This surprise angle dominated national coverage

You may look at big brands and their big wins and think that you’re too small to pull off something like that. Here’s a principle – and an example – you can follow to do it anyway.

To understand why this announcement was such a surprise – and therefore earned so much attention – you need just a little bit of context.

The college football season kicks off this weekend. And the biggest storyline heading into the season is the earthquake rule change that now allows players to make money for sponsorships and endorsements. If you don’t follow college sports this may sound hard to believe, but up until this summer, a 15-year-old TikToker could charge for sponsored posts, but the best and most famous college football players in the country (Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, even Tim Tebow himself back in the day) were not allowed to collect a dime.

Once that rule changed, everyone assumed that the big news would be the biggest names on the most famous teams landing large deals with big brands. Sure enough, it came out that the quarterback of juggernaut Alabama was closing in on $1 million in endorsements before even starting a game.

And then a small protein bar company flipped the script.

Instead of blowing their entire marketing budget on one big-name player, they approached the coaches of their hometown college football team (BYU) with a novel idea. They offered to sign a deal with all 36 of the team’s “walk-ons” – these are the players who weren’t deemed good enough to earn a scholarship. They pay their own way to attend school, and many of them hold down jobs while they compete for playing time against scholarship athletes who have full rides. But now the company – Built Bar – would pay them the cost of their tuition.

You already get the sense of how novel this is. But it got even better because of the way the Built Bar and BYU marketing teams broke the news. No press release or news conference here.

The CEO of Built Bar went into the football facility and surprised the whole team. You can watch their reaction in this great video posted to the team’s Twitter feed shortly afterward:

My favorite part is how sincerely excited the scholarship players are for their teammates’ successes. I mean, this happened so early that the quarterback and star players on this team don’t even have deals yet, but they are all super excited for the walk-ons.

That video went on to earn 3.2 million views, and the audience quickly transcended just BYU fans. Most of the big names in college football media shared it. A sponsored tweet with the equivalent results would cost $1.6 million. Traditional media coverage – much of it fawning over the creativity of the deal – followed in the likes of SportsCenter, ESPN.com, SI.com, Washington Post, and so on. I spend way too much time following college football news, and with that perspective I declare that this was the biggest story in the nation on launch day and the day after. You can see all the metrics in this recap the BYU sports PR shop put together.

Full disclosure – I have been a BYU season-ticket holder since my sophomore year there in 1995 (which means I have had my heart broken pretty much every fall since then). But I wouldn’t share this with you if I didn’t think it was the absolute best illustration of a key storytelling principle that you can use to boost your chances of similar success.

Whenever there is big change in your industry, and everyone is headed one way, consider going a different direction. Remember when REI ditched Black Friday to #OptOutside instead? At least within the college football world, this new deal and announcement are going to have similar staying power. The endorsement expert quoted in the AP’s story on the deal said that even if other schools steal the idea:

“It will always be known as the BYU thing.”

This article was originally published on August 25, 2021

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