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Everybody’s eyes are on Coach Prime this fall. Deion Sanders, a pro player-turned-coach Hall of Famer, has captivated football fans throughout his career with his larger-than-life talent and personality. As for career success, Sanders is the only athlete to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.
In the last year, he left his head coaching job at Jackson State University after a conference championship and undefeated record for the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder Buffaloes. The season is still young, and the ‘23 Buffaloes story is far from written (3-1), but home tickets are sold out and we’re in for one hell of a show. CU-Colorado State University was ESPN’s fifth most-watched college football game ever, shattering records for late prime window and regular season viewership.
Pundits are calling Sanders either “all hype” or “the real deal,” and while many love seeing him win, others hope he’ll fumble. Regardless of the final score, I’m a believer. I’m from Colorado, watch a lot of football and, as a student of great brands, I know one when I see it.
And man, does he have a great brand.
In fact, he’s giving us a masterclass in marketing, winning at those ubiquitous and inevitably vague tenets of brand excellence: authenticity and consistency. Which is to say brands and businesses should tune in, too. Here are a few key lessons from Sanders’ brand playbook.
Always dominate. Every time, everywhere. This is the name of Coach Prime’s game.
— Colorado Buffaloes Football (@CUBuffsFootball) May 28, 2023
If you’ve followed his career as a player and a coach, you’ve heard him say time and time again that domination is how you win. Reminds me of one of marketers’ own OG branding playbooks, Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow, which says winning comes from dominating mental and physical availability. Be memorable and ensure that what you’re selling is easy to buy.
In other words, Coach Prime is not hard to find.
Keep the main thing in focus
Or, as we might say in agency jargon, identify your distinctive brand assets and use them consistently.
Coach Prime tells his players, “You can’t play tentatively.” Marketers need to take this message to heart. Avoid just playing into category tropes and sounding like everybody else. Don’t dilute your brand with unremarkable design. Everything you do should build meaning into your brand, which also means you must be disciplined; that’s how you become iconic (the late British graphic designer Abram Games coined this philosophy, “Maximum meaning, minimum means.”)
Visual and verbal identity is what makes a brand distinct and should be rooted in its persistent truth or essence. Think about Sanders’ cowboy hat, sunglasses, tone of voice—we know it’s him even if his name’s not on the screen. These recognizable elements of his identity are mental shortcuts, communicating his independence, coolness and confidence.
The future is shaped in the moment
Author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek talks about applying game theory to brands. Basically, be an infinite player in your marketplace and broader world, because a finite player will never beat you if you’re creating enduring value as long as they’re competing quarter by quarter.
“Enduring value” is the key phrase and also Sanders’ MO: He doesn’t focus on the competition. Instead, he invests his time and energy in the futures of the young men he’s coaching. He’s intensely present in every game, but he’s in it for the bigger picture impact. He is an infinite player to his core.
No matter what happens as the season unfolds, Sanders’ brand and the excitement he’s created has brought in an estimated $18 million in new revenue for CU in the home opener, adding enduring value to the school and the city of Boulder, as well as the team’s story and legacy. As his Buffs prepare to face off with my own alma mater, USC, in one week’s time, I find myself reflecting on the power of belief—Coach Prime’s mantra—and why we as human beings watch and love sports so much.
And the reality is, it’s simple. Great athletes move us at a cellular level. They connect us to greatness, to the stuff of legends, to their transcendent immortality. They give us a reason to believe in our own potential, forging an intense emotional connection to individuals, teams, communities, cities and countries.
Which is exactly what the best brands—and also the best business leaders—should seek to do. And yes, peaks and valleys happen. Highs and lows. Wins and heartbreaks. But they don’t dampen enduring value.
Coach Prime says, “When you dominate, you elevate.” He’s given us plenty to believe in and a playbook to make magic happen. Let’s put these lessons into practice and elevate our own game.