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Ed O’Hara: Gen-Z—as Featured in Sports Business Journal

Ed O’Hara: Gen-Z—as Featured in Sports Business Journal

Some of sports’ most indelible logos were designed by Ed O’Hara’s SME Branding, founded 30 years ago and acquired in 2016 by collegiate marketing giant Learfield. In that time O’Hara has seen the business evolve from being focused purely on graphic design to a more holistic branding, of which logos are just one component.
— As told to Terry Lefton

It’s a generation of impatience — on-demand everything; watch what you want, when you want — and they’re an app away from anything. The world is a much smaller place for them and they are much more accepting of diversity. They only see diversity as a problem when they walk into a room and only see one type of person. They are used to a mixed room, whether it’s by gender, race, religion or ethnicity.

When MLB talks about changing the game with a clock and other changes, they were talking directly to this generation, which has no patience for a slow, languishing game. As a result, games, in some cases, are carnivals with a lot of sideshows. But there’s no going back.

Still, because they want to be involved, cause-related marketing will work. If the team has a food drive, they will be there. Their loyalty depth when it comes to colleges is only equivalent to international soccer — it’s for life. Gen Zers want real depth of engagement with their teams; it can’t just be transactional. They prefer emotional rewards over functional benefits every time.

They are a very optimistic generation. They will act, not just on the dollar in their pocket, but for the greater good. The more brands in and around sports that understand that, the more connected to them and the more successful they will be.

Gen Zers want to be part of the decision-making process. They are the most democratic generation, and a brand can be saved or killed from one bad Twitter experience. So marketers have to be so aware of the effect social media has on their brand. But they can also be your greatest brand ambassadors.

Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Partners With SME Branding On Brand Evolution Project

Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Partners With SME Branding On Brand Evolution Project

New York, NY ( — Today SME Branding is proud to announce its partnership with the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC). With the assistance of SME, the SIAC is embarking on a rebranding initiative, which will be SME’s first branding project on behalf of a historically black college and university (HBCU) or athletic conference. Founded in 1913, the SIAC is one of the oldest NCAA conferences in the country. The league is comprised of 13 member institutions spanning across Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee.

SME brings a strong background in higher education to this project, having worked with several athletic conferences, including the Pac 12 and Big South. “We’re thrilled to partner with a brand as historic as the SIAC. This project awards SME the opportunity to engage passionate audiences and prospective membership with a deeply meaningful story,” said Ed O’Hara SME’s President and Chief Creative Officer.

Recognized as a leader in advancing diversity and inclusion in college sports, the SIAC was the first NCAA conference to have a female football officiating crew which precipitated their unique partnership with the NFL to increase officiating opportunities for minority referees. The SIAC was also the first league (in collaboration with the SWAC) to partner with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) to create programming to facilitate coaching development opportunities for current and former NBA players.

This year, the SIAC announced a multi-year agreement with Flo Sports to stream over 50 regular season and championship football and basketball games and is entering year two of its ESPN agreement in connection with an additional football package on ESPN3. The SIAC also was the first NCAA conference to sign a league-wide head-to-toe Nike partnership where all member schools exclusively wear Nike apparel and shoe products.

“The SIAC has a rich history which spans over 100 years.” said Gregory Moore, Commissioner of the SIAC, “We expect SME to help our league create a brand that frames a narrative and unique and special value proposition which we believe the SIAC offers to students, parents, alumni as well as the prospective corporate partners and donors.”

About SME / 

SME, a Learfield company, is a strategic brand development agency based in New York with over 29 years’ legacy in building impactful, customized solutions for the world’s leading sports and entertainment, college sports and higher education brands. SME’s client list includes: Major League Baseball Players Association, Churchill Downs/Kentucky Derby, Big South Conference, US Youth Soccer, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Manhattan College, Texas A&M University-San Antonio and Purdue University Fort Wayne.

