When Jeremy Darlow was in college, he set a goal. He wanted to be the head of brand marketing for football at Adidas or Nike, and according to Darlow, “everything [he did] from the time [he] was 19 or 20 was calculated with the explicit goal in mind of being the head of marketing for one of the two big companies in the industry.”
Darlow’s dream has been realized, as he’s currently the Director of Brand Marketing for Adidas football and baseball. He’s a published author of a book titled Brands Win Championships, detailing how top-flight college athletic programs can capitalize on their brands to win recruits and win games.
— Jeremy Darlow (@JeremyDarlow) July 24, 2016
Consistently on the cutting edge of brand positioning and sports marketing, Darlow is an undeniable thought-leader in the space. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Darlow who shared his insights into the industry.
Tell us a little bit about your path to Adidas. What relevant experience do you have and how did you get to where you are today?
I started thinking about where I wanted to be when I was in school. I was probably 19 or 20 and I had taken a psychology class at Oregon State University and fell in love with it, so much so that I had planned on majoring in psychology from that class. I did some research and realized there was not a lot of job opportunities out there at the time in that space so I recalibrated and added business in with psychology and came out with marketing.
From there, I’d always been a huge sports nut. Playing, watching, writing, reading about it, video games. Anything and everything I could get my hands on that was sports related, I was always very much in that space. With marketing coming out of that, looking at the local companies that we have here, I’m from Portland, I’m fortunate enough to be in the backyard of sporting goods with Nike, Adidas, Columbia, Keen. We have a lot of corporations that fit within the space that I wanted to be in.
Specifically, my goal was to be the head of brand marketing for football at either Adidas or Nike. That was something that I realized when I was 19 or 20. From that point on, I did everything I could to get to that. I ended up minor in merchandising knowing full well that having some merchandising background would help me in my final goal of working in that space.
When I got out of school, I did an internship with Nordstrom, knowing I need that merchandising experience. From there, I moved to San Francisco and got some marketing/planning experience. And then I moved from the department store company I was at to work for a video game company called Ubisoft and got some brand marketing experience there.
I moved back home and worked for another company doing brand marketing and ultimately found my way to Adidas. Everything I had done from the time I was 19 or 20 was calculated with the explicit goal in mind of being the head of marketing for one of the two big companies in the industry.
What was the inspiration for your book, Brands Win Championships? When did that seed get planted and how did it come to fruition?
It was similar timing for me, sort of late in my college or early in my professional career. I ended up getting a job in a department store headquarters. I moved down to San Francisco for the job because I needed the experience but what I realized quickly was that I was absolutely passionate about marketing but I was not passionate about the company I was working for.
The story goes that I was in a status meeting where I would sort of touch base with my boss at the time. We were in the cafeteria and she was going on about some things and quite honestly, I was zoning out and thinking to myself, asking myself, “What am I doing? This is not my passion. This is not what I envision myself doing.” At the time, I was in the midst of coming out of an internship in Oregon State where I was working in their athletic department and I recognized some of the misses as far as brand marketing opportunities go or were not happening in the department.
I was also frequenting some of the Oregon State message boards at the time, I never really posted but this one night I was fired up about our Oregon State brand and I put this Jerry McGuire-like diatribe up on one of the boards and it got a really good response.
I was kind of coming off that high and in this status meeting with my boss, thinking to myself, “I could put my ideas down on paper and I could do something with that. I want to do something with that.”
From that point I went home and put my ideas into a notebook that I still have today, with the goal of self-publishing a book and holding it in my hand at some point. Eleven years later, I ended up publishing it and it’s certainly become much bigger deal than I ever thought it would be.
What’s the reception been like for the book?
It’s been extremely positive, more so than I ever could’ve imagined, honestly. If I just think about the beginnings of the book and the beginnings of the publishing process, more of the end of the writing process, I was working with a consultant and that individual had suggested that I reach out to some influencers in the industry for quotes and for endorsements for the book, essentially. I remember saying, “I’ll do that, but I’m not going to get any quotes. That’s just not something I expect to happen.”
