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March Madness Advertising Highlights

Be honest. Have you snuck away from your desk any time in the last month to stream a few minutes of Duke phenom Zion Williamson doing 360-degree hammer dunks, two-handed blocks, spin and cross-over combos or slick dribbling while on the job? You’re not alone. That’s why the three weeks of March Madness likely cost businesses $13 billion in lost productivity. And why the NCAA is setting new records for streams and streaming (both up more than 25% to meet demand). And why the tournament is on pace to be one of the highest-rated college hoops showcases in decades.

That’s good news for brands. The tournament remains one of the most valuable franchises in televised sports, reaching a highly coveted audience of financially secure professionals along with the desirable but elusive young male demographic. Advertisers will spend an estimated $1.36 billion to stand out via traditional TV, and, because March Madness has become somewhat of a creative proving ground, through additional social, mobile and data-driven campaign elements. Here are a few of the ad world’s game highlights.

Small Data Nuggets Can Spur Big Ideas
Buffalo Wild Wings, a long-time sponsor of the event, took the latter category into provocative territory by honing in on an, um, memorable data point revealed by parsing through copious amounts of audience data. Learning that the tournament is regularly accompanied by a 30% surge in vasectomies, the agency dreamt up the “Jewel Stool.” By creating barstools outfitted with cooling apparatus for a beer and a patient’s nether regions at select locations, the brand hoped to boost both traffic and awareness throughout the tournament. The numbers on how many more restaurant visits the ads drove (and, perhaps, those to urologist offices as well) are still coming in but the approach proves that sometimes a really great campaign starts with a really obscure data point and a healthy dose of humor.

Driving Connections by Expanding Social Circles
Regarding numbers that have already been quantified, SportsPro reports that NCAA March Madness social accounts have produced a 56% lift in engagements versus last year across its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram channels. Automakers, which have long been top March Madness advertisers, are putting more money and creativity into social—and particularly Instagram—in order to reach younger viewers via second (and third and fourth) screens while they are watching live streams.

Honda’s luxury car brand Acura, for example, built a social campaign around one of Acura’s strongest competitive differentiators, urging Instagram users to share videos of their “super handling” basketball skills on the court or in everyday situations during the tournament. ESPN analyst and host Jay Williams provides commentary on fans’ top moves in videos posted to Instagram. “The NCAA is the ideal partner as far as demographic and psychographic opportunities,” GM spokesperson Stefan Cross told Automotive News last year. “It allows you to reach a highly desirable audience, either right at the target buyer or raising awareness for potential buyers.”

Catching Consumers on the Move
CBS Sports Network offers an example of how mobile tech can enhance the fan experience of March Madness via an app that lets mobile viewers see a digitized rendition of live play, including a tally of player stats, adding a more immersive dimension right at viewers’ fingertips. CBS believes such an app-based experience may help to broaden the appeal of the tournament among a younger generation of tech-savvy consumers, who are known for frequently tuning in to social media or other mobile content while viewing sports live or at home.

In a more standard—but highly effective—approach, Wendy’s, the official hamburger of the NCAA, is once again using big prizes and food discounts to drive mobile app downloads and store sales. This year’s Take Your Shot campaign follows other successful mobile and social campaigns launched by Wendy’s to drive brand awareness. In 2017, for example, the QSR launched a Bracket Builder campaign on Twitter in an attempt to be part of the millions of conversations on Twitter about stats, upsets, favorites and, of course, bracket picks. This year’s campaign is expected to draw the same kind of engagement Wendy’s has offered in the past while capitalizing on the natural pairing of games and food.

While the madness aspect of March Madness seems toned down this year—apart from the excitement around Zion—advertisers have stepped in to the void, launching ever more immersive marketing experiences on as many platforms as possible to accompany game fever.