5 Powerful Brand Management Lessons from Elite College Basketball Teams

With its thrilling (and equally devastating) win over UNC in Monday’s March Madness finale, Villanova joined the elite group of 16 colleges with more than two national championships.

While some claim this was a win for the underdogs, the power consolidation in college basketball isn’t going anywhere, especially considering that 43 percent of all NCAA Tourney titles are held by 5 programs.

Of the 35 Tourney winners, only 20 have failed to win a second title. Even less have only played in one championship game.

Why is it we see the same names year after year?

Building a winning team starts with finding the right talent. These powerhouses recruit top talent consistently through clarity and alignment of story, strategy, and systems. This inspired me to revisit 5 Brand Management Lessons from Elite College Football Programs, and discuss how these same principles apply to winning national championships.

1. Talk about your leadership

Behind every great college basketball program is a storied coach.

Consider John Wooden, Coach K, and Dean Smith, to name a few.

Duke’s Coach K Court bears the nickname of their coach Mike Krzyzewski, the most winningest in NCAA history (and some claim the greatest.)

Dean Smith collected 879 victories, 11 Final Four appearances and two national championships, and is considered one of the great innovators in college basketball. Student athletes under Dean Smith achieved a graduation rate of 96.6% at UNC. Smith, who passed away in early 2015, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

After 40 years at Syracuse, Jim Boeheim is two wins away from 1000 career victories and has singlehandedly turned the ‘Cuse men’s basketball program into one of the sport’s most prestigious.

This leadership extends beyond just winning. These coaches have distinct strategies and systems that attract top talent. Their stories and successes are a key component to each school’s recruiting programs.

So how do you build this with your brand?

Talk about your leadership! Recruits want to work for companies with strong C-Suite leadership. They want to work with managers and leaders that will help them grow professionally and personally. Look at Apple, Amazon, and Tesla — these companies talk about their leadership and use it to attract and retain strong team members. This approach inspires more than just recruitment — it creates brand attachment, customer loyalty, and enthusiastic fans.

2. Identify what recruits want

What do recruits want?

Being noticed by NBA scouts? Playing for a Hall of Fame coach? Personal and athletic development? Meeting celebrities?

Winning schools recruit talent that is aligned with the program’s mission and goals. Kentucky is a great example of a recruiting powerhouse. While most programs want players that are vested in the long-term success of the team, Kentucky uses “one and done” as a competitive differentiator. The school also understands the power of leveraging a celeb’s diehard fandom.

Mood. @ukcoachcalipari

A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

In 2015, Kentucky self-reported an NCAA violation —impermissible communication with prospective student-athletes — after Drake appeared in a photograph with a prospective Wildcat.

It’s about understanding what influences your potential future employees. Many factors play into a recruit’s decision. By first identifying what the recruit wants and then clearly conveying how your team is aligned with those desires, you too can become a recruiting juggernaut like Kentucky.

3. Target the right talent

Every coach has a different playing system and recruits accordingly. For example, in Monday’s national championship UNC players towered over Villanova’s. This may have appeared to be an advantage based on physical appearance but the matchup proved otherwise. Not only did Villanova shatter offensive records throughout the Tourney, but it had the most effective scoring run in the expanded era of NCAA basketball and nailed 58.3 percent of its field goal attempts against UNC.

Being a recruiting rockstar isn’t just about finding the best talent — it’s about targeting the right talent for your program. It’s essential to identify the skills you are currently lacking and find the right candidate to fill the role. Do you need a specialist for a particular role, or more of a strategic generalist? What is your work environment like — organized chaos or just chaos? Are you looking for entry-level talent to shape from the ground up? Do you have leadership with time to invest in new employees?

4. Be transparent

Kentucky is transparent about the fact they are fine with the idea of the “one and done.” It’s no secret that there are mutual benefits to this approach. Calipari gets some of the best recruits — they help him to win a lot of games and get to showcase their superb athletic ability (in a conference that is arguably weaker than most) to impress NBA recruiters.

Being transparent will prevent you from putting time and resources into candidates that are not aligned with your organization’s mission. Don’t use false promises to recruit top talent. For example, if a recruit joins your organization on the premise he/she will be “fast-tracked” and this isn’t the case, your company will quickly lose them. The same applies to hiring entry-level talent. Don’t promise professional development if your organization can’t provide the investment of time and resources. Be upfront and set expectations accordingly.

5. Practice what you preach

These teams continue to bring in stellar talent because they have built a brand of excellence. There is a reason the same teams win the title year after year. Those that perform the best continue to attract talented players that want to win. A coach’s proven track record is one of the strongest recruiting tools. Winning coaches bring in the right people and execute the right strategy to deliver the success they promised recruits.

Too often companies do not practice what they preach. When you are making promises to prospective employees, make sure they are rooted in reality and that you have a strong chance of accomplishing your goals.


Bringing clarity and alignment to your brand’s story, strategy, and systems is the first step to building a winning team and recruiting top talent. Here at TopRight Partners, we hire new associates with the promise to deliver learning experiences they cannot find anywhere else — and we strive to deliver on that promise every day.

How is your company recruiting and retaining top talent?


If you enjoyed this post, follow me on LinkedIn for blog updates. For more insights on how HR can use Brand Awareness to recruit top talent to #MoveTopRight, follow us @TopRightPartner.

Photo Credit: Villanova Twitter

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