I ended up reaching out to a variety of people in the industry and I could not believe the response that I got. I had Howard Schnellenberger give me an endorsement. I had Seth Godin, who is a genius in the marketing field, probably the most well known marketing officer there is today, he gave me an endorsement. That was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. Al Ries, who coined the term positioning that I use everyday in my job now. There was a Sports Illustrated reporter, there was someone from Yahoo! Sports. The list goes on and on and that doesn’t even include all the athletic directors and coaches that endorsed the book prior to the publishing.
The response has been incredible. Everyday I get Tweets from people telling me they love it and how thankful they are. I don’t know that I’ve fully absorbed it yet. It’s one of those things that feels like a dream but has been a lot of fun and am so thankful for all the support that I’ve gotten. Those are the moments that are very surreal to me. The book floating around Facebook is such an honor, it’s incredible.
How much of your book do you use on a daily basis at Adidas? What’s your average day like there?
There’s no average day here. That’s the typical question and that’s the typical answer that I give. That’s the reason why I like what I do and the reason why I’ve fallen in love with marketing and with brand marketing and the psychology behind it, like I mentioned.
There’s a chess game that we play every day. The consumer makes a move and then we make a move and the consumer reacts to that and we react to that move. That’s what I love about it. Every single day there are moves being made that we have to respond to. There’s no typical day because of that and that’s what keeps the fire going.
“There’s a chess game that we play every day. The consumer makes a move and then we make a move and the consumer reacts to that and we react to that move. That’s what I love about it.”
How has that chess-game changed in recent years, especially with the advent of social media?
The biggest change from a social media perspective and how we interact with consumers and react to consumers is that it’s more real time. The philosophy behind it doesn’t change. We’re still looking to engage with consumers and we’re still looking to react to what they’re reacting to. Today, we’re able to look at something in the moment and be able to change directions and change courses within a matter of minutes. That’s what’s really interesting about the space today and what’s probably going to bring in a lot of younger marketers and a lot of fresh faces and excited, young entrepreneurs into the space. It is so dynamic and so malleable and so in-the-moment.
Everyday is like a reality TV show. We come to work everyday and we’re living a live broadcast of what we’re working on. That’s different from what we were doing 15 years ago. You didn’t get that real time response that you can now. It keeps it fresh, keeps it exciting and everyday is different because of it.
How do you see social media specifically impacting collegiate properties? It seems like there’s almost an arms-race between major colleges to see who can publish the best and the most multimedia. How has that shifted how you work with brands and how do you think college properties are adjusting to that?
I don’t think that college properties have truly embraced social media for the advantages that it provides, quite honestly. We can have a conversation every single day built around a strategic brand position. That’s not necessarily how these administrations are looking at social media.
People are more concerned with one-upping each other with content versus telling a story consistently throughout the 12 months of the year. That, to me, is the most important thing and the biggest opportunity for schools right now. You finally have an avenue through which to talk to a consumer one-on-one, every single day. That gives you so much opportunity to build a brand position.
It’s all about consistency and it’s all about frequency. You do those two things – you speak to one thing over and over again – it’s going to stick. My issue with what’s going on right is it feels like a kaleidoscope of ideas that are out there. Because of that, I don’t think anyone is establishing themselves as something unique. All they’re doing is talking at the consumer over and over and over again, trying to stay on their radar. Imagine if they stayed on their radar with one consistent message for twelve months, they’d be known for something.
“It’s all about consistency and it’s all about frequency. You do those two things – you speak to one thing over and over again – it’s going to stick.”
Do you see using athletes, either athlete-alumni or current athletes, as a valuable piece for the amplification of that message?
Absolutely. In any industry, it doesn’t matter what you’re working on, what the product is or what the brand is, there’s a group of influencers. Having those influencers on your side is invaluable.
