Mind The Madness: 5 Business Lessons From The NCAA Tournament

I graduated from Syracuse University almost 35 years ago, and I still bleed Orange. With the university’s self-imposed ban from the NCAA Tournament, that blood is boiling.

In an orange haze, I find myself reliving the memory of camping out for three brutally cold days to score a prized student section season ticket. Nostalgic shivers aside, I can’t help but now think how “customers” of universities stay passionate for 20, 30, 40 or even more years, provide a steady stream of revenue, and spend two or more weeks a year following them in total rapture. It’s something every business should aspire to.

Without the metaphorical equivalent of a campus with keg parties and coeds to create experiences that raise the bar and create stronger bonds, what lessons can companies learn from all this?

After 30-plus years of working with dynamic businesses and influential brands, here are my “Starting Five”:

1. Get Real: At its core, what fuels March Madness are the life experiences that link the university to its fans. Indeed, University life is about community, and the players on our teams are ambassadors for that ideal. We see it in the way they play; we feel like they really care.

Similarly, companies should put forward real people, who are really likable, making real contact with real customers. I’m a “prosumer” photographer who has chosen Canon in the Montagues vs. Capulets rivalry with Nikon. No single ad can come close to the impact that a few-minute experience with a Canon rep at a photo show has — ogling the latest lenses or comparing bucket list notes on where to shoot next. It gives their brand a heartbeat and drives me closer to it. 

2. Avoid Complacency: Passion has a voracious appetite and can be fleeting, as there is a natural tendency for people to become less interested and engaged with the passage of time.

This is not lost upon media savvy universities, which — aided by cable television, social media, and other online and mobile experiences — can more easily and frequently keep the emotional bond between alumni and university stoked.

If your business has satisfied customers, don’t sit back and wait for them to become dissatisfied. Something as simple as an acknowledgement, for example, can go a long way. Just last week, I got a package in the mail from a car company thanking me for the purchase I made six months prior. This unexpected “gift,” which came just as the new car smell was wearing off, served to validate my choice and reaffirmed my bond with the company.

3. Elude Elimination: Few emotions in spectator sports are as gut wrenching as when your highly ranked team loses to a low-ranked team in an early round of the Tournament.

Business is littered with the casualties of companies that took their opposition for granted — particularly scrappy challengers. As brands focus on “stealing” share versus growing it, particularly in mature categories, it’s important to consider the full field of players. Keep an eye on what might be coming down the pike in the near future.

4. Experiment Relentlessly: “Disciplined experimentation” can be a real challenge for companies that have a plan in place, limited resources, and an unceasing demand to “make the numbers.” Just ask the fans at Arizona State University.

Students at Arizona State University had tried different ways to unsettle opposing players taking free-throws on their side of the court. They landed on the “Curtain of Distraction,” which opens on cue to reveal a unicorn love story, lumberjack clubbing a bear, scantily clad guys in tutus, or some other whacky spectacle. To the surprise of the university, it became an audience draw in and of itself.

So, institutionalize the exploration of new and unexpected ways to engage your consumers. And when you land on something, execute it as if you were John Wooden by “making each day your masterpiece.”

5. Put a Premium on Talent: The best college basketball programs succeed year after year because they never stop recruiting great talent and answering the “what ifs.” Like “what if my star player goes pro after just one year of college ball.” 

So, like the teams that have expanded their horizons and started to recruit overseas, set your sights beyond the usual sources of candidates to find unique skills and hidden gems in industries unrelated to your own businesses.

Stephen King perhaps put it best when he said, “Talent is never static. It’s always growing or dying.” Take it to heart because, in harsh terms, this can be said about any company, even yours.

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