Your NCAA basketball bracket may be busted, but your favorite college may still win with its branding.
As one of the most watched sporting events, the annual March Madness tournament showcases 68 teams for basketball talent. But it also gives universities and colleges one of their biggest marketing opportunities nationally. An estimated 82.5 million Americans fill out their predictions for winners on the tournament brackets, a bonding ritual known as “bracketology.” Many of those faithful bracketologists also work full-time jobs, resulting in an estimated loss of $2.1 billion in productivity during the tourney. The popular pastime also provides the opportunity for many people to learn about some colleges for the first time.
As the NCAA Final Four championship approaches, with many brackets already busted (thanks, Maryland), our Idea Dream Team decided to take the tournament’s Sweet 16 to create our bracket based on branding. We named our process “brandetology.”
Brandetology (n.): A 100% made up word referring to the thorough study of #branding in NCAA basketball to build a #MarchMadness bracket.
We picked our Final Four Brand Champions based on the industry’s top brand strategies (no wagering, please). Our team reviewed the school’s logo, design and color palette, to include the uniforms and court graphics, as well as the team’s social media and website for content and ease of navigation — all tools of a comprehensive brand strategy.
To pick the final four of brandetology, we considered:
Visual Branding (Uniforms, logos and courts)
- Color and pattern schemes
- Distinct branding elements that differentiate the school
- Design integration and consistency across all mediums
Social media (Instagram accounts reviewed as a sample)
- Dynamic and captivating visuals
- Balance of video content versus photo usage
- Shareable and engaging content
- Diversity of photo topics (court, uniforms, players, students cheering, user-developed content)
- Ease of navigation
- Social media integration
- Page hierarchy and placement of compelling content
- Use of impactful graphics
- Interactive and multimedia content
The Final Four of Branding
With Nike co-founder Phil Knight, an alumnus and strong supporter, Nike’s influence and monetary backing show throughout Oregon’s branding from the uniforms all the way to their top-of-the-line facilities. Oregon scores high marks across the board from a branding perspective, including its court design. When you think of Oregon, you think of forests, and the court features silhouettes of pine trees. The variations in color and layering of trees create depth on a typically flat and one-dimensional court. The muted colors also contrast well with the neon uniforms, so they command even more of a presence.
With bright and bold colors using neon yellow and green, like the basketball uniforms, most of Oregon’s football and basketball uniforms also incorporate subtle feather design elements. With Knight’s influence, the colors and variations of uniforms push the envelope in uniform design innovation. The bold, bright, reflex colors prompt an immediate reaction, and coupled with the design, make the uniforms memorable. While the logo’s typographic execution uses shallow cap height and letter-width pitch, the unique feel makes it recognizable and works well in the world of sports.
Oregon’s social media presents compelling and consistent content, never forgetting brand identity. The Instagram account uses bold, high-contrast and professional imagery that appeals to viewers and athletics alike.
The website integrates social media content well and has a clean, contemporary aesthetic. The bold imagery and headlines engage the site visitor immediately. The website uses the logo in an interesting way without any type but remains instantly recognizable.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan played for the school, and now his Jordan brand serves as the official apparel of the team. The uniforms feature traditional Carolina blue and argyle patterns down the sides. In color theory, blue often symbolizes stability and confidence. The strength of the Tar Heels branding comes through, with the color dubbed by many as “Carolina blue,” and the iconic logo remains one of the most well known from the team’s consistency at the top and enthusiastic fan base.
The court’s color scheme also highlights the Carolina blue along the sidelines but shines at the mid-court logo with an outline of the state. Even so, the court wasn’t the most compelling of the finalists.
The basketball team’s social media (particularly its Instagram account, @UNC_basketball) includes a good mix of custom imagery from players celebrating victories on the court to behind-the-scene photos in the locker rooms, giving fans a complete and behind-the-scenes look. The school’s colors appear in nearly every image, maintaining brand consistency. The site features custom graphics and motion graphics.
The minimalist, clutter-free design of GoHeels.com allows for simple navigation. While the design remains static, readers have numerous headline options and access to audio and video footage. Overall, the design falls short of the style of the Instagram account and requires some updates to support the university’s brand elements throughout the site.
The Musketeers’ playing surface at the Cintas Center underwent a major facelift in the fall of 2014. The university went straight to its fans for creative inspiration.
In the spirit of true engagement, the university incorporated elements of the fans’ ideas into the aesthetics. The school’s final product, which features the Cincinnati skyline, includes two-toned wood staining and the primary X logo at center court in bold, dark blue lettering.
The basketball team’s Instagram account consistently uses a photo filter to wash the images in a bluish tint to support the brand’s color palette and a type treatment that appears hand drawn with a youthful energy.
With an enticing, contemporary color palette and frequent use of iconography to simplify navigation, the university’s website has a very youthful design. During the Musketeers’ tournament run, the school’s athletics website kept the strong graphic content at its forefront, creating numerous splash pages for the school’s game day coverage, even including a countdown ticker to tipoff. These elements create fan engagement and drive traffic to the site.
The Baylor athletics logo includes the classic “BU” with gold lettering and green trim with a very conservative, traditional typography. But you wouldn’t feel as if the school’s branding was traditional in its approach with a sharp juxtaposition in its use of glow in the dark colors. To say you can’t miss seeing their uniforms is an understatement. The neon-yellow and green color combination creates a glow-in-the-dark effect unlike any in the school’s athletic department.
Supporting the connection to the team’s lineage, the basketball players wore on their jerseys the names of the “Immortal Ten,” a group of players who passed away in a bus crash in January 1927 while traveling to a game. By paying tribute to the tragedy, it ties together the present and the past, it shows the university cares about the school’s student-athletes of all eras and ties the generations together, an important role for a university to help build pride and support.
The team’s social media accounts thrive on glowing green visuals that reinforce the brand. A social media industry best practice and a mainstay for Baylor, shorter posts drive impressions. The school also employs a strong social media campaign promoting the noted phrase, #SicEm, a phrase used by supporters of the university on game days meaning to attack, or “get them.” With over 185,000 #SicEm usages on Instagram, even the official Baylor University website tells fans how to enjoy the phrase properly.
Upon entering the website during the team’s tournament run, the audience first encounters a splash page honoring the team’s accomplishment and providing details for fans about when, how and where to watch all the action. The site’s main pages integrate the infamous #Sicem phrase and provides easy navigation for fans to find the information they want without getting bogged down in content.
Brandetology Honorable Mentions
(*NCAA tournament participation not required for this category)
With more than 340 schools in NCAA Division I, many schools deserving recognition for branding didn’t make it into the NCAA basketball tournament, but we deemed them worthy as part of our branding honorable mention section.
Court: Florida International Panthers
With a design almost guaranteed to appeal to recruits and students in the North watching basketball games on cold, wintry nights, the school’s basketball court has a beach theme with palm tree fronds and waves crashing on a shore in its design. There’s a Panther at center court, but give us sand and surf imagery any day. The court definitely has a strong concept.
Uniform: Maryland Terrapins
As a Maryland alum, I can’t go without mentioning my beloved Terps. The Terrapins continue upping the ante in the branding game, especially since moving to the Big Ten. Much like Phil Knight’s influence at Oregon, Maryland benefits from Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank’s influence as an alumnus of the school and a strong supporter of the athletic program. A former player on the school’s football team, Plank and Under Armour provide Maryland many different uniform combinations. Many of the uniforms incorporate elements of Maryland’s flag design, which sets them apart from other universities giving just enough of an indication without being too assertive, along with full-color Maryland flag trim and seams.
Logo: Georgetown Hoyas
Georgetown’s Hoyas nickname remains shrouded in mystery, with the precise origin of the term dating back to the 1890s remaining unknown. Eventually, the mascot became Jack the Bulldog. The bulldog logo has evolved over the years for the better, without losing its original spirit and character. The newest version of the logo includes a little more personality with expressive eyes, as well as shading for increased dimension and drama. The line quality is very bold and graphic, which helps with scalability and increases the perception of strength.
Website: Florida Gators
FloridaGators.com demonstrates a good site that shows off their brand. Several design factors makes this a great online presence. The site features impactful imagery using bold school colors of blue and orange. The simple navigation has large callouts to important information. The callouts themselves include easy access to tickets, scoreboard and the schedule of upcoming games. The site also has large, easy-to-read news articles that grab the reader’s attention.
Instagram Account: Miami Hurricanes
@Caneshoops carries a bit of everything from action shots to pre-game close-ups and team huddles to exclusive locker-room footage. Miami makes you feel ready to lace up your sneakers with a focus on action and intensity. The photo quality is consistent throughout the feed, offering a cohesive look, an important factor to acquire and maintain followers. People follow visually appealing accounts regardless of the subject. Miami takes their followers through a journey with the team, an impactful strategy for those who live and breathe basketball. That kind of slice-of-life content also can appeal even to non-basketball fans. With a minimalist mentality regarding written content, the visuals do the talking for them eloquently. Instagram accounts that invest in producing quality content gain the most and reward their followers with the experience.