Brand Ambassador Program develops students’ brand management skills to benefit Illini athletes, community

Brand Ambassadors Meeting

The first cohort of students in the Brand Ambassador Program are halfway through their yearlong experience, which pairs a student interested in social media and brand management with Fighting Illini student-athletes and local organizations. 

Since its inception just four months ago, the program is already making a positive impact for student ambassadors, student-athletes, and the community at large.

Brand Ambassadors Meeting with Carrie Wilson-Brown“I think it’s been incredibly successful on both ends,” said Carrie Wilson-Brown, lecturer in media and cinema studies and advertising, and a faculty lead for the program (pictured at right). “I know the athletes are really excited to have our student ambassadors give as much input as possible into their feeds and I know the ambassadors are really thrilled with that kind of hands-on experience.” 

The purpose of the program is to offer students experiential learning to enhance their social media management skills and to help student-athletes develop their brand. It also focuses on aiding local organizations with digital promotion.  

“It really is a great partnership between community members, and also gives our students a range of experiences in real-world circumstances,” said Wilson-Brown.

The inaugural program, which first kicked off in August, is one of the latest initiatives of the Hub for Brand Innovation and Advertising Technology and the Charles H. Sandage Department of Advertising. 

With a mission to educate students about the most current advertising trends and to provide them with leading-edge experiences that go beyond classroom theory, both the Sandage Department of Advertising and the Brand Hub are shaping the field of strategic brand communication.

“The Brand Ambassador Program is another novel professional development opportunity for advertising students that the Brand Hub has coordinated,” said Professor Mike Yao, head of the Sandage Department of Advertising. “We are proud to foster this collaboration. Students are applying the advertising, branding, and social media strategy skills that they’ve acquired through our curriculum, and through their own experiences, to support the success of their peers and the local community.”

Nearly all of the 20 student ambassadors are advertising majors. Some ambassadors have paired up with local organizations such as Visit Champaign County to help highlight local events and businesses with their own robust social media following. Most are working with Fighting Illini student-athletes to strategize and create content for their social media.

The Brand Ambassador Program helps student-athletes address last year’s changes to the NCAA Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) policy, which now allows all NCAA D1, D2, and D3 student-athletes to be compensated for their name, image, and likeness, regardless of whether their state has NIL laws in place. 

Wilson-Brown said the updated NIL policy has created an incentive for student-athletes to enhance their brand and increase their social media presence. As a result, student-athletes recognize the importance of a digital persona and a professionally curated social media feed.

“The ambassador program is an opportunity to use the talents of students and faculty to help athletes sculpt a brand for themselves online and hopefully to monetize themselves with local and national sponsorships as well,” she added.

Wilson-Brown noted the students are ambassadors, not agents, and do not directly facilitate any sponsorship deals or monetary contracts. 

The Brand Ambassador Program operates in conjunction with the INFLUENCE program, which was launched by the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics last year. INFLUENCE is an educational approach to the monetization of an athlete’s name, image and likeness that emphasizes brand and strategy development along with business and financial concepts. INFLUENCE is powered by NIL sports technology company Opendorse, which features all Fighting Illini athletes within its athlete endorsement website.

Kaylee Patthana, a junior majoring in advertising, is working with Illini women’s volleyball player Kennedy Collins to help promote her personal brand. Patthana said she and Collins have discussed ways she can expand her brand to include not only her college athletic persona but also her personal interests such as fashion and lifestyle aesthetics. 

Patthana says that the close-knit nature of the ambassador group is her favorite aspect of the program: “I love that in this program I have a network of people around me that I can talk to and work with who also love to do what I do,” she said. 

Jack Struthers (pictured at top), a senior in advertising working with an Illini soccer player, said the ambassador program is mutually beneficial for Media students who want real-world experience and athletes looking to expand their brands. 

Struthers said managing a social media presence as a student-athlete can be overwhelming and this partnership can help address some of those challenges.  

“Getting paired with an ambassador from the College of Media who kind of understands how the [sports endorsement] ecosystem works and understands how [social media] works and can inject content—I think it’s extremely powerful,” he said.

Emily Gonzalez is a senior in advertising working with an Illini women’s basketball player.  Through this partnership, Gonzalez gets to share her expertise on social media trends to help create relevant content, such as a “day in the life” video.

“It’s all about the analytical side of things and just trying to communicate possible trends that are taking off,” said Gonzalez, who is now considering a career path in social media management.

Brand Ambassadors meet monthly with Wilson-Brown to update their progress, reporting about post content and analytics. After a semester of guiding brand ambassadors, Wilson-Brown said she’s excited to expand the program, whether that’s adding more students, more athletes, or more partnering organizations. 

“I find students have a much more nuanced understanding of how to use these digital tools every day and so we're able to collaborate really beautifully on that and I think that's really humbling,” she said. “It’s a really great learning opportunity that we have in the Advertising department.”

—Story by Kelly Youngblood with Vivian La, communications intern. Photos by Isabella Pennebaker, photography intern.