How to Market a Horned Frog

One local ad agency is upping the creativity on TCU Football's ad campaigns. And it's paying off.

Damon Hickman was one of the first to see it. The package came wrapped in cellophane with the image of four menacing lizard spikes appearing to pierce through shiny cardstock. Flip open the purple tab, and the package opened to become a poster, about three feet long, revealing the ominous image of a football player and a massive, spiny horned frog behind him.

Written on top, the 2017 TCU Football season theme: Consider Yourself Horned.

“As a superfan — what I consider myself, somebody who bleeds purple — getting this is like a mixture of Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one,” said Hickman, a Fort Worth patent attorney and TCU season ticket holder.

The poster, which arrived in February for Hickman, served as a reminder to renew season tickets (it had come packaged with information on how to do so), but it also served as the first glance at the theme for the upcoming season. This year it’s Consider Yourself Horned. Last year it was Horned & Dangerous. The year before that, it was Unite for the Fight, and so forth. Season ticket holders see it first through renewal notices; then in the summer, the theme gets plastered all over town — billboards, bus benches, flags — and stays there throughout the football season. This year TCU is hoping to ride the momentum of last year’s Horned & Dangerous campaign, which Bleacher Report named the No. 1 College Football Team Schedule Poster of 2016.

The brains behind each theme? TCU (of course) and Fort Worth-based advertising agency PAVLOV. And, yes, even head coach Gary Patterson has a say.
“The ad campaign creates a common tribal call that we can all rally behind,” PAVLOV Creative Director Khris Kesling said. “This is what the season means to us. We’re like the external coaches, and our responsibility is to unify the fans.”

It Began With a Legend | PAVLOV first teamed up with TCU in 2008, after the agency’s work on the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl (later renamed the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl) caught the attention of TCU’s then-athletic director Danny Morrison. Morrison contacted PAVLOV, asking if the agency could put a “national polish on the TCU Football brand,” said PAVLOV CEO Allen Wallach. So the ad agency decided to give it a try.

Thankfully for PAVLOV, the 2008 campaign had a timely news peg — the 70th anniversary of the 1938 national championship team. So, with the history in mind, PAVLOV rolled out the Legends campaign, creating a series of graphics profiling key players in TCU Football lore, like Sammy Baugh, Davey O’Brien and Bob Lilly.

TCU liked the campaign enough to bring PAVLOV back the following year. But this time, it would be something a little grittier. TCU had a program on the rise, having finished 11-2 the previous year and returning with a roster of names like Andy Dalton, Jeremy Kerley and Marshall Newhouse. The Frogs also had a senior, All-American defensive end, Jerry Hughes.
Hence, PAVLOV went with a concept similar to Legends, but with current players, launching the Reasons campaign in 2009. Each player had his own poster or video, with his number representing a reason to watch the game: Andy Dalton was reason No. 14, Jerry Hughes was No. 98, and so on.

PAVLOV was also responsible for creating a series of TV commercials to go along with the campaign. As it turned out, Robert Latorre of Big Fish Films — a pioneer in 360-degree video (think the scene from The Matrix when Keanu Reeves bends backwards and the camera circles around him) — was in Dallas and happened to like TCU so much that he agreed to collaborate with PAVLOV on the campaign.

Coach Patterson played a role too, choosing which players would appear on promotional materials. It has remained the case until now — Patterson often rewards seniors and top performers with the opportunity to appear on posters or trading cards, said TCU associate athletics director Drew Martin. Patterson also critiques player photography, checking details like the player’s pose or the direction of his eyes, to make sure it stays true to the game. Martin said Patterson also sees proofs of ads, posters and other materials that have images of student athletes before the materials go public. 

Still, Wallach said Patterson gives PAVLOV room for creative freedom.

“At the core of our creative campaigns is the TCU Football brand cultivated by Coach Patterson,” Wallach said. “He maintains a keen interest in the creative direction we take each year.”

PAVLOV continued to work with TCU through the years, from the BIG campaign (2012, TCU’s first year in the Big 12) to Unite for the Fight (2015). Then came 2016, when the team put out what many would call PAVLOV’s best work to date.

Something Dangerous | The idea for the 2016 campaign first dawned on Wallach when he saw a photo of a horned lizard posed against a white background in a 2015 Texas Monthly article. There was something about the photo that struck him — the clarity of the details on the lizard’s spiny skin — and for the first time, the horned lizard looked less like a “little, squashable critter” and more like “the ferocious beast that it is,” Wallach said. So he ripped out the page and showed it to his team.

PAVLOV soon discovered that the image belonged to photographer Randal Ford's series, Kingdom: The Animal Portrait Collection. Ford gladly agreed to license its photo rights to TCU Athletics; then with PAVLOV’s Design Director Cassie Kruemcke at the helm of the layout, the team diverted from the look of its previous campaigns, opting for a cleaner, simpler, yet striking design — one they titled, “Horned & Dangerous.”

While the campaign used less paper, as TCU looked to drive more season ticket sales online, paper materials still came with their surprises — the horned frog’s skin, for example, was overlaid with a sand coating to make it rough to the touch. Inside the brochure, a pop-up of the lizard’s face.

The reception was overwhelmingly positive. Horned & Dangerous, coupled with TCU’s other marketing efforts and notoriety as a football team, helped the university reach capacity for season tickets (that is, 34,000) that year.

The campaign, too, was selling in and of itself, Martin said.

“People were wanting to buy extras of the delivery packages that we sent out season tickets in, or the season ticket renewal pieces,” Martin said. “That’s unusual — we want them to buy the tickets, not necessarily the materials — but it’s great when a fan base responds like that. We knew we were onto something.”


You’ve Been Horned | The Horned & Dangerous campaign had a video that played in the stadium before players ran out onto the field. It juxtaposed a player and a horned frog, and as the video progressed, the player’s skin would transform into the texture of the frog’s.

By the time the videos were playing in the stadium well into football season, TCU and PAVLOV were already back at the drawing board to come up with the 2017 campaign. If anything, it had momentum to carry from Horned & Dangerous. After spending time brainstorming, PAVLOV Art Director Morgan Godby came up with “consider yourself horned,” a play on the phrase “consider yourself warned,” that also grabbed the word “horned” from Horned & Dangerous.

Then the wheels began to turn. Rather than a white background, the design went black. Rather than a horned frog and a player side-by-side, the two became one. The image of the threatening horned frog standing behind the player in the graphic is the same photo from last year’s campaign, retouched to look better against the darker scheme. The player standing at the front was also shot by Ford. And so Consider Yourself Horned was born — the darker, grittier cousin of Horned & Dangerous.

By February, the campaign reached the eyes of season ticket holders, announcing a new era for TCU Football. In September, a new season will kick off, and before it even ends, PAVLOV and TCU will be planning for 2018.

“Our best clients are clients who are fearless with us, who allow us to test the boundaries of engaging creative,” Wallach said. “It’s a tale told a thousand times. You have the best results when you have a client who is willing to step out on that ledge with you.”

Hickman, a 2001 TCU graduate and season ticket holder since 2011, still has some of the materials from previous campaigns. Seeing the promos each year, he says, only adds to the excitement.

“It's exciting to be one of the first fans to see what TCU Athletics will be pushing all season long,” he said. “Again, from the tickets I receive in August, to the video board during the games, to the city buses that drive by, I consider myself ‘horned and dangerous’ all season long.”