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Marketing Lessons From March Madness

My name is Dave Rosenberg, and I have a problem: I am addicted to the game of basketball.

I played on organized teams from grammar school through college, but when my cross-over dribble wouldn’t cross and no one looked at my “no look” pass, I began to coach—first my daughter (even though she didn’t inherit her father’s love of the game) and now a high-school girls’ varsity team.

I am a hoopaholic and, if only for the months of March and April, I am not alone—far from it, actually. According to the NCAA, the 2015 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championships experienced its highest average viewership in nearly two decades. The semifinal between Wisconsin and Kentucky reached more than 41 million people alone.

Online activity was just as crazy. As of April 5, NCAA March Madness Live had garnered more than 77 million live video streams, 16.8 million live hours of video consumption, and 306 million total social impressions across Facebook and Twitter.

Fans weren’t the only ones who were excited. While major sporting events like the Super Bowl and World Series may still beat the NCAA Championships in terms of viewership, Kantar Media’s 2012 March Madness Advertising Trends Report revealed that sponsors shelled out an estimated $1.2 billion to connect with fans during this year’s tournament—and for good reason. Unlike any other sporting event, March Madness once again turned the act of watching television into an interactive, social experience that connected us with friends, family members, co-workers, college buddies and college rivals alike. For brands seeking to reach people in their most engaged and passionate moments, the tournament was a goldmine.

Here’s a look inside the playbooks of some of the brands that dominated the marketing game during the NCAA Championships, from offensive media plans to full-court social presses.

Control the ball. Every successful hoops coach knows that you don’t have a chance of winning if you can’t control the ball. In the marketing world, that translates into managing a consistent tempo of information around social TV events like the NCAA Championships.

Buffalo Wild Wings gets this. In its third year as “The official hangout for March Madness,” its integrated #WingWisdom campaign guided a near-constant exchange of information among the restaurant and its consumers. Through television, social, digital and live efforts, #WingWisdom encouraged fans to engage in conversations about everything from the proper way to fill out a tournament bracket to calling in (not) sick to work.

By allowing fans to steer the conversation, #WingWisdom was engaging, relevant and seemingly effective in driving people to the restaurant. 

Play to your strengths. The most successful teams know how to best utilize their strengths and, like a star player, few areas are proving stronger for marketers today than the second screen. According to Nielsen’s 2014 U.S. Digital Consumer Report, 84% of smartphone and tablet owners report using their devices while watching TV, and 1 million Americans turn to Twitter as their second-screen teammate.

During March Madness, this second-screen behavior is even more common. Fans are tweeting, talking smack about “sleeper schools,” and following games through live broadcasts, branded content and every means possible.

Acura made the second screen a key player in its marketing plan with its “March Memeness” campaign, in which the automaker created a “MemeQuarters” microsite on and a dedicated Tumblr page. Throughout the tournament, the brand featured 103 short, sharable video vignettes with basketball-centric double entendre headlines, such as a video of a bird watching a rhinoceros chew grass, with the headline “Two points!”

By tying memes to live, on-court events, Acura’s “Meme Team” leveraged the power of the second screen in real time.

Play with your head and your heart. While seamless communication, strategy and technical skills all lead to victory, few things are more powerful than a team that plays with their heads and their hearts.

For smart marketers, bringing an unexpected dose of heart to the high-intensity tournament was a surefire way to stand out. Take Dove Men+Care, for example: The men’s grooming brand seamlessly tied its “Real Strength Moments” campaign into March Madness by sharing tournament images that the brand associated with thematic taglines, such as, “What brings a team together? Caring for each other.” Then, the brand asked its followers to retweet, “Care Makes a Man Stronger #MarchMadness.”

Having fun always helps, too. With every college basketball fan in the country still licking his wounds over crumbling brackets, Lowe’s seized the moment and created a Twitter-inspired spot for the tournament’s biggest fans: the “bracketologists.” Lowe’s debuted a March Madness campaign aimed at hapless young DIYers with the theme, “You can always come to Lowe’s for help.” The campaign included a spot in which every tile in a fan’s newly renovated shower had the name of every team in the tournament. During the spot, the tiles for the eliminated colleges crash to the floor—no different than the DIYer’s bracket.

These brands didn’t just show up to the tournament—they won a game all their own. 

Dave Rosenberg is chief strategy officer at New Berlin, Wisc.-based GMR Marketing, a global marketing agency that specializes in sports.