Cue the chills.
Does anti-branding always work? You have to be able to deliver, which Coach Prime and the Buffalos have been doing a lot of lately. If anti-branding is done well, with solid commitment, you can often, in the least, find ways of creating a competitive advantage and differentiate your brand in the sea of boredom. As for Coach Prime’s next act, who knows where the rest of the season will lead but for now, we can sit back and enjoy a new generation getting to experience the magic of anti-branding and the wonder of Prime Time.