When a group of Ohio State University alums (one of the largest and most prominent sports programs in the country) needed help naming and branding a new NIL, we were eager to take the call.
But first we needed to brush up on the particulars of NILs, a relatively new development—with profound financial ramifications—in college sports.
With a reported $1.16 billion in revenue in 2021 alone, college sports has been making piles of cash for schools, sponsors, coaches, networks, and everyone else involved for decades. Everyone, that is, except for the student-athletes providing the product on the field.
That all changed in 2022, when the NCAA Board of Directors approved a deal that allowed D1, D2, and D3 student-athletes to finally be compensated for their name, image, and likeness (NIL). These NIL deals essentially create legal endorsement opportunities for the best college athletes in the country.
Very quickly, a slew of new NIL programs began popping up at universities around the country, designed to work with student athletes to raise and manage those billions.
Gary Nicklaus, one of the VPs of Ohio State's largest NIL, is someone we had worked with before, and had developed a very strong professional relationship with over the years. And, as luck would have it, we already had a creative team scheduled for a photoshoot near his home in Jupiter, FL. So Gary invited us over for a one day branding brainstorm. As Goods founder, Scott Jennings, said: “Serendipity and creativity are more likely to happen when you get the right group of people together in the same room.”
With a crack team of creative thinkers and strategists, we met with Nicklaus and other members of his team, in person, to gather cultural insights from Ohio State athletes, fans, students, and alumni. We even brought a secret weapon. Logan Sligar, one of the founders of High Desert Cactus Vodka (another project we branded), just happened to be a Rose Bowl champion who had played linebacker for the TCU Horned Frogs during their 2011/2012 undefeated season. Logan possessed a unique perspective into the college athlete’s experience (because he was a 1x walk-on who earned a scholarship). One we knew could be essential to the branding process.
A process for a brand that, most importantly, needed to:
• Authentically connect with Ohio State’s culture
• Be one that Gen Z kids would be proud to wear
• Appeal to both large donors and small donors
Rooting for the Underdog
Logan believed other NIL groups were making a key oversight, both in their branding and in practice, by focusing too much of their attention and funds on a team’s few star athletes (usually highly touted football and basketball players). Established NIL groups like Champions Circle (Michigan), Athlete Advantage (Kentucky), and even THE Foundation (another Ohio State NIL), to name a few, had inadvertently ignored a fundamental focus and purpose of college athletics: the concept of team.
While some star athletes are now able to earn millions, many walk ons and unheralded players aren’t as well rewarded, which can create an unhealthy tension between teammates.
“NILs need to make sure that they pay attention to the team as a whole,” Logan said. “Because, at this level of competitive sports, it really takes an entire team effort to be successful.”
Putting the We back in Team
With those valuable bits of insight in mind, the first thing we knew for sure was that our concept had to center around and promote the idea of healthy team chemistry. Instead of just a name, our goal was for this NIL to be a real brand, one that was catchy and memorable, but also allowed dedicated Ohio State fans and supporters to show their passion for the team in a unique way. A brand that they didn’t just wear on their chest, but one that, symbolically at least, put them on the team.
By interacting with Ohio State students during our research phase, we also understood that whatever brand we created needed to connect with college age kids too, not just wealthy donors.
So in a very organic, comfortable, and open setting, with those key insights in mind, the group sat down to brainstorm, throwing out ideas, concepts, and a flurry of words that related to the idea of team.
When Goods & Services founder Graham Engebretsen said the word “Cohesion,” there was a palpable spark of electricity in the room. Jennings quickly picked up on the momentum, noticing that the popular university call and response rally cry, “O-H” “I-O,” was perfectly arranged in the center of the word.
“I said ‘OH’ out loud,” Jennings recalled, “and from another room, I heard Gary Nicklaus respond ‘IO!’ And everyone immediately knew we were on to something.”
Based upon the principle definition, where everyone works together to achieve a common goal, “cohesion” literally means “the act or state of sticking together tightly, especially unity, inclusion, and totality.”
It was one of those rare but inspiring creative breakthroughs when the result perfectly captures the established goals. And where the outcome could only have come about as a result of that specific core group, all assembled together in person. Like a team.
We immediately hopped on a call to Gary Marcinik, the NIL’s president. Nicklaus said, “we have a new name!” And the Cohesion brand was born on the spot.
“For a brand to really work, it needs to connect with people in an authentic way,” Jennings said. “Cohesion is a perfect distillation and culmination of the Goods team’s goal to understand and capture the culture inside the locker room, one that creates that perfect connection between the NIL, the University, its athletes, and its fans.”
We like to think the whole creative process was a perfect example of serendipity, creativity, and, yes, cohesion in action.