About the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference / 

The SIAC is a NCAA athletic conference consisting primarily of historically black colleges and universities with headquarters in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. The SIAC includes 13 member institutions (Albany State University, Benedict College, Central State University, Clark Atlanta University, Fort Valley State University, Kentucky State University, Lane College, LeMoyne-Owen College, Miles College, Morehouse College, Paine College, Savannah State University, Spring Hill College, and Tuskegee University), which are located within a contiguous six-state footprint (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Ohio). The SIAC sponsors seven men’s and six women’s sports and is a proud member of the NCAA Division II. For more information, visit

Why College Degrees Still Matter Today

Why College Degrees Still Matter Today

Data continues to show that college graduates have substantially better career outcomes than those without a degree. If this is true, then why do higher education enrollment rates continue to decline?

Last year, Harvard University professor Clayton Christensen went viral with a prediction that half of all colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years. Yet the statistical correlation between higher education and career success begs the question: when did it become so fashionable to prophesize the attrition of higher education institutions with the inevitability of death?

Higher education as an industry is in peril, in spite of the fact the data proves the investment pays off. College graduates fair better professionally than those who don’t, and a four-year degrees in the U.S. is still a gateway to increased wealth over a lifetime

While better messaging is necessary to reverse declining enrollment trends, enrollment managers should embrace the challenge rather than fear it. The core purpose of an institution of higher learning is to educate the masses—in this case, on why a college education is still necessary and relevant, in spite of the increasingly widespread myth that it isn’t.

Marketing the benefits of a college education is no longer just an enrollment strategy, it’s a form of social responsibility. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon colleges and universities to crack the code and reach the next generation of students. The fact that the message is currently lost on them is an indictment of us, not them.

Modernizing Marketing in Higher Education


Savvy higher education enrollment managers must be sensitive to the current cultural climate. The most advanced and successful companies in the world, corporations like Amazon, Apple, and Google, have been at the forefront of transforming their marketing efforts from linear and traditional platforms to utilizing the most modern tools and techniques of the trade. These companies have been at the forefront of the post-digital age, fully leveraging wondrous advancements in technology and data science, giving them the unparalleled ability to aggregate extraordinary quantities of quality customer data to drive unprecedented levels of efficiency and effectiveness in their marketing and sales efforts. Never before have companies had the types of consumer information, which changes not only how products are marketed, but how consumers are engaged. 


1. The perception problem.

For those of us who love the pursuit of knowledge, this is a bitter pill to swallow: many Americans question the value of a college education—especially Generation Z –who came of age during the Great Recession and are thus dubious of the inflated costs of college tuition. Enrollment managers must shift the conversation to emphasize the value of a college degree.

A value proposition is a promise of value to be delivered. It’s the primary reason a consumer should invest in the product you’re selling.  In the case of higher education, the value proposition is a clear statement that explains how a four-year degree solves a potential student’s problems or improves their outlook for the future. It quantifies the value of a degree by demonstrating the short-term and long-term salaries of college graduates vs. non-college graduates.

Your value proposition needs to be communicated directly, in easy-to-understand language and broadcasted online, through social and video platforms. Use statistics, personal stories from successful students and alumni and real-life examples to drill the point home. 


2. Demo the ivory tower: Colleges and universities can learn from corporate America.

The fundamental premise of modern marketing is that advancements in data and analytics can now drive much more effective brand positioning and the creation of more relevant and powerful branded content. This data-driven equation helps optimize marketing performance, leading to enhanced consumer engagement and ultimately, a much greater return on investment. In today’s highly competitive environment, it is imperative know your customers, leverage a strong brand and messaging platform, and connect with potential students on a real, human level.

Higher education has yet to make this shift, often painting an elitist or overly-rosy story of real life. It is clearly now time for institutions of higher learning to follow the suit of modern consumer brands. Leverage the power and experience that your institution provides its students with. Connect with them by expressing the emotional connection that one has towards their alma mater.


3. A multi-platform approach.

Finally, as the old adage goes, it is critical to ‘fish where the fish are’ in order to optimize success. Prospective college students aren’t making a four-year commitment as a result of a pamphlet that arrived in the mail—their perceptions are formed by information streamed through smart phones, laptops, and tablets. Hence, the deployment and distribution of mobile, social and digital content must be done strategically and comprehensively through both programmatic and direct channels.

