It was a bitterly cold fall Saturday in New York when a small mid-western university took to the field against West Point. Their players, although skilled, were hopelessly undersized and overmatched against the much larger and better conditioned cadets. As the game got underway that afternoon, fans sat in stunned silence at the events that began to unfold. Led by their first year head coach, the upstarts stunned the Black Knights, burying them by a score of 35-13 under an overwhelming air-raid passing attack the likes of which had never been seen before.
The date was November 1, 1913 and the victors the University of Notre Dame. In the course of just a few short hours, the Fighting Irish changed not only the course of college football, but gave genesis to one of the most iconic brands in history.
In his influential work on creative marketing, Purple Cow , author Seth Godin argues that in order for a brand to standout in a crowded marketplace, it must be truly remarkable. Not only must it first differentiate itself to the point in which in many ways it is considered an outlier when compared to its competitors, but the brand itself must convey a story that consumers want to embrace and spread as their own. When it comes to the world of sports, there is no more successful example of a “Purple Cow” than the University of Notre Dame. Over the last hundred years, no brand has managed to grow and maintain a larger and more loyal following than the Fighting Irish, irrespective of the quality of the actual product (i.e. their performance on the actual playing field).
To begin to understand how the Notre Dame brand has been able to transcend sports and become synonymous with the very concept of excellence, we must first understand the full implications of that faithful fall day almost a century ago. The Fighting Irish were able to defeat a superior Army team by implementing the “forward pass”, a radical departure from the primarily run based game of football at the time. While passing the ball was certainly a unique strategic decision, their competitive advantage didn’t last long as other teams quickly adopted the same style of play.
In the case of Notre Dame, the defeat of Army was not by itself the cause of the University’s rise to stardom. Rather, it was the fact that the victory coincided with the height of immigration into the United States, and that at the time, New York was home to a largest population of native born Irishman outside Dublin. The majority of these immigrants weren’t educated past grade school, and could only dream of one day sending their children to college in America. It was only fitting then that the University of Notre Dame would become part of that American Dream.
“At the time, Notre Dame wasn’t a nationally recognized Catholic university,” says current Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick. “While the competitive performance of the team certainly contributed to an increase in publicity, the game [against Army] and the subsequent years of success that followed also happened during the right era in this country’s history. The immigrant population, and especially the Catholics among that group, needed to rally behind a cause that exemplified everything they themselves believed in and worked so hard to achieve, and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was that vessel.”
The creation of an outlier in any particular system, is at least partially, due to luck. Yet it is not just luck, but rather the seizing of the opportunity that luck presents which truly sets such outliers apart from the norm. While Notre Dame was lucky in that the rise of its football program occurred at precisely the right time and place, they could have just as easily faded into obscurity once the team hit a slump. The leadership at the University was ahead of its time in realizing that it had to make a conscious and systematic effort to ensure that the school was constantly at the forefront of the nation’s attention. Thus, the University of Notre Dame built one of the most iconic brands in the world on three pillars that have remained largely the same for almost a century:
1) Markets Have No Borders – The University has forced itself to schedule games all over the country, including games on both the West and East Coasts each year. The majority of college football teams often do everything in their power to avoid long travel, yet the Irish have embraced it as an opportunity to continue and extend their brand far past the Mid-West. While most teams could be found playing only a few hundred miles from campus, Notre Dame spent the better half of a century touring the country and becoming “America’s team”.
“It’s not that we’re better than everyone else, it’s just that we choose to be different. We choose to be outlier and that brings us attention, good or bad,” says Swarbrick. “It’s easy to play it safe, but when you’re trying to distinguish yourself, if you play it safe you’ve failed.
2) Differentiation Through Independence – The Fighting Irish football program has never belonged to a conference. For the last century, it has competed against the best competition it could play and committed itself to face an all or nothing mentality when it came to pursuing a national championship. While this has created numerous difficulties when it comes to scheduling and travel, it is also what makes the university uniquely identifiable. Notre Dame has drawn tremendous criticism for maintaining their independence during the ever shifting landscape of college sports, but such criticism also serves as proof that they are doing something right.
According to Swarbrick, “The more clearly defined and unique the brand, the greater the passions that attach to it. No sports fan is neutral when it comes to the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys or Notre Dame Football. You can choose to fit in and go unnoticed, or you can choose to standout and be criticized. Of course, if you build your entire strategy on avoiding criticism, you’re setting yourself up for failure from day one.”
3) Stay True To Your Culture At All Costs – Notre Dame has always leaned on the first two pillars to guide its interactions with media. With notoriety comes pressure and criticism; a single misstep can spell disaster for a brand’s image. Yet for all the controversies that have surrounded the Fighting Irish program through the decades, none has ever come close to scoring a critical blow against the brand. This is because Notre Dame understands that they are not in the business of selling newspapers, but rather to produce outstanding student-athletes and put a quality product on the field. The University decided long ago that its actions would never be dictated by the masses.
“It is critical to us that our words and actions stay fully in line with the values of the university, otherwise we will compromise our brand. We survived years of fairly mediocre football results, and even though it may of hurt our competitive perception a bit, the brand itself never lost any of its value,” explains Swarbrick. “There is no better example of this than the scrutiny we faced surrounding the Manti Te’o situation. While people thought it was a crisis for the school, internally the perception was entirely different. We knew Manti, and we weren’t going to compromise our values just because individuals outside the university thought we should. We believe in supporting our students and protecting their privacy and that’s precisely what we did.”
The pillars on which Notre Dame’s brand has been built on center around the core principal that it must be remarkable in everything it does. That principal is endemic to every part of the university, not just its athletics program. Even though there are inherent risks in doing so, there is also tremendous upside when getting it right. Moreover, once a brand become remarkable and creates a dominating position within its market, it doesn’t take much to stay there. This is why even though the quality of Notre Dame’s athletic product has been at times sub-par, it continues to stay at the forefront of the nation’s mind because of the incredible momentum it has built.
That being said, the greatest challenge a brand faces is (1) maximizing its value during its time as a market leader and (2) figuring out how to reinvent itself before its competitors catch on. Fortunately, Notre Dame has been able to do both.
Firstly, Notre Dame signed a multi-year agreement with NBC in 1991 to nationally broadcast all of its home games, the only such deal at the time. That deal, which now runs through 2025, has brought millions of dollars of revenue to the institution and ensures the financial stability of its athletics program for years to come. Secondly, while Notre Dame has been playing neutral site games against marquee opponents for decades, many college football programs have started to do the same thanks to big guarantees by television networks. In response, Notre Dame has started to play games overseas, defeating the Naval Academy in Ireland last season.
Time and again, the Fighting Irish have been trendsetters in both protecting and expanding their brand into the global market. While other college programs struggle to keep up with the University from a business standpoint, Notre Dame continues to reinvent itself anew, all the while staying true to its core values.
As Seth Godin says, ” [brands] face two choices: Either be invisible, uncriticized, anonymous, and safe or take a chance at true greatness, uniqueness, and the Purple Cow. The point is simple, but it bears repeating: Boring always leads to failure. Boring is always the riskiest strategy. Smart business people realize this and work to minimize (but not eliminate) the risk from the process. They know that sometimes it’s not going to work, but they accept the fact that that’s okay.”
For the University of Notre Dame, being invisible has never been an option. Over the last 100 years, it has worked diligently to create an iconic brand that has stood the test of time. While the future of college athletics is uncertain, and the road is fraught with risk, the University knows that to dare greatly and to fail is a better fate than to never have tried at all.
After all, they don’t call them the Fighting Irish for nothing.