When Atlanta native Geoff Collins came back to Georgia Tech in 2019 to take over as the football team’s head coach, he brought with him a traditional focus with a unique twist: bringing the program back to prominence, but doing so largely by elevating the “brand” of Yellow Jacket football.
This concept of brand is tied to almost every major corporation, sports entity, or celebrity in the country – yet never before has it had as prominent of a place in college athletics. Personal branding is undeniably tied to the current name, image, and likeness conversations, putting an onus on universities to prioritize their program’s exposure and maximize brand reach to entice players who want to capitalize on it.
Schools like Nebraska and Oklahoma led the way, working with outside agencies to create personal logos for signees and launch massive brand-centric campaigns around particular milestones for their program, but rebuilding programs like Georgia Tech are also now jumping on board.
The Yellow Jackets signed a one-year deal with creative agency J1S to focus exclusively on the brand of the program Collins is trying to build throughout the Peach State. J1S had previously partnered with the Sooners to create a signing day campaign in December. The J1S-Georgia Tech deal has an option to extend the partnership an additional two more years.
“We’ve kind of entered the collegiate athletic space to try and help elevate these college athletic programs from a branding and marketing perspective as well on the student-athlete content assistance side of things,” Mike Jones, J1S founder and CEO, said. “Coach Collins really believes in elevating the brand at that school and the association between Georgia Tech and Atlanta. And individual athlete brand is also a huge conversation that’s taking place, and he’s all in on that.”
The partnership intends not only to benefit the Georgia Tech program. Ideally, it will also form a preparatory foundation for the NIL allowances to come.
“There’s no one that knows the exact way [NIL] will shake out and what it will look like,” Jones said. “We know it’s coming and will happen, but what it looks like – we don’t know. I think programs like Oklahoma [and] Georgia Tech are starting to prepare themselves so that whatever way it shakes out, they already have the tools in their toolboxes.”
Those tools are also tied to recruiting. The modern conversations about what a program can offer a prized recruit extend far beyond the football field and will continue to do so as off-field opportunities expand. Over the years, Atlanta has emerged as a hotbed of music, culture, entertainment, and athletics. Collins hopes that by actively working to more directly link his school and the city, he’ll be able to entice players to join his program as successfully as he hopes to get Atlanta to connect with the university.
“We’re excited about our brand initiative,” Collins said. “Since I came back home to Atlanta, a large part of my focus has been on building an exciting brand and culture for our football program. Our partnership with J1S aligns perfectly with our goals and the culture here at Georgia Tech football and the way we embrace the city of Atlanta. We’re all excited about what’s ahead in this program.”
The first part of the partnership, which formally began in January, involves aligning with the city through the Yellow Jackets’ upcoming FOR The 404 campaign, a nod to the area code of Atlanta. It is tentatively set to launch in the fall of 2020.
“It’s directly trying to build that association with Atlanta and Georgia Tech,” Jones said. “But alongside that will be a player-first initiative. We know player [name,] image, and likeness is coming, some version of it. So we’re coming in to help provide these athletes with the content, assets and branding that they feel is needed to prepare themselves for life after football but also life currently as a student-athlete in the near future.”
To amplify the support they can provide their football players as a personal brand becomes even more of a priority with NIL rules changes set to take effect during the 2021-2022 season, the program also partnered with consultant Jeremy Darlow to educate Yellow Jackets’ football student-athletes on how to build a desirable personal brand that transcends sports.
The hope is that the combination of outside assistance will put Georgia Tech one step ahead of its competitors in the eyes of recruits. Programs that support players’ individual brand success are going to be increasingly appealing in the NIL era.
“[We’re] making sure that we’re positioning ourselves as this whole thing starts to change,” Santino Stancato, Georgia Tech football’s brand manager, who came with Collins from Temple, said. “I think it puts us in good standing. As far as marketing goes, it’s not always easy to pinpoint the return on investment. But I think as the content that we’re going to be able to roll out, and the building of our athletes’ brands comes to fruition, [it’ll come] as our athletes. The guys that we’re going to be recruiting and bringing into this program are going to have strong brands within the college football universe. Hopefully, that’s where we’ll see our return.”
Georgia Tech signed the nation’s No. 26 recruiting class in December, according to 247 Sports, the closest they’ve come to cracking the top 25 since 2007. Stancato connects Collins’ commitment to brand to at least part of his early success in recruiting for the Yellow Jackets.
Future success will lie in developing athletes’ individual public personas and leveraging their link to the brand of their school, Jones said. The platform of Georgia Tech’s football program should be used to promote student-athletes, given the greater reach of the university’s social and media presence, which Jones describes as “significant to any of the players.” J1S’s goal is to help the university use their existing platforms to build player awareness, while simultaneously supplying those same student-athletes with the resources of assets they need to promote their own brands on their own handles.
Promoting the connection to the city is also connected to the current NIL conversations. The two-pronged approach the school is taking in partnership with J1S – aligning with Atlanta and also focusing on athlete-first content – is composed of parallel goals.
“All of what we’re doing kind of ties into the conversation with name, image, and likeness,” Stancato explained. “Being in the city of Atlanta, we’re around all the Fortune 500 companies. There’s a ton of business around here.”
He continued: “The opportunity that sits here in Atlanta with your image and likeness and then also with the internships that guys are getting into, all that stuff, it’s a no brainer that they’re tied. As we kind of move into this image and likeness thing, there’s no better time to have this type of outside backing. [from J1S].”
Collins and his staff see connecting the school to Atlanta as connecting the school to opportunity – of all kinds. That opportunity is what all hope will entice recruits. Relevance in that regard has become the main focal point.
“College football is the only sport in the world where we hear the ‘marketing doesn’t matter, winning drive sales’ argument all the time,” Jones added. “But the [counter] argument there is that what drives winning is talent and good coaching. So as relevant as you are to those recruits, the better chance you have at securing them and winning as a result.”