I think the one mistake that happens somewhat consistently is force-feeding that message and not allowing for an authentic voice to come from that influencer. That’s the biggest point that I make to any athlete that I pitch on activation. It has to be authentic to him or her. The voice has to be authentic. The message has to be authentic. He or she has to believe in the product. If one of those things is not true or if one of those things does not align with the athlete, then we should not move forward and have that conversation.
The athlete or influencer or whoever it may be, they’re going to be that much more keen on telling stories and supporting a concept if they truly believe in it and if it’s authentic to them. If not, it’s going to come across as forced, people are going to see through it and it’s going to water down the message.
“In any industry, it doesn’t matter what you’re working on, what the product is or what the brand is, there’s a group of influencers. Having those influencers on your side is invaluable.”
You have a blog titled “Let them Tweet,” and essentially it’s asking why college properties aren’t recruiting these high school kids, who are understanding of the power of their own brands, under the condition that they will help them build their brand and build social media presences while they’re at school. Have you seen any properties doing this? What would you like to see in a recruiting pitch that says that?
First off, I haven’t seen anybody doing that yet but I haven’t delved super deep into some of the biggest programs out there and how they’re approaching the athletes.
In terms of philosophy, I’d love to see them bring athletes in under the condition that you’re going to help build their brand. For me, it’s really important to understand, especially in sports like football, that such a small fraction of the college athlete population translates to professional levels and if all these kids are focused on while they’re at school is getting to the professional level, often times they fall flat and they don’t know what to do. They become less successful than they probably should be.
There’s a responsibility in sports in general to help these kids not only become great athletes but become great professionals and give them a springboard into whatever their passion is outside of sports. If you came in as an athlete and you knew that your brand is going to be strong when you leave and you’re going to be able to leverage the popularity and the exposure that you have as an athlete to build a brand outside of sports regardless of if you succeed on the field, that’s only going to advance the recruiting at select institutions.
I also think it does justice to the student athlete as we all sort of empathize when we talk about NCAA athletics.
“There’s a responsibility in sports in general to help these kids not only become great athletes but become great professionals and give them a springboard into whatever their passion is outside of sports.”
What are your expectations for the future of the industry for how some of the teams and brands will capitalize on these ideas?
I would imagine we see institutions and programs start to bring in individuals with marketing experience.
When I was working in the athletic department at Oregon State – it was years ago – but I was an intern and the majority of the focus was on halftime shows and things like that. By investing dollars and resources on individuals that come from CPG, that come from Proctor & Gamble and the Adidas’ of the world, they’re going to bring in philosophy that speak to brand marketing in general and that’s only going to elevate the brands they’re associated with at the time.
With that comes a new way of looking at marketing. We’ve been doing it one way for so long in college athletics, as soon as you start bringing in minds that are from areas outside of sports, they’re going to start bringing in the more standard, bigger picture ideas that come with marketing acumen. They’re going to be thinking about advertising. They’re going to be thinking about out-of-home. They’re going to be thinking about social media today. They’re going to be thinking about how all of those things connect and ladder up to one singular brand position with the ultimate goal of differentiating that program so they can go out and get the top talent year in and year out.
It all comes down to recruiting, but I think everything is going to start with investing in marketing minds, people that have experience in that space, and that’s only going to further the development of brands within NCAA athletics.
“They’re going to be thinking about how all of those things connect and ladder up to one singular brand position with the ultimate goal of differentiating that program so they can go out and get the top talent year in and year out.”
You had set a pretty clear goal going back to your college days for where you wanted to end up. Do you have any other personal goals or ambitions that you’ve set for the future?
My goal now is to retire in Byron Bay, Australia. I don’t know how that’s going to happen and I don’t know exactly what the roadmap is to get there quite yet. I spent some time there last year and came home and reconfigured all of my plans to point to that ultimate destination. I don’t know how to get there yet, but that’s what I’m working on.