Hoopla Over March Madness Marketing

If you are a company not officially affiliated with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, be very careful what you say in marketing campaigns. Now that NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament is underway, watchdogs at the NCAA are being especially vigilant in how marketers are trying to crash what has become one of the most-watched, and most-financially seductive, sports parties of the year.

The NCAA can count on both hands and a toe the companies whose alliances as "corporate champions" or "corporate partners" entitles them to use terms or marks related to the college basketball tournament: AT&T, Coke, Capital One, Enterprise, The Hartford, Hershey's, Kraft, LG, Lowe's, State Farm and UPS. A number of other companies, such as Papa John's, have deals with the NCAA legally enabling them to use certain terms for a limited time.

But that means hands off for non-affiliated marketers to such widely used, but registered, trademarked or copyrighted phrases as "March Madness," "NCAA Sweet Sixteen/NCAA Sweet 16," "Elite Eight/Elite 8/Men's Elite Eight," "Final Four/Final 4/The Final Four," "Road to the Final Four," "The Road to Indianapolis" (where the 2010 Men's Final Four will be played), "The Big Dance," "NCAA Basketball," "NCAA" and a plethora of others.

The NCAA takes invasion of its corporate territory very seriously. There is a full-time staff, and lots of lawyers, monitoring the NCAA's "Trademark Protection Program." According to an official NCAA statement, "Federal regulations support the NCAA's efforts to prohibit the unauthorized use of the NCAA's name and trademarks or any use of NCAA championship tickets in sweepstakes, promotions or contests, or any other unfair attempt to associate with or exploit the goodwill of any NCAA championship event . . . nor may NCAA trademarks be used on the Internet for commercial purposes." The ominous sounding official NCAA brochure, "Protecting Home Court Advantage," offers rules, regulations and penalties for marketers in much greater detail.

Beyond national championship bragging rights, there is significant financial territory to protect. The total amount spent on national TV advertising during post-season events in 2009 was topped by the NFL (including Super Bowl XLIII) at $753 million. The NCAA men's basketball tournament was second with $598 million. That figure was ahead of Major League Baseball playoffs and World Series ($391 million), the NBA playoffs ($347 million) and even the NCAA's college football bowl games ($272 million), according to marketing and research firm Kantar Media, New York.

Does that mean marketers not aligned with the NCAA will keep a safe distance? No way, especially with millions of potential customers who do not normally follow college basketball now paying attention. It just means they need to be creative (the NCAA might call it deceptive) and use catchwords that have not been trademarked when building their ad campaigns.

PepsiCo, for example, has SoBe Lifewater Zero Calorie ads offering "college hoops fans reason to engage this March" with a "bracket challenge" that features such celebrities as ex-NFL star Jerry Rice and Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model Brooklyn Decker.

T.G.I. Friday's is offering specials during "college basketball watching parties" while "tournament" games are on TV. "It's March, and that means madness," explains the casual dining destination. Competitor Ruby Tuesday is offering $1 million during its "Perfect Bracket Challenge," which invites consumers to compete for prizes "throughout the tournament."

Southwest Airlines is touting new ads that will air "during broadcasts of the college basketball championship games." Fathead recently introduced its first talking wall graphic, featuring Dick Vitale, longtime college basketball analyst, which it supports with a sweeps targeting "college basketball fans throughout the month of March."

Diamond Foods' Emerald Nuts has "declared its support for all the heroes and underdogs in the national college basketball tournament" with a "Bracket Game" promotion. As Craig Tokusato, VP-marketing for Diamond Foods, said in a statement, "We are always seeking ways to increase the velocity of our products, and we view online promotions and upfront visibility on high-traffic Web sites during the tournament as an ideal way to encourage consumer interaction with the brand and drive in-store sales."

In other words, you can officially be mad about pizza in March, but unless you are Papa John's, you can't be the "official pizza of NCAA March Madness."

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