It's a concise way to label Lane Kiffin's talent for drawing eyeballs. His sheer quotability, love of social media trolling (sometimes involving music superstar Taylor Swift) and ability to produce one of college football's most exciting offenses just about every season make him a branding superstar.
"We needed that at Ole Miss," Carter told The Clarion Ledger this week. "We needed something to give us a little pop and sizzle. When you hire a coach, you don't wanna just win the press conference, you want to hire a coach who can do that and obviously follow it up by winning a lot of games, but we needed some buzz around that hire. We got that, and then he backed it up."
Administratively, Ole Miss has invested to turn the spark Kiffin, 48, provided them with into a branding explosion. The Rebels name 17 staff members in their directory with roles related to video or creative content, with an additional four assigned specifically to football. In 2019, Matt Luke's final season as coach, the Ole Miss football media guide listed two such staff members.
It's an investment just about every major athletic department across college sports is making. But few are experiencing similar growth to what Ole Miss has generated.
According to data shared by SkullSparks, a company that partners with college sports brands to help them recruit talent and build their digital strategies, Ole Miss increased its football following on the three major social media networks – Facebook, Instagram and X, the platform formerly known as Twitter – by 14% in 2022. Only two SEC programs, Tennessee and Kentucky, surpassed that growth. Georgia, which won the national championship that season, saw 11% growth.
"I was just down at a school in Alabama talking with them, and I actually used Ole Miss as an example when we were talking about branding," said Jason Matheson, the director of SkullSparks with decades of experience in the digital branding space. "Ole Miss is doing a great job relative to the other programs in the SEC, which across the board probably pour the most resources into this."
Ole Miss (3-0) will encounter one of the biggest brands in college football when it heads to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama (2-1) on Saturday (2:30 p.m., CBS).
How Ole Miss is succeeding behind the scenes
In 2019, Ole Miss football accounts generated just shy of 1.7 million interactions on those three primary social media sites. In 2022, that number rose to 6.2 million, according to SkullSparks data. That ranked 18th in the nation and seventh in the SEC. By comparison, Ole Miss' enrollment numbers consistently rank in the conference's lower third.
There have been other branding obstacles for Ole Miss to navigate since the dawn of the digital age, Matheson points out. The university banned its Colonel Reb mascot and related imaging in 2003, and has twice unsuccessfully attempted to adopt a new mascot. Branding is difficult when what you're trying to sell is often shifting.
"They started behind all the others," Matheson said. "They had some problematic branding that they had to deal with, and they really turned that on its ear."
On a micro-level, Matheson believes Ole Miss has come up with creative ways to present its script logo, which he said isn't the greatest for design purposes. The designs are cohesive across the athletic department, Matheson said, which isn't always the case with so many different people involved. On the video front, he said Ole Miss has built up a trust with its subjects that allows it to create compelling content. As of July, the Rebels' athletic department had the country’s fourth-biggest YouTube channel, which is headlined by its documentary series "The Season."
In a space where traditional values and the demands of the modern college sports market can often clash, Matheson said Ole Miss has struck a strong balance.
"They've not thrown any of that away, per se," Matheson said. "It's still Ole Miss, but really kind of given an edgy feel. And that's quite an accomplishment, I think."
Why it matters
In a November interview with The Clarion Ledger, Walker Jones, who runs The Grove Collective ‒ which handles Ole Miss' NIL efforts ‒ called Kiffin "one of our biggest advantages, if not our biggest."
The size of your brand directly impacts your ability to fundraise, which in turn directly impacts winning in the age of NIL.
"Our donors have stepped up," Carter said this week.
In Matheson's view, Ole Miss has succeeded in targeting its branding content to prospective recruits. That content, the data shows, has been more engaging than that of many of the Rebels' peers.
Here's how Ole Miss football's annual interaction numbers on the big three social networks have compared with Mississippi State's in recent years:
2019: Ole Miss - 1.67 million interactions; Mississippi State - 2.86 million
2020: Ole Miss - 3.17 million; Mississippi State - 2.86 million
2021: Ole Miss - 6.92 million; Mississippi State - 2.47 million
2022: Ole Miss - 6.22 million; Mississippi State - 3.06 million
"It starts with the resources in place by the administration and the coaches understanding that it's a priority," Matheson said. "... You fish where the fish are. (Recruits) are on mobile devices and they're on social platforms. So that's where you've gotta be with your brand."
David Eckert covers Ole Miss for the Clarion Ledger. Email him at email@example.com or reach him on Twitter @davideckert98.
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This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Ole Miss football: Lane Kiffin sparks a branding explosion