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Carpe Diem, University of Maryland

September 6th, 2011

Believe it or not, they're on the same team.

As the University of Maryland players stormed onto the field for their 2011 debut, I took one look at their new uniforms and immediately knew that this was going to be good fodder for an engaging national discussion on brand design. Any presentation that bold and that visually disconcerting had to make for good blogging and tweeting.  These types of events are fun and exciting because they are such catalysts for a more robust critique. And this one will not be contained to ESPN and football enthusiasts. One thing the uniforms were not, was passive. It was a very public display, a commitment to the radical.

By halftime, announcers were showing us the way it transformed trending topics on Twitter, including a “not-so-flattering” tweet from King Lebron James himself, and from Bill Walton: “Abercrombie is paying the Jersey Shore cast to NOT wear AF clothing. I hope someone pays Maryland to never wear these horrid uniforms again.”

Based on the state flag, much has already been written and broadcasted about the uniform design. Less than 24 hours after the official public launch, one can turn up dozens of news items in a Google search.

Looking still deeper, however, the design of the flag is a representation of the coat of arms of George Calvert, 1st Baron of Baltimore, and is the only flag in the U.S. to be based on English heraldry. The state seal is also designed to reflect the motif. There’s even some history with the American Civil War, in which the two patterns were divided and adopted by opposing factions within the state of Maryland and northern Virginia Army.

Amateur athletics and the uniforms they spawn are tirelessly conservative. An ESPN analyst noted that the design, while unorthodox, was likely to create such buzz as to generate attention and recruiting advantages that would not otherwise be realized through traditional means. It’s true. A famous publisher once shared that he could not have ever afforded the incredible public relations coup, the attention garnered, of a stunt in bad taste. Sometimes, people just like drama and conflict.

Imagine the simple, clean, classic design of Alabama, Penn State, etc. Incongruous, innovative, and asymmetrical patterns are not what one would think of when considering collegiate athletic uniforms — especially for football. But we’ve seen a daring design approach reap benefits before. I’m still remembering the first redesign of the Cincinnati Bengal uniforms in 1981, equally as bold. And who ever wrote that college football uniforms cannot be innovative? The playbooks certainly are.

Once again, we see a design that is so opposed to the norm that it’s actually memorable and good. The decision by Boise State to make a blue football field is now legendary. A naming expert once told me that odd, sharp phonetic sounds resonate and “stick” with the customer. As it turns out, odd, unusual visuals are no different.

One can only imagine that Coach Randy Edsall likes the decision as well, since it clearly announces a break with the past methodology and team results. The new uniforms beg for — actually, they demand — confidence. The new design flamboyantly marks Edsall’s introduction as the new coach charged with bringing championships and big bowl dollars to the university. If the university wanted a big brand splash-type launch, they’re getting one.

*     *     *

Upon doing a bit of research, one quickly notices that the University of Maryland has a history of audacious marketing decisions. Take “Testudo” for example.

“Testudo,” the mascot for Maryland, is based on the diamondback turtle. Over the years the formal species name, malaclemys terrapin terrapin, became known more commonly as the “Terrapins” or “Terps.” In the 1990’s a movement made the diamondback turtle the official state reptile and mascot of the University of Maryland. By 2000 the University began to promote the slogan, “Fear the Turtle.” Enough said, I think.

Now granted, one would not normally associate a turtle with the most ominous of potential mascot choices available from the animal kingdom, but who among us would argue that they are not vastly differentiated with the selection? Only Oregon would be able to compete for decision-making based so exclusively on a distinctive brand: They chose the ever-threatening and always unique duck. (Can anyone say “advertising revenues?” Think: natural Aflac sponsorships and event tie-in’s.) After all, when we think about tenacity, skill, agility and aggression, all hallmarks of an NCAA winning football team, don’t we just instinctively make the connection to ducks and turtles?

I say, “Carpe diem.” Why shouldn’t Oklahoma look at herringbone textures and argyle socks? Why doesn’t Alabama consider a hint of paisley? Stanford has the smartest players. . . Why not weave a little tweed into the field’s fall fashion line?

All of this is just in good fun, of course. As they say, what’s good for the goose (or terrapin) is good for the gander. Being a graduate of Virginia Tech, I cannot proclaim a heritage to anything better when it comes to mascots. Besides, I can’t even tell you what a Hokie bird is, and God forbid that I should have to explain the origin of the Hokie. In the 70’s I used to go to games and a giant Gobbler would roam the sidelines. That thing must have been 10 feet tall, with a neck that took up half the length of its body. It may be only my opinion, but intelligent, desirable associations are just not immediately apparent between a turkey and the University’s highly competitive, elite athletes. Don’t turkeys get eaten on one of our more prominent national holidays, one that ironically belongs to the sport of football? Ah! If so, that might explain the evolution away from a “Gobbler” and into the fear-inspiring, universally dreaded “Hokie Bird.”

In the meantime, let’s just be glad that the University of Maryland did not also adopt the state motto, an Italian expression also from the Calvert family: “Fatti maschil, Parole femine,” or “Manly deeds, Womanly words.” Whatever that even means.

When it comes to creativity in this strange new age, perhaps the unexpected alternative to any sense of tradition, order and structure, would be the way to go.

Maryland Uniforms: Fashion Statement or Train Wreck?

Maryland Football Uniforms Inspired by State Flag or Lady Gaga?

University Of Maryland Football Uniforms By Under Armour Create Buzz On Twitter

Fear the Helmet: Maryland’s New Uniforms Draw Attention

New Maryland Uniforms Spark A Buzz

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 at 2:07 pm and is filed under Design, Marketing, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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