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Russell Athletic Returns to Roots, Inspires Others Along the Way

When the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets opted not to renew their contract with sports apparel provider Russell Athletic, the internet got their chuckles in. Georgia Tech was Russell’s last foothold in the landscape of “mainstream” football; Nike is the exclusive apparel provider of the NFL, and college football is divvied up between brand giants Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour.

To the casual observer, Russell Athletic is a relic of the past, relegated to clearance sections in big box retailers and outlet malls. The reality is, Russell is the stuff of sporting legends. The brand is finally claiming their birthright and leading an inspired comeback by returning to its roots: high school football.

Russell bucked the trend of incorporating things millennials love. While so many direct and indirect competitors have touched on the grind required to become a champion in recent years (of which some have yielded stellar commercials), Russell instead decided to touch on the human element of responding to failure. Russell executives met with 101 high school football teams who lost their respective state championships by a touchdown or less. They then created simple signage and slogans alluding to their failure in the prior season. “8 seconds” for New Palestine, Indiana. “24W-1L” for Marion Local, Ohio. “1 Play” for Lummi Nation, Washington. These reminders were disseminated everywhere throughout town, especially the high school facilities and via Russell-sponsored apparel.

What better message to young adults who’ve only known sporting success? Do not run from your failures. Embrace them. Learn from them. And let them fuel you. This author likes to believe Russell took their campaign to heart as well: they posted monster earnings and saw a 180% increase in online sales during high school football season, a great reward for embracing their strengths instead of grasping for college or professional football.

The campaign’s art direction is simple and striking, almost like the set of Friday Night Lights (the movie) come to life. Which makes sense, because Russell recruited Friday Night Lights’ photographer/director Robert Clark to chronicle the high school squads. But my favorite tidbit from this entire campaign was what happened when Clark came to each high school campus: he shared his wisdom with budding sports photographers so that they may tell the tale of their hometown sports teams.

The social consciousness displayed by Clark and Russell Athletics elevates this from damn good advertising to a beautiful display of charity. It’s not money-chucking philanthropy or a for-clicks feel-good story, it’s fostering personal growth on all levels. It’s advertising at its most human.


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