The NCAA Tournament’s Branding Masterpiece and How You Can Benefit

By: Jeff Bartl | February 14, 2018

No one gave it a second thought when “March Madness” appeared prominently at center court for the first time in NCAA Tournament history in 2017. The subtle display represented nearly 80 years of the NCAA building a branding masterpiece collecting billions of dollars in revenue each year.

March Madness has become such a commonly used reference for the three-week event that the literal meaning has changed for brands looking to capitalize on opportunities generated throughout one of the most-watched sports showcases in America. No longer does the tournament’s unofficial nickname only mean to prepare for a month of buzzer-beaters and upsets. Brands and advertisers see a whirlwind of potential new consumers to engage throughout the month.

The target audience is simple: Everyone.

Over 70 million people participated in a bracket challenge during last year’s tournament that had an average daily viewing audience of 9.8 million. With the NFL between seasons, MLB yet to get underway, and the NHL and NBA months away from playoffs, die-hard and casual fans alike flock to the NCAA Tournament, craving sports excitement without distraction. This perfect storm of American sports scheduling makes TV advertising revenue soar, hitting a record $1.24 billion in 2016.

Context? In three short weeks, March Madness outpaced two months of NBA playoffs ($1.03 billion) and fell just short of matching the NFL postseason ($1.31 billion) which contained the most watched television program in US history. A large chunk of those marketing dollars spent on the NBA and NFL – and even MLB and the NHL – often go to current professional athletes to endorse brands. And some of those athletes endorse multiple products. But you won’t find that type of marketing during March Madness. Why?

The answer is not as sports-driven as you’d think. The NCAA’s amateur rules prohibit athletes’ names or likenesses from being used in advertising for products or services. Advertisers during March Madness rely solely on mascots, official NCAA-approved gear worn or displayed, former players, and current and former coaches in order to relate to consumers. So beyond the court, the sweat, the alumni pride, and the passion for winning office bracket pools, how has the NCAA figured out how to create such impactful demand? GREAT BRANDING.”

And the on-court branding is just the start. Going beyond the now ubiquitous March Madness tag, the NCAA has created subgroups within its own tournament – Selection Sunday, First Four, Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four – allowing the NCAA and television partners CBS and Turner to entice advertisers looking to reach specific segments of fans. Casual observers come and go depending on their favorite teams’ performance or their standing in a bracket pool, but by creating new opportunities during each week of the tournament, you’re going well beyond just capturing the Duke alumni. These subbrands leave room for brand-messaging creativity, sponsorship, accolade, and tried and true organic hype.

Even strategic brand placement within certain seating areas in arenas helps brand awareness. For example, Wendy’s placing an advertisement for late-night dining near a student-reserved section likely to imbibe after the game seems more effective. As would Northwestern Mutual advertising near luxury suites, corporate boxes and high-end seating. Both are official corporate partners of the NCAA and ramp up their marketing efforts in March.

But spending the most money doesn’t necessarily translate to the best results, especially when it comes to consumer social engagement that included 63 million social media impressions from fans during the 2017 NCAA Tournament. 4C Insights conducted an analysis of the top 20 brands airing at least 10 spots during the 2017 tournament in order to “determine the likelihood a consumer is to engage with a brand on social media within two minutes after their March Madness ad aired,” which is referred to as TV-social lift. According to 4C Insights, Capital One and Geico spent the most on television advertising with 160 commercials, but neither saw much social engagement. Acura ran 37 spots and had a 1,491 percent increase in social media engagements.

During the tournament’s championship game, Coca-Cola, which is an “official NCAA corporate champion” sponsor along with Capital One and AT&T, purchased more than five minutes of ad