The most successful Heisman marketing campaign doesn’t come off a billboard, over-the-top video or flashy mailer crafted to manufacture buzz.
Not anymore, not in 2013.
Instead, a successful Heisman marketing campaign starts with you, the social media-obsessed fan teetering toward lunacy. You, combined with the countless others built just like you, create a sustainable marketing campaign, 140 characters at a time.
Twitter has become an arena on its own, one capable of elevating 18-year-old student athletes to celebrities based off a touchdown pass on one Saturday afternoon. In terms of the Heisman, no medium spreads the word with more speed and power.
Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is considered—and rightfully so—one of the Heisman favorites in 2013. His team’s pedestrian schedule in 2013, however, could make winning the award an uphill climb.
The room for error is minuscule, and Bridgewater will likely have to post video game-like numbers to be up for consideration come December. That’s not to say he can’t, or he won’t, but the deck is stacked again him.
Despite this, Bridgewater doesn’t want any added help promoting himself as the season inches closer. He’s asked Louisville to holster all Heisman marketing efforts so the focus can remain on the team.
"He went to the coaches not wanting a Heisman-type campaign," Louisville sports information director Rocco Gasparro told WDRB.com. "He wanted it to be about team and if we won as a team, individual recognition would come anyway. It says a lot about the character of Teddy, I think, and how much his team means to him."
The decision to not campaign has become a substantial story in itself. And as it turns out, the headlines and free marketing generated from a player stressing the importance of team success over individual accolades will likely prove to be more effective than any Heisman-related promotion.
For Bridgewater, his 2013 Heisman campaign actually started late last season. On the field and off it.
Playing with a broken wrist and injured ankles, he still managed to lead his team to a 20-17 comeback win over Rutgers that earned the Cardinals a BCS bowl berth. Unable to move out of the pocket and with his left wrist being held gingerly near his body, his gutsy performance had many taking note.
It also led to this: a wonderful moment with his offensive coordinator Shawn Watson in the team’s locker room after the game. Soon after, the video went viral thanks in large part to Facebook and Twitter boosts.
After dissecting Florida in the Sugar Bowl en route to a 33-23 upset win, Bridgewater’s Heisman marketing campaign kicked into another gear.
Although Louisville sent out bubblegum as a Heisman reminder—something Bridgewater keeps in his sock each game—to Heisman voters last season, that likely won’t be the case in 2013. At least not before the season begins if Bridgewater gets his way.
While bubblegum was a unique item to ship with hopes of making an impression, it's not the first (or the last) time a team tried to make this kind of splash. The effectiveness of such stunts, however, remains up for debate.
Rutgers sent out binoculars for running back Ray Rice in 2007, Oklahoma sent out a fan for “Fan-Tastic Sam” Bradford in 2008, while Northwestern’s Heisman push for quarterback Dan Persa was perhaps the most unique of them all. The team posted billboards throughout the Chicago and Bristol, Connecticut (home of ESPN). It also created a website and sent out seven-pound “Persa Strong” dumbbells promoting the new online home.
Matt Barkley and Montee Ball both received the preseason Heisman treatment in 2012, while many other schools have tried to promote their stars in similar fashion.
Robert Griffin III was given a Heisman push from Baylor before the 2011 season, and he later turned this into actual hardware. Other than RG3, however, most Heisman campaigns have offered little in the results department.
This is no surprise given how challenging it is to win the award. In the end statistics and marquee victories will be the deciding factor well beyond name recognition. But, the perception of a player (and school) looms large. Name recognition is integral, and marketing factors in more than it should.
Successful marketing, however, is changing. Not just in this landscape, but in general. Free, natural marketing, which is naturally generated through Twitter and other outlets, is becoming more powerful than any advertisement or planned attention-grabber.
Do Heisman Campaigns Matter Anymore?
Social media is a real-life, real-time advertisement. It's the ideal platform for a college football player looking to capitalize on big performances. Forget about a static image, or a gesture that will be forgotten shortly after it’s attempted: Twitter has changed the way college football is consumed and marketed.
As the coverage of college football increases—with the SEC Network going live this fall and the ACC Network not far behind—the activity on social networks will also continue to develop. There’s now a cult-like following of the sport on Twitter, one that becomes frenetic each Saturday in the fall. Heck, it's frenetic on a Tuesday in March.
For Heisman hopefuls looking to capitalize on key performances, marketing no longer needs to be manufactured. A billboard off a major highway will by no means negatively impact a player’s chances, but it has its limits. It can't move; it can't dazzle.
Social media, however, can take the success of the player, perhaps in one unbelievable moment, and give it a voice. Although you may never cast a Heisman vote in your lifetime, your passionate commentary has purpose, place and impact. Combined with others, it can be more powerful than the marketing companies spend millions on each month.
To win the Heisman, you don't have to perfect. However, you do have to impress a fraternity of former players and voters enough to prove your worth. No billboard, website or dumbbell can accomplish this.
Not anymore. Not in 2013.
It's about seizing the moment, or perhaps a season. And nothing captures a moment quite like social media, which can amplify greatness into a deafening chorus.
In the end, of course, it comes down to the player and the season. If it's outstanding enough, the marketing will come.
Universities, save the money. The message no longer needs to be crafted, as it will eventually craft itself. 140 characters at a time.