The billboard reads, “Play with the Best,” and includes the Mississippi State banner logo along with the athletic department’s website address, HailState.com. To the left is a picture of MSU players hoisting the Egg Bowl trophy, which they won for the third consecutive year by defeating Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.
It appears to be a bold foray into enemy territory by MSU, and it’s seen by several Ole Miss fans as an affront to them and their beloved Rebels.
According to MSU officials, that is far from the intent. It’s just one piece of a larger marketing strategy involving billboards.
There are four other “Play with the Best” billboards around the state: Aberdeen, Biloxi, Clinton and near Morton. The placement of the boards came from the football office, according to Chad Thomas, MSU’s assistant athletics director for marketing.
They went up the first week of this month and are only a one-month campaign. Thomas said they’re a recruiting tool – football signing day is Feb. 1.
“We’re trying to get it all in the major markets in Mississippi, and quite honestly, Oxford’s a big market when you think about it,” Thomas said. “When you’ve got some in Tupelo and Meridian and on the Coast and in Jackson already, you’ve got to start looking at some other places.”
Mike Nemeth, MSU’s senior associate AD for media relations and corporate development, said he’s heard that “some folks are upset at the location.”
Michael Thompson is not one of those people. He’s the Ole Miss associate AD for communications and marketing.
“When you buy media or plan to buy media, it’s not nearly as emotional as it seems sometimes,” Thompson said. “Mississippi State, just like any other company, looks for powerful media markets, and Oxford happens to be one of them. They want to reach a steadily growing, popular place in Mississippi.”
Mark Hodge, 33, is the owner of Hodge Real Estate in Oxford, and he likened MSU’s current marketing campaign to other corporate marketing.
“I remember Pepsi taking shots at Coca-Cola, where Coca-Cola is clearly the superior product; Krystal taking shots at McDonald’s and Wendy’s in their commercials,” Hodge said. “True leaders do not have to stoop to such marketing techniques.”
A different approach
But MSU officials paint a much broader picture of their marketing efforts. Athletics director Scott Stricklin has said several times that MSU would need to take a different approach to promoting its brand, and this campaign is part of that.
There are two other major billboard messages being spread across the state: “Welcome to Our State” and “Miles Ahead.” The former can be found at the state’s borders, welcoming travelers to Mississippi. The boards used to feature coach Dan Mullen, but new ones that recently went up now feature MSU athletes who hail from the general area where the billboards are found.
The “Miles Ahead” campaign is what Thomas calls “directional signage,” pointing people toward Starkville.
“It probably started about three years ago where we really got heavy back into the billboard campaign,” Nemeth said. “We just feel like it’s a good way to make a splash and reach a lot of people.”
That coincided with the hiring of Mullen, and one of the campaigns at the time was “Spread the Fun,” a reference to Mullen’s spread offense.
MSU has spent $150,000 on the current round of billboards, which makes up 30 percent of its marketing budget. That’s why State officials say this is bigger than just one billboard in Oxford.
It’s important to them that the campaign touch every part of Mississippi, and the “Our State” billboards do that. It’s sending a message that the school has adopted about its being the state’s university, or the people’s university.
Mullen has sounded that theme, talking about winning the in-state recruiting battles and representing the people of Mississippi. During SEC media days last July, he said, “I’d love nothing more than to win a champion-ship for the people of Mississippi.”
One way of getting that message out is by those roadside signposts clearly marking the direction MSU believes it is heading.
“It’s not just a Golden Triangle, it’s not just a North Mississippi thing,” Nemeth said. “We feel like we’ve got fans and people we’re trying to reach all over the state. We’re taking responsibility for trying to touch all those people.”