Digital Badging and the Power of Recognition

by | Dec 23, 2022 | Blog

The NCAA recently made the highly anticipated announcement identifying the four teams that will be playing in the College Football Playoff (CFP): Georgia, Michigan, TCU, and Ohio State. Each of these teams will vie for a spot in the National Championship game and the opportunity to be crowned the best college football team in the country.

Now, I’m generally a college football fan, but what caught my attention this year (other than the fact that my Buckeyes are back in the playoff, baby!) was the fact that two of the four teams engage in a unique tradition centered around the concept of recognition. Both Ohio State and Michigan use helmet stickers as a way to recognize individual and team accomplishments among their players.

It’s a practice that only a handful of teams in college football do, and it got me thinking about the idea of recognition and, more specifically, the concept of badging.

Helmet Stickers: How They Work

This New Year’s Eve, take a look at any player on either Ohio State or Michigan and you’ll probably notice the stickers on the player’s helmet. These stickers, or decals, represent each school’s unique and systematic process for recognizing and motivating great performances.

For Ohio State, every sticker is an identical Buckeye leaf that’s awarded for team wins, entire unit (offensive or defensive) accomplishments, and position-specific performances. At the start of each season, Ohio State players are given clean helmets with no decals, to signify a fresh start and a clean slate for the new season.

Helmet stickets

Original photo uploaded by Adam Glanzman; taken from Wikimedia Commons and cropped.

For Michigan players, on the other hand, the system of recognition is a bit more nuanced. Players accumulate unique decals throughout their collegiate career for team and individual accolades, classroom achievements, and even their hometown area code. After they play their last game, they’re able to take their helmet with them as a sort of trophy. In this way, the helmets serve to tell the story of a player’s entire career as a Wolverine.

Helmet Stickers: Michigan

Original photo uploaded by Maize & Blue Nation; taken from Wikimedia Commons and cropped.

Helmet Stickers: Why They Work

Now, despite the different ways that each team recognizes its players, both systems have proven to be successful and popular amongst players and coaches alike. This seems to be achieved for a number of reasons:

  • They’re cheap and easy to produce. From the admin and coaching side of things, these stickers cost very little to make and apply, so the “ROI” of the gesture is pretty outsized
  • They’re visibly displayed. Any type of badging will only be effective if it’s displayed for others to see.
  • They’re distinctive. Because only a handful of schools have implemented this type of system of rewards, it gives the schools and players something to point to and say, “this is special.” And even if other programs were to start to copy it, there’s still something to be said for having first-mover status.
  • Speaking of status: the helmet decals effectively function as status symbols for the players among their peers. While the players are obviously all teammates, competition still exists between them (they are competitive athletes, after all). Thus, the sticker provides a sort of trophy value—a tangible item that players can compare with one another, admire, and strive to achieve. Ironically, research suggests that this type of tangible and competitive rewards structure can also promote greater teamwork and sacrifice, helping to achieve team goals.
  • The stickers provide a simple system in which players can receive recognition from their coaches. It makes sense that this would be valued, as coaches not only are the ones who dole out playing time during the games, but also are who players often look up to for praise, support, and other forms of positive reinforcement.
  • They’re long-lasting, or in the case of Michigan, permanent. In terms of whether to have the sticker system reset each season or not, there are arguments to be made on both sides. In either case, though, the system works in part because the helmets represent a collection of achievements. Players are able to display and take pride in the accumulation of all of their efforts, whether it be for a season or the entirety of a playing career.

From Sports to Business: Badging as a Powerful Business Tool

So, what lessons can we take from the examples of Ohio State and Michigan? Does the concept of helmet stickers translate from the world of competitive collegiate sports to the “real world”?

In fact, we already see this concept of badging in places like LinkedIn and Instagram. In the former, there’s the skills’ endorsements and recommendations section of a profile, which are designed to showcase a person’s expertise; in the latter, the blue check serves to validate the authenticity and trustworthiness of a person’s account. These use cases highlight some of the additional components of badging that go beyond what the helmet stickers achieve.

As an incentive tool, digital badges seem to be particularly suited for trainings and certifications, and indeed, they seem to already be proving effective. Companies like IBM have used digital badging to great success, realizing an increase in engagement, sales, skills growth, and a host of other metrics that contribute directly to the company’s value prop.

One thing to note is that digital badging for businesses typically should not be a standalone initiative, unlike in the examples of Ohio State and Michigan. Instead, this type of strategy is optimal when paired with an existing loyalty or incentive program that’s tied to more tangible rewards. To achieve this, a clear system needs to be established for implementing recognition, so that these digital credentials are aligned with current loyalty or incentive criteria. In addition, the credibility of digital badges is paramount, and is directly tied to the value that badge-earners will place on their achievement.


Two of the four best teams in college football this year both use a form of badging. Does this point to causation or correlation? It’s difficult to say. Nevertheless, if you asked both teams about the effect it’s had on their respective programs, my guess is they’d probably say it’s had a role in their success.

All of which is to suggest that with the right process in place for creating the necessary criteria, badging can become yet another tool for recognition in a company’s loyalty and incentive toolbox. Whether you’re looking to improve employee engagement, motivate sales, or promote skills and knowledge acquisition within your channel, a digital badging solution could be a valuable add-on to an existing strategy.

Now, with all that out of the way . . . Let’s Go Buckeyes!

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