How to Enhance the Vanderbilt Football Brand

Written by: Jackson Tolk

What is The Vanderbilt Way? A Vision Statement (from Athletics Strategic Plan) explains: “To deliver the preeminent student-athlete experience in college athletics, providing the opportunity for our student-athletes to succeed in all areas.

Vanderbilt football, as you well know, represents Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. They belong to the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and played their first football game in 1890. The Commodores are the only private university to compete in the nation’s top athletic conference, the SEC, which often leaves them overshadowed in numbers of fans. Nashville, home of the Commodores, is one of the fastest growing cities in America, allowing room for lots of potential growth, but placing Vanderbilt in a position to compete with other forms of entertainment within the city. The @vandyfootball Instagram account has 14.7k, a number a hair above the 12,686 students attending Vandy for the combined undergraduate or graduate degrees. The team plays at least 12 football games a year, potentially more, if they make the conference championship and/or bowl games. They’ve also had many players go on to play in the NFL. The team has recently had one of its best decades in school history, going to bowl games in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016, and 2018. The team won bowl games in 2012 and 2013 and also boasts wins in the past decade over Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Kansas State, Missouri, and Ole Miss.

GEORGE WALKER IV / THE TENNESSEAN

Social Media Audit (specifically on IG)

An internal audit of the Vanderbilt Football brand sheds light into the hectic world that is the Vanderbilt Athletic Department. The Vanderbilt Athletic department has faced increased scrutiny and criticism in the past year, due to their lack of specific facilities improvement plans and quick ousting of outside-the-box hire Malcolm Turner in February, only about a year into his position as Athletic Director. Inside sources have reported that there seems to be a lack of athletic program support from boosters, the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, and administration, leading to perhaps the greatest feelings of apathy (from an already dwindling fan base) that the football team has ever experienced. On top of that, the Athletic Department has decided to keep head coach Derek Mason, who is yet to have a winning record after coaching at the school for six seasons. Coupled with historical low levels of football support from the university and a relatively unsuccessful tradition, Vanderbilt Football is in dire need of strong levels of financial support and enthusiasm from the University, including a commitment to winning and competition in the world’s toughest athletic conference, the SEC.

On the bright side, the school does have a talented social media team, who post high quality edits and videos on a consistent basis, although they have been quiet for most of the COVID-19 struggles. Vanderbilt Football is active on Twitter and Instagram. During the season, they post live streams on Twitter of post-game press conferences and weekly press conferences, an affordance that should be used continually. Candace Storey Lee is the current interim Athletic Director and is not very active on social media (Twitter), especially now with sports being cancelled due to COVID-19. She recently hosted a Q&A session, offering some vague insight and hope into the private school’s athletic department during this time. The hope for Vandy fans lies here: the social media team at Vanderbilt is managed by a young and talented group, so there is reason to expect growth and engagement with fans, while keeping up with popular trends.

An external audit analysis shows frightening levels of apathy from fans and the Nashville community, where Vanderbilt Football calls home. Vanderbilt shares an entertainment market with all that Nashville has to offer (Tennessee Titans, Nashville Predators, Country Music and concerts, etc.). It is frightening to observe that there are consistently around 5,000 Vanderbilt fans supporting the Commodores at home games, while SEC games usually double as another home game for visiting teams due to the incredible fanaticism from teams with committed administrations and fans. Vanderbilt Stadium also hasn’t had upgrades to the stadium itself, other than cosmetic and video board upgrades, since 1981, which is light years behind the incredible palaces at fellow SEC schools.

The Vanderbilt Football brand is in dire need of exciting content, strong branding, clever marketing, and delivering a successful on-field product that is thrilling and competitive. Fans will also note that @vandyfootball on instagram has a respectful, but very small following of 14.7k, dwarfed by a very large number to any other SEC school’s football account. This is also a testament to the lack of fan support and excitement among target audiences with regards to Vanderbilt Football. It should also be observed that there is a lack of branding added to the posts, with a lack of graphics highlighting scores, awards, players, etc. The photos are typically edited, but not usually supplemented with strong, consistent graphics. Vanderbilt Football is also active on Twitter, while Head Coach Derek Mason also actively manages his Twitter and Instagram accounts. Coach Mason is more active on Twitter than on Instagram, recently headlining an initiative to support healthcare workers and local restaurants through his #CoachesChallenge #FeedOurHeroes which has placed him in a positive light in the community.

Vanderbilt Football consistently uses its mantra “Anchor Down” as a hashtag in addition to using #RTI which stands for “Relentless, Tough, and Intelligent” which is a mantra Coach Mason has adopted. Vanderbilt should also look into using its influencers, alumni and famous fans, more often (Jay Cutler, Nate Bargatze, Willie Geist, Brandt Snedeker, etc.) and include them in more aspects of the program, as they’ve been strong advocates of the program in the past.

A competitor analysis will show that Vanderbilt Football has a lot of growth to do with its presence on Instagram. As has been previously discussed, the Vanderbilt Football Instagram Account boasts a very modest following (14.7k) compared to rival schools in the southeast. The next smallest football team’s following in the SEC is Missouri Football (@mizzoufootball) with a following of 96.3k. Thus, we see that there is a large discrepancy in fan support online and at games. Football teams at similar institutions (private schools with high academics in Power 5 conferences) also have larger followings than Vanderbilt football: Northwestern (@nufbfamily, 22.9k followers), Duke (@dukefootball, 48.6k followers), and Stanford (@stanfordfball, 62.7k followers). Thus, we see that Vanderbilt Football does not garner much share of voice, engagement, interactions, or influence when compared to competitors.

I believe a few creative, behind the scenes videos and graphics can help Vanderbilt increase their foothold in Nashville’s social media scene, and consequently in the larger scene of college football as a whole. By placing an emphasis on athletics at Vandy, starting with complete administrative support from the Chancellor, Vanderbilt can begin to reverse decades of negligence shown to the athletic department and begin to repaint Nashville black and gold. All eyes will turn to West End this summer when new Chancellor Daniel Diermeier takes office, and Commodore fans can only hope he backs athletics.

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