Brands Need Smarts And Luck During March Madness

March Madness is an apt moniker for this flurry of competition we’ve been treated to the past few weeks. Fitting not only for the unpredictable action on the court and the passion that it inspires, but for the sponsors associated with the NCAA tournament, as well as the heaps of money this spectacle generates. Last year, the tournament surpassed $1 billion in total revenue, and figures to bring in even more this year. Ratings have increased slightly, especially across cable, where the games have aired on TBS and TNT, marking a huge victory for Turner this year. Now, there is a real debate to be had around which mega sporting event can get you the most bang for your buck – is it the Super Bowl or is it March Madness?

Whichever platform you choose – the Madness or the Big Game – it’s ultimately how you go about reaching the fans that will decide how big is that bang.

In the past, when it came to major sporting events like March Madness, brands would put their money into traditional media or experiential campaigns and call it a day. Recently, however, televised sporting events have grown incredibly expensive, in no small part because live sports are famously “DVR-proof” and can still attract massive audiences. This has created a broadcasting rights bubble, with networks spending an inordinate amount of money to acquire the rights for various blue-chip properties. Frustrated brands and marketers alike have spoken out recently against the increasing cost of advertising and sponsorship. A few notable executives even sounded off in an Ad Age piece about the insane cost of sports advertising, speaking of a looming day of reckoning.

But, that sentiment may be a bit strong. People are quick to blame the big networks, but it may be just as much TiVo’s fault. Sports have always been this way: an exciting draw, live and immediate. It is everything else around them that changed. Yes, getting your brand out there during these events has become especially expensive, but there are still numerous ways to be effective. In today’s marketplace, it takes a little creativity, an integrated campaign and maybe even a little luck.

Speaking of luck, Buffalo Wild Wings might have the most luck of any marketer – and they might also be the only casual fans actively rooting against buzzer beaters when the game’s tied late. The wing chain is no stranger to sports, for the brand is built on it. One of its most popular series of spots is built on the premise that it has the ability to control the outcome of the game and force overtime – because everyone wants more sports and chicken wings, right? Running with this idea, Buffalo Wild Wings decided to purchase conditional spots taking credit for longer games, set to run just before the overtime period starts, all tournament long. The strategy has been praised unanimously this year, due to the tournament seeing a record of five overtime games during the round of 64.

The funny thing is, Buffalo Wild Wings did the same thing last year, but because of the lack of overtimes, no one seemed to notice. They certainly hit the jackpot this year, and the TV spots have led to a spike in social media mentions across their Twitter and Facebook accounts. To capitalize on these social mentions, Buffalo Wild Wings made sure to have content ready – talking about the various games, rivalries and commiserating with the many fans who had busted brackets. Similar to Esurance’s post-Super Bowl spend, which directly commented on how much money it saved by doing its commercial after the game, Buffalo Wild Wings won not because of quantity, but quality. And it doesn’t hurt that its creative was clever, aligned with its ideals and correlating with the action on screen.

Overall, it is a great example of how brands can best approach sports marketing. While we certainly aren’t saying anything groundbreaking when we talk about ways to stand out from the crowd, it is shocking how often brands can fall so easily into what becomes comfortable, and safe. When that happens, you become anonymous and forgettable – after all, you’re not just advertising during a game – you are competing with the in-game moments for a place in your viewers’ memories.

The game has changed. Like the athletes who play, everyone has gotten bigger, faster and stronger. When it comes to sports marketing, purchasing a title sponsorship or a TV ad is simply no longer enough. For brands looking to make an impact, there needs to be a plan across all mediums of communication: TV, in-stadium, on-site experiential, social media, digital media and more. The more of these mediums that you can leverage organically, to interact with potential consumers, the better. Spending gobs of money in March to do what everyone else is doing? Well, that’s just madness.

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