Rutgers’ marketing department circled October 8th on its calendar as a big event to promote to the Scarlet Knights’ faithful. (press release: http://www.scarletknights.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/051816aaa.html)After all nationally ranked Michigan was coming to town in what was to be a nationally-televised primetime game. This is why Rutgers joined the Big Ten – to play big time football games on the country’s biggest stage- right?
And Michigan is quickly becoming the school that Rutgers loves to hate too. Michigan’s larger than life head coach Jim Harbaugh has raided the Garden State for some of the state’s best talent in recent years including Jabril Peppers, RB Kareem Walker, and one of last year’s top recruits in Rashan Gary. Harbaugh hired former Paramus Catholic head coach Chris Partridge as his recruiting director and thus opened a pipeline of talent to the school. Harbaugh even spoke at PC’s graduation and headlined a local football camp for some of the area’s top talent. Meanwhile, Rutgers hired Chris Ash as head coach last year from Michigan’s bitter rival Ohio State to only add to the animosity. Rutgers has started to be viewed as Ohio State’s “little brother” – if only because they share the same scarlet primary color. And, last time the Wolverines came to Piscataway Rutgers pulled out its first ever Big Ten victory two years ago!
So, for Rutgers’ marketing department, this seemed like a complete “no brainer” to whip out their “Stripe The Birthplace” promotion where they asked fans in alternating sections to wear either Red or Black to create a visual effect for television. The “Scarlet” Knights also decided to wear all-black uniforms and Rutgers’ equipment staff even tweeted out a post proclaiming “The Dark Knight rises” referring the movie title from the Batman series. The hype machine was in full force.
What someone forgot to tell them is that maybe this was not the game to go crazy on with promotion. Number one, Michigan is only making its second trip to Piscataway since Rutgers joined the Big Ten and it would have “big game” written all over it for Rutgers fans anyway. With Michigan nationally ranked since the pre-season, it was a likely sellout regardless. Next, the Michigan game was following an Ohio State game where the Scarlet Knights lost 58-0 – Rutgers has been blown out by the Buckeyes all three years Rutgers has been in the Big Ten. So, the likelihood was that Rutgers was coming off of a blowout loss on the road and facing another top ranked team at home the following weekend. Well, you did not have to be an expert prognosticator for your Fanteractive “pre game Fanalysis” to show that Rutgers was probably going to get blown away in this one too – their hope would be to make this respectable. Also, did we mention that Rutgers hired a new coach? That probably means the last one was fired because the Scarlet Knights have been going downhill the last couple of seasons.
So, from an event marketing perspective, the schedule does matter. The “Stripe The Birthplace” promotion was a good one in the sense that it got fans involved in the orchestration of the game and helped extend its marketing reach through social media shares and word of mouth – a plethora of free advertising! The error was two-fold: game selection and match up quality. While it would have been attractive for a primetime game to promote the “striping,” the extend of it shows the disconnect between promotion and the quality of the product on the field for this game. How do Rutgers fans perceive any messaging that comes out of the Rutgers marketing brain trust now? It is probably much less impactful now as the apathy after two big blowouts and shooting the marketing load in the face of a “Custer’s last stand” game.
So, what could Rutgers could have done differently? Well, for one, you have to crawl before you walk. The “Stripe The Birthplace” promotion would have been a great rallying cry for their Big Ten home opener against Iowa, for example. Iowa was coming into the game as a nationally ranked team too – starting the season at #17 – not in the Top 10 like Ohio State and Michigan. Iowa had a Top 10 finish last year, so there was definitely some cache to the game. The Big Ten opener and being the 3rd home game in a row would probably be a great boost in a game that Rutgers might be a little more competitive in. Well, even if you wrote that game off, Rutgers next game was going to be its Homecoming game on October 15th versus Illinois – a less sexy match up against a lesser conference foe, but a great opportunity to win a game and get people energized about Rutgers football. A fan’s greatest positive feelings, nonetheless, are right after a convincing victory and Illinois probably gave Rutgers that opportunity. So, if the marketing department did consider that Rutgers may have a losing record by November and it would be too late, wouldn’t the Iowa game make more sense anyway? What about the other conference home games against a resurgent Indiana or actual rival Penn State? After all, Indiana gave Rutgers one of its best games last year and Penn State is always a grudge match. To add the “Dark Knight” comments too, it would be more impactful if Rutgers had a fighting chance.
Now, Rutgers expended its biggest season marketing campaign on a push that was met with a 78-0 loss and renewing calls of Rutgers not belonging in the Big Ten Conference – if not for the local eyeballs in the Philadelphia and New York markets. The promotion squelched the effectiveness of Rutgers’ marketing and makes it less relevant going forward. It wasted a great marketing campaign on a game where it was probably not needed. The promotion was probably not going to make a different on the field last weekend, but it could impact the feelings of Rutgers fans toward their school. And, in the end, it only reinforced the notion that Rutgers cannot do anything right in athletics – even from a marketing perspective – and what a waste of money it was. While that is probably a bit misguided to say, it is does sound some alarms for the Rutgers faithful.