UCONN Product Design Beats Kentucky Branding in NCAA Championship Basketball Game

This year’s NCAA Basketball Championship game wasn’t just a battle between UCONN and Kentucky, it was a battle between branding and product design.

To explain what I mean by that, we need some context:

In recent years, high school basketball has attracted more and more media attention. As early as middle school, young basketball players around the country are becoming branded as the next big thing – earning massive online followings via websites like Ballislife.com, and finding themselves on the covers of major magazines.

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Pictured above is 2012/2013’s big attention winner – Andrew Wiggins, the number 1 ranked player going into his freshman season at Kansas. Right behind him at number 2 was Duke-bound Jabari Parker.

While Wiggins was receiving the vast majority of attention going into the season, Parker quickly stole his thunder, and is now considered by many to be better than Wiggins (see “The Ultimate Andrew Wiggins-Jabari Parker Comparison” on Bleecher Report: http://bit.ly/1hzBCtY).

If Parker is in fact better (in my opinion, far better), how did such a superior basketball product in Parker take such a clear backseat to Wiggins?

In short, because it’s easier to sell a great brand – at least at the beginning – than a great product.

Exactly why Wiggins was a more attractive brand isn’t easy to say.

Maybe it’s because Wiggins plays a high-flying game compared Parker – who relies more on his skill than his athleticism. Maybe it’s for reasons even more primitive – that Wiggins has the ripped muscles that one expects from the top basketball player, while Parker wasn’t a chiseled guy.

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Whatever the reason was, the early media attention Wiggins received created and perpetuated a brand identity that was universally accepted, until the the brand’s product actually had to perform.

A similar story played out last night in the NCAA Championship game between Kentucky and UCONN. Each year John Calipari – UK’s head coach – manages to secure a disproportionate amount of the country’s most sought-after freshman brands.

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Last night he started five of them, and they lost to UCONN, which was led by their point guard Sabazz Napier – an incredible player who is the product of four years of college testing and development.

Will this victory put an end to premature athletic branding? Of course not, but it might make people think twice about what they put their money on next year – the brand or the product.

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