ALL EYES ON AGGIELAND
Jason Cook discusses A&M's journey to the big stage
by Abby Drake '15
Even the most casual observer of college athletics would describe Texas A&M’s sudden prominence as meteoric. Once described as “the other school in Texas”, it is clear that Texas A&M has surged forward into the national spotlight and is recognized throughout the country. Yet, the rise of Texas A&M in the nation does not come as a surprise to those in control of the Texas A&M brand. From all-black football uniforms to the move to the Southeastern Conference, every decision has been made with the Texas A&M brand in mind. Jason Cook, formerly the university’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, has embraced his role as the Senior Associate Athletics Director in charge of External Affairs.
The eyes of the entire country were certainly on Aggieland last weekend, as Texas A&M faced Alabama in what USA Today called “this year’s Game of the Century.” Preliminary TV ratings certainly support this claim.
The CBS broadcast of No. 1 Alabama vs. then-No. 6 Texas A&M from Kyle Field earned the highest ratings for an afternoon CBS regular-season college football game in 23 years. The game earned an overnight household ratings/share of 9.0/21, which was up 200 percent from last year’s SEC on CBS season-opener (Alabama-Arkansas) and the highest since Miami-Notre Dame on Oct. 20, 1990.
Three Texas cities comprised the top five major TV markets nationally for the Alabama game. Following top-rated Birmingham, Ala., Austin posted a 24 rating and a 48 share, meaning nearly 1 in 2 TVs in the capital city were tuned into the clash between the Aggies and Crimson Tide. San Antonio placed fourth at 18.3/39 and Houston fifth at 17.3/36, while Dallas-Fort Worth was seventh with a 17.1 rating and 32 share.
What does the Texas A&M brand represent?
“Over the past five to seven years we have made a very intentional effort to define the Texas A&M brand. It is really based on six core values that we have, and a specific purpose. That purpose is to develop leaders of character dedicated to serving the greater good. Within the Department of Athletics, we have talked for many years about “Building Champions”, but this is building champions, not only on the field, on the courts and in the pool, but also building leaders for the future once their athletic careers are over. It is really that value proposition, these six values, that serve as the pillar of everything that Texas A&M is about.”
What do you want the brand to communicate about Texas A&M?
“I think that [former TAMU] President Gates said it best during his tenure, “Texas A&M is a unique American institution.” When people see us on television during football Saturdays in the fall or they see our logo on our basketball uniforms, we want people to immediately understand that there is something different about Texas A&M. It’s not like every other university. A lot of our imagery is different, our traditions are different but we also want people to understand and to recognize that Texas A&M stands for something different. In fact, we actually stand for something. We stand for service to our state and country. We stand for our values and we truly like being different from everyone else.”
In what ways does the brand exhibit itself?
“It is so cliché but very appropriate that athletics is called the front porch of the university. Where else can you have an average of 4.5 million people on a Saturday afternoon in the fall view a three-and-a-half hour commercial about your university? That’s the opportunity that athletics provides to universities. I think that here at Texas A&M we have been very intentional with a one-brand approach. We don’t want to just leave people on the front porch of athletics. We want them to go through the front door of Texas A&M and see this great university that exists. It is one of the top universities in the country, a research powerhouse and also a university that truly develops leaders for the future.”
How do you communicate that message through the brand?
“I think that synergy that exists between athletics and the university. In so many schools across the country, they have an athletics brand and a university brand and those are disjointed. At Texas A&M, our brands are together. We work in concert from athletics to the university marketing and communications group for alignment. We work on one campaign, whether it is social media or advertising campaigns. It is really easy to run out on the field on Saturdays and say “Here is Texas A&M.” The challenge is to make that connection with what is happening in the classrooms on a weekly basis and what is happening in the research labs. You have to be very committed to it and that’s something that we have done at Texas A&M. For example, in our first season in the SEC, we spotlighted our new SEC opponents each week and the similarities that exist between the two schools. However, we also looked at academic ties between Texas A&M and the opponent. For Florida, we looked at how our vet school dean came to us from the University of Florida. We have professors that are working together on research about highway safety and the medians that run through interstates. We spotlighted a lot of these connections and research projects and schools haven’t done that in the past. I think we have to be very intentional with what we do.”
How has the brand grown?
“The brand has grown immeasurably. We made the move to the SEC because we thought that Texas A&M was underexposed. If you went outside the state of Texas, there wasn’t a lot of understanding of Texas A&M’s size and scope. There wasn’t a lot of knowledge of the impact we had and there were a lot of tired stereotypes that persisted about what Texas A&M actually was. With the SEC move, it gave us a bigger national stage to tell our story, but it also gave us an opportunity to have a blank slate, to tell our brand story the way we wanted to tell it instead of depending on some of the other schools in Texas to perpetuate some tired typecasts about what we were. It has truly been a perfect storm. You have the move to the SEC, Coach Kevin Sumlin coming in as a very young and energetic coach and this different style of play that we brought to the table. We had a Heisman trophy winner in our first season. All these elements have come together to really accelerate Texas A&M’s ascension into one of the top brands in the entire country much faster than anyone could have predicted.”
How does the move to the SEC help the brand growth?
“The move to the SEC ensures that Texas A&M is going to play football on national television each and every week. We had a very specific brand strategy when we moved to the SEC that we were going to co-brand Texas A&M with the SEC. The SEC is arguably the most powerful brand in all of college athletics. So how can we pair the Texas A&M brand with the SEC brand to truly make this different here in the state of Texas and around the country as well? We had a billboard campaign last year that declared the state of Texas as “SEC Country.” We are continuing that this year to kick off the football season. I think utilizing the SEC brand with Texas A&M has been very strategic but very important to our brand strategy. ”
How is the brand going to continue to grow, and where is the brand headed?
“Our key strategy is that we are going to continue to claim the state of Texas for Texas A&M and also for the Southeastern Conference. We are very blessed to live in a state where there are 21 million people within a three-hour drive of our campus. That is very significant so there is a lot of potential for not only the growth of our brand here in the state of Texas but also the national visibility that we are receiving. I think you are going to continue to see our brand grow nationally and a key factor for that is going to be the launch of the SEC Network in 2014. We’ve been very engaged with the development of the network and also positioning Texas A&M to be featured prominently there. The SEC Network is going to be coast-to-coast coverage of the SEC, 24/7, and we want to make sure that Texas A&M is represented on the SEC Network more than anyone else. We are building an entirely new production facility in Kyle Field that will sit in the south end zone for our 12th Man Productions crew. We will have three control rooms, a couple of studios, an internet studio, a radio studio, six edit bays and we are also making a significant commitment in terms of equipment because we have the opportunity to broadcast our Texas A&M story like never before.”
Texas A&M is experiencing growth and recognition like it has never seen. It is possible for the casual observer to attribute the prominence of the brand to current circumstances, and for many schools that might have been the case. With Jason Cook at the helm of the rebranding of Texas A&M, though, Aggies can expect to continue to soar through uncharted territory with no end in sight.