One of the key components of the Friends of Coal campaign is the annual Friends of Coal Bowl between the West Virginia University Mountaineers and the Marshall University Thundering Herd. One of the most talked about and anticipated sporting events in West Virginia, it splits the state down the middle while at the same time bringing it together for a single day every fall.

In just its fifth year, the game has become the centerpiece of the state’s football calendar. It sells out stadiums, swamps area hotels and fills the pages of newspapers and segments of local newscasts for weeks before the game.

A football matchup between the two schools was discussed for several years before newly elected Governor Joe Manchin made it happen in 2006. At that time, Marshall and WVU were at the top of their respective college conferences, vying for national championships, churning out bowl wins and sending many of their players on to the NFL.

As soon as it was announced, the Friends of Coal stepped up to sponsor the event, an appropriate role for an industry that is the centerpiece of the state’s economy.

Getting tickets for the game is almost as impossible as getting tickets for the NASCAR night race at Bristol or even the Super Bowl. An estimated 250,000 people have attended the first four games of the series, drawing sell-out crowds in both Morgantown and Huntington.

“The game, when played here, is a major infusion into our economy,” says Ken Busz, president of the Morgantown Chamber of Commerce. “Hotels are booked, our restaurant and gas stations are busy and the overall economy gets a significant bump.”

According to media researchers, the event draws an annual audience of approximately 1.5 million people each year—a total of 6 million people over the four years. Each of these people is exposed to an average of three references to the game every day for the 30 days preceding the event—an estimated 45 million impressions per year. 

According to the industry research firm Metro Monitor, the Friends of Coal Bowl was featured in more than 230 earned media television spots during the month preceding the game this past year with thousands more radio and  newspaper references.

Building a Brand and Creating Trust

“A brand is the one thing that you can own that nobody can take away from you,” says Howard Kosgrove, vice principal of marketing at Lindsay, Stone and Briggs, a major national public relations and marketing consultancy. “It creates a lasting value above and beyond all the other elements of your business.”

That value is often called brand equity.

The Friends of Coal Bowl and sponsorships of similar events are key components of the effort to build brand equity for the West Virginia coal industry. It is a prime example of what is known as grassroots marketing.

Building trust is the primary component of maintaining a brand image over a long period of time and the converse of that is also true—that to build trust you have to first build a positive brand image.

In the case of the Friends of Coal, the effort to educate people about the importance of the coal industry is vital to both the industry and the future of the state. Before the Friends of Coal campaign began, surveys indicated that many people in the state had concerns about the coal industry and its role in the state. A study taken just a couple of years ago indicated that most people today trust the industry (65 percent), up by some 17 percent since 2002.

One reason for this change in the level of trust is the increased sense that the industry does more and contributes more to the state than simply providing jobs. Events and sponsorships such as the Friends of Coal Bowl, the Friends of Coal Auto Fair and the organization’s sponsorship of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission state championships are just some of the ways the industry is giving back to the state.

“The coal industry provides jobs for more than 65,000 West Virginians,” says Raney. “It generates approximately $25 billion for the state’s economy each year, and many communities in our state are totally dependent on the industry for their existence. Beyond the direct economic impact, the coal industry has always played a vital role in our communities. Whether it was donating land to build baseball fields, partnering with a local school to provide supplies or working with communities to meet other needs, our industry has always stepped up to the plate.

“Coal is a vital part of West Virginia,” he goes on to say. “Coal has played a huge role in the development of the state in the past and we hope we can continue to do so in the future. We care about West Virginia and the people of our state.”