Forget Millennials, Enrollment Management Needs to Understand Gen Z

Forget Millennials, Enrollment Management Needs to Understand Gen Z

In our last “doom and gloom” post we outlined the economic and demographic challenges stoking higher ed’s enrollment crisis. Although very real and substantial, these challenges can be mitigated by developing a deep understanding of Generation Z — the demographic cohort born between the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s.

In an environment where most marketers have just now cracked the code on Millennials, Gen Z has risen like a tidal wave, consuming market share and shifting cultural attitudes at an unprecedented rate.

Gen Z comprises a quarter of the U.S. population, a rapidly increasing annual buying power of $150 billion and by 2020 will account for 40% of all consumers. In the realm of higher education, they will comprise 90% of the market for the next 15 years. This demographic reality check leaves many enrollment management professionals scrambling to evolve their marketing and communications strategies. 

What Brands Can Learn About Gen Z From Higher Ed:

“They value experiences. Given the number of choices students have, universities can no longer depend on the quality of their programs; they need to sell an experience. Schools are creating content that gives a sense of place, purpose and community—videos that capture the excitement of campuses and cities. They’re allowing students to imagine themselves at their school and feel that they belong.”

Jeremy Finch captured the collective sentiments of industry best in his Fast Company piece titled What Is Generation Z, And What Does It Want?

“And you thought you had just figured out millennials,” writes Finch. “It’s time to start wringing your hands about the new generation that’s about to enter the workforce. What do they even want?”

Generational marketing leverages the different sentiments and values of particular age groups to better communicate with each generational cohort.

Gen Z, for instance, is the only generation to come of age following the world-changing events of The Great Recession and 9/11. As a result of these macro cultural influences, the digital innate Gen Z’ers have rejected the traditional notion of the “American Dream,” opting instead to value experiences, creative freedom and social responsibility.  They are financially responsible and debt averse with a raging entrepreneurial spirit. They are the participators and broadcasters of our culture. The question on the minds of EM specialists is how to translate an understanding of those characteristics into higher enrollment.

In order for colleges and universities to reach enrollment goals, it is essential that these institutions adopt best practices associated with marketing to this new and different generation. The following list contains ten best practices that higher ed marketers should consider to better retain and attract Gen Z’ers—their current and prospective students.


1. Stand by your brand.

Gen Z’ers are most loyal to brands who stand for something more than the products or services they provide. Brands, particularly higher education brands, need to establish and communicate a firm value system and positioning. And it’s not just enough to define and express these fundamentals. Brands must now live by them and activate them in the communities they serve.


2. Snackable Content for the “ADD Generation.”

The media landscape has changed forever and will continue to morph as Gen Z’ers come of age and influence consumption, content creation and distribution on a grander scale. The days of linear advertising and traditional PR are still alive, but their impact has been mitigated because Gen Z’ers don’t consume information and marketing materials in the same manner as older demographics. New best practices of content development – short and digestible forms of content and quick-hitting user-generated video content, etc. – need to be adopted by all storytellers, including the marketers of colleges and universities.


3. Become a master storyteller.

Ironically, colleges and universities haven’t been the best modern-day storytellers, especially as it relates to communicating their brand essence or critical marketing messages – so, it’s time for the ineffectual ones to not only consider a brand makeover, but a change of narrative as well. Rethinking brand strategy and methods of communication will be necessary in some cases. Along these lines, marketers in the college and university space need to learn to tell stories that resonate with Gen Z across multiple platforms and social channels.


4. Use their storytelling abilities to tell your story.

One of the most innovative and important things marketers can (and must) do is to involve Gen Z’ers in helping create the brand message. User-generated content is fundamental with this generation as Gen Z’ers are such prolific and frequent storytellers themselves. Brands need to engage and challenge them to narrate the brand story through their own eyes – with the caveat that the brand must give them the tools and context to do so. After all, they invented the idea of content going “viral” – in many cases, it is their primary goal when creating content – so, who would be better to put ideas out into the universe?


5. Don’t beat around the bush.

Gen Z’ers have grown up receiving more stimuli than almost all other generations combined. Between the media universe and the advent of the digital and social media revolution, they have immediate access to a seemingly endless amount of information. Therefore, it is critical to get to the point – they don’t need fluff, they just need to know what you are trying to say and how it will impact them. This is critical to college and university marketers – there is so much to say about an institution, however, focusing on and delivering the most relevant messaging is key to successfully engage Gen Z’ers.


6. Gamify the experience.

In addition to the digital and social media explosions that Gen Z’ers have grown up with, they are also accustom to interacting with brands and the experiences they provide. From video games, to apps and virtual or augmented reality – immersive brand experiences are a staple in the life of a Gen Z’er. So, college and university marketers must determine how to gamify their content and message – making it fun and engaging for Gen Z’ers to experience. It is what they expect and love about content.


7. Appeal to their social responsibility.

No generation has experienced the real-time communication and information of the current events of the world like Gen Z’ers. They expect information to come fast, frequently and with ease. This influx of information has led to a proportional rise of transparency and enabled younger audiences to immediately uncover truth; they know who is authentic and who isn’t. They know who is socially responsible and who isn’t. Therefore, the ideals of social responsibility and authenticity rate very high on the Gen Z radar screen – thus, colleges and universities should appeal to these aspects. There is nothing more noble then giving or receiving an education – college marketers need to accentuate that point through and through, appealing to the Gen Z mindset and way of life. Think #knowledgeispower.


8. Fish where the fish are.

Now that we’ve entered the post-Digital era – where digital experiences are the essence of everyday life, we have never had more data or intelligence about who, what, where, how, and when consumers do what they do. Society has quickly and willingly become ‘de-anonymized’ and this is especially true of Gen Z’ers, who grown up in a post-Digital Revolution environment – sharing ideas, content, and information at a more prolific rate than any generation. College marketers must use data and insights to guide their marketing and communication efforts.


9. Get to know them.

Along the lines of the previous point, college marketers must dig deeper and do more homework on Gen Z’ers. These marketers must do everything they can to not just understand who these Gen Z consumers are from an identity standpoint, but also from a personality perspective as well. They need to get to know what makes them tick – and have a better CRM strategy to store that information and eventually use it. In the ultra-competitive realm of college and university marketing, it is imperative to have as much insight and information on current and prospective students as possible.


10. Be everywhere, all the time.

There is no limit as to how and/or how often to communicate with the Gen Z demographic. First and foremost, college marketers must be mobile. Secondly, use video as much as possible – Gen Z’ers are a visual generation, where emotive and expressive messaging trumps all. Finally, be social – learn how and when to communicate with social platforms – everywhere, all the time. This is how they live and communicate; therefore, it is actually the most seamless way to grab their attention and keep it.

The Higher Education Enrollment Crisis

The Higher Education Enrollment Crisis

America’s colleges are facing more pressure than ever to retain existing students and attract new ones. Driven by a drop of nearly 224,000 undergraduate students, overall college enrollment declined for the sixth consecutive year in 2018 according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

A survey released this year by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that 52 percent of private colleges and 44 percent of public universities failed to meet their enrollment goals this past fall.

While these figures are undoubtedly worrisome, they merely represent the starting point of higher education’s enrollment crisis.

Spurred by the psyches of a generation whose consciousness was formed by The Great Recession, a shift in cultural values and demographics paints a very grim picture for American colleges.

With families forming later in life, the college-aged population is expected to decline a massive 16 percent by the mid-2020s, corresponding with a 10 percent drop of college-going students by 2029. 

The long-term viability of colleges will vary widely based on the quality of the institution and the region in which it resides. The South and West are expected to account for nearly 80 percent of the nation’s High School graduates by 2025, while the Northeast and Midwest—home to the highest density of colleges in the US—are expected to face precipitous declines. Conversely, the percentage of households with college educated parents continues to rise, as does the demand for elite and affordable institutions. Simply put, these macro trends and demographic shifts paint a terrifyingly bleak picture for the majority of private non-elite, mid-major colleges in the United States.

In hopes of counteracting such ominous trends, many colleges have dedicated substantial resources to attract online and adult learners, foreign full-pay students and more traditional students through strategic Enrollment Management (EM).

At its core, a well-conceived EM plan is a data-informed process that aligns an institution’s fiscal, academic, co-curricular, and enrollment resources with its changing environment to accomplish its mission and ensure long-term enrollment success and fiscal health. This best practice has quickly become the lifeblood to colleges and universities – serving as both the strategy development function of the institution in its efforts to retain and attract students.

It goes without saying that the practice of EM is a hugely competitive and highly complex beast – and continues to evolve and change at light speed, placing it at the top of the institutional hierarchy of colleges and universities. In terms of the competitive landscape, it is not only fierce across the spectrum of higher education, but now faces a fight against the mores and attitudes of a new generation – one that seems to view the necessity of going to college in a completely different light than almost every generation before it.

The rising crop of would-be college students, commonly referred to as “Generation Z,” has a different perspective on college as a must-do or must-have experience. Influenced by contemporary business leaders whom either bypassed or dropped out of college, an incredulous 13 percent of Gen Z have started their own business.

“They want to know it’s worth it,” writes Gene Lewis in What Brands Can Learn About Gen Z From Higher Ed, which appeared recently on  “Gen Z students are faced with staggering costs for education, so it makes sense that they want their investments to pay off. Many institutions are beginning to more directly prepare students for careers with coaches, leadership and networking seminars – and admissions teams are offering prospects more tangible visions of their futures.”

The strategy to retain and acquire new students is diverse and complicated – and in many cases, antiquated. How quickly colleges and universities are adopting the best practices found in customer acquisition in Corporate America is essential to their ability not only to compete, but to survive.

Like many corporate behemoths that didn’t successfully transition into the post-digital era – such as Blackberry, Blockbuster, Sears, and Compaq – some colleges and universities will suffer the same fate if they don’t fully modernize and empower their Strategic Enrollment Management practice.

Institutions of Higher Ed have long been overly-conservative with their strategic enrollment and communications practices. This one-size-fits-all “Clock Tower” approach is antiquated, stodgy and disconnected with prospective students and younger generations who seek authentic messaging and connections from brands. The landscape is so flooded with traditional ivy logos and generic inspirational messages that it’s become nearly impossible for a prospective student to grasp what a college truly stands for and represents. It’s time for colleges to take more risks with their enrollment marketing; it’s time we see their unique values and cultures come to life.

The good news is there is lots of room to grow – and it starts with better branding and storytelling—the process through which brand identity is built. A college’s brand identity is what makes it instantly recognizable to students, alumni, and the general public. That identity determines how the institution is perceived and forges the connection between a university and its support base. It’s the special sauce that expresses its culture of opportunity and distinguishes it from the 4,000+ colleges and universities throughout the nation.

“Enrollment management has always employed marketing strategy as part of student recruitment, but increasingly, especially at institutions that are highly tuition-dependent, the overall institutional marketing strategy has to be completely in sync with enrollment goals and objectives. As marketing evolves to include brand marketing, one-to-one relationship marketing, social media marketing, and word-of-mouth marketing, and as institutional visibility, recognition, brand identity, and competitive market position play an increasingly prevalent role in enrollment success,” says Donald Hossler, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

It is vital that EM practitioners become expert brand strategists and brand marketers in order to successful leverage the assets of the college or university, effectively communicating and swaying consumers to become stronger net promoters.  If this is done well, the negative demographic trends of declining enrollment and the speculative attitudes toward higher education of the new generation can be reversed or at least mitigated.

Up Next: Get to know Gen Z: A Discussion About Your Core Audience

Is your organization ready for a brand evolution? Consider the following questions as you contemplate taking the first step in the process:
  • Why is the organization considering this initiative?
  • What is the vision?
  • Does the brand currently have an articulated positioning statement and set of operational values?
  • Who within the organization sparked this idea and why?
  • Are key decision makers on board?
  • What are the objectives for the new or refreshed brand?
  • How does general staff feel about this project?
  • What is the budget and timeline?
  • If seeking outside help for the brand, what does the agency selection process look like?
  • What structure will the decision making process employ?
  • What are the project’s criteria beyond cost versus ROI?
  • What department and / or people within the organization are set to manage and evangelize the new brand once complete?
  • What does success look like?
The answers to these internal organizational questions are essential to ensuring an efficient, successful outcome.