What UMBC Just Taught Challenger Brands Everywhere

March 20, 2018 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Move over Miracle on Ice. Take a standing eight-count Buster Douglas. Miracle Mets? Namath’s Jets? Valvano’s Wolfpack? Sorry, boys. When it comes to the greatest upset in sports history, you’re no longer in the conversation. As of Friday night, that distinction belongs to the Runnin’ Retrievers of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County.

Coming into this year’s March Madness, UMBC had to beat Vermont on a buzzer beater in the America East title game just to get the last spot in the tournament. Of the 64 teams invited to the big dance, UMBC was 64th. Dead last. Which meant their draw for the first round would be the overall number one seed, the 31-2 Virginia Cavaliers.

Statistically, talking about a 16 seed beating a one seed is like talking about winning the Powerball. The what if scenarios are fun to talk about, but there’s no way in hell it’s ever going to happen. In the past 34 years of the Men’s NCAA tournament, No. 1 seeds were 135-0. Upsets didn’t happen and most of the time, the games weren’t even competitive.

Nobody told the UMBC Retrievers that.


UMBC didn’t just beat Virginia Friday night. They didn’t hang on, squeak by, or have a miracle prayer drop in at the buzzer. They crushed the best team in the country by 20 points. And that’s after the teams were tied 21-21 at halftime.

It’s the biggest upset in the history of college basketball and while we probably need some time to gain perspective, it’s probably the biggest upset in the history of American sports. And we LOVE it!

Nothing against the University of Virginia. By all appearances coach Tom Bennett and his team are a class act. Extremely talented players, polite young men, good students. They’re the whole package. It wasn’t that we took great joy in seeing Goliath fall. It was in celebrating David and what they did with their rocks again and again and again and again.

We love it when the little guy triumphs. Because in the underdog, we see ourselves. When you’re the challenger, often all you have to lean on is hard work, determination and a long list of the ways you don’t measure up – not the tallest, not the fastest, not the richest, not the prettiest. You’re not delusional. You know the odds are against you and that history is not on your side. But as the old sports adage goes, “THAT is why you play the games.”

At LOOMIS, we specialize in advertising and marketing for challenger brands. Companies who find themselves in second place, third place … 64th place … and being vastly outspent by the larger, richer big dogs in their category. On paper, they often shouldn’t even be able to compete. But as we’ve told – and shown – our clients over the years, “there is no problem creative thinking can’t solve.” I was reminded of that again on Friday night watching UMBC take down UVA, and of five other challenger brand lessons that will help you compete the next time you’re the underdog.


Leaders Have To Deliver

UMBC’s Jairus Lyles put up 28 points against the best team in the country in the biggest game of his life and he did it from all over the court. For UMBC to win, Lyles knew he had to have a big game. But so did UVA, and it didn’t matter.

To succeed as a challenger brand, your key leaders have to perform and when needed, they have to be able to take it to another gear. Whether it’s a new business pitch, or a regular job for an existing client, put the ball in the hands of your best leaders. Inspire them to greatness. Challenge them to deliver. And then let them do what they do.

The Rest Of The Team Has To Rise To The Occasion (And Play Together)

Friday night, UMBC played 8 different players against Virginia. Collectively, they out-rebounded the best defensive team in the country 31-21. And together, they dished out 16 assists to UVA’s 5. UMBC played as a team from beginning to end. The further behind UVA got, the more desperate their shots became and the less they played like a team.

Advertising and marketing is a team sport. Yes, your leaders have to lead. But to have any hope of beating the big dogs, your whole team has to rise to the occasion and play together. It’s the old teamwork story from NASA. When they asked the guy sweeping the floor what he did at NASA, he said, “I help put men on the Moon.” Every player has their role, but every player has to both step up and play in concert with everyone else. Anything less and everything starts to break down.

Believe You’re Going To Win

Ask every kid playing for UMBC what their mindset was going into the game with UVA on Friday night and I guarantee they’ll tell you they believed they could win. Believing is the first step to doing. Without it, there is no doing.

Years ago, we were invited to pitch the Pier 1 account with four national powerhouses including Deutsch and Fallon. We believed we could win and it fueled the work. It pushed the strategy. And it drove our entire team to put together one of the best pitches we ever made. Six months after that pitch, we got another opportunity to pitch the Texas Dairy Queen account … along with 80 other agencies. I’ve heard more than a few new business people say if you don’t think you have at least a 50% chance of winning, don’t even try. We could have taken that approach, but, even with 80 other players, we believed we could win. And we did.

Never Let Up – Be Relentless

All season, UVA’s formula for success was to control tempo and play a very methodical game that more often than not frustrated other teams and forced them into mistakes. For the first half of Friday’s game, UMBC danced to UVA’s tempo and found themselves tied 21-21 at halftime. But when the second half tipped, UMBC changed the record, upped the energy and never let up for 20 minutes. Before UVA knew what hit them, they were down by six. Then 10. Then 14. For the season, Virginia was giving up 54 points a game to their opponents. The Retrievers put up 53 in the second half! UMBC willed their win Friday night and UVA had no answer.

While advertising and marketing aren’t limited by a shot clock, the premise of focusing and keeping the pressure on is equally applicable. To enjoy consistent success, we have to keep working, keep learning, keep improving, keep gelling as a team. We have to be diligent and deliberate in the relationships we build with our clients, or our customers. And when it comes to new business, our efforts have to be intentional and ongoing. It’s easy to turn on the new business machine when an RFP shows up. The agencies and brands that get ahead are the ones who never let up.

Don’t Underestimate Game Plan and Coaching

No matter how talented a team’s players are, they still need a coach. It’s hard to tell if UMBC coach Ryan Odom made some huge adjustment at halftime Friday night when the score was 21-21, or if he’d just been holding his Retrievers back and decided to let them run in the second half. Either way, he was the lead dog. He assessed his team’s strengths and weaknesses, put together the game plan for taking Virginia apart and then orchestrated the greatest upset in college basketball history.

So what kind of coach are you? What are you doing to set your team up to succeed? When you have talented players, it’s often easy to think you can just “let them play.” They’re good at what they do. They know how to do their jobs. They’ll get it. All true. But remember this…  Michael Jordan had a coach. Wayne Gretzky had a coach. Tom Brady has a coach. Players play and that’s what you want them to do. It’s what you’re paying them to do. But don’t forget that they need inspiration. They need direction. They need a safe place to try things, make mistakes and to know you believe in them.

Ryan Odom believed in his guys. And now, so does the rest of the world.

MIKE SULLIVAN is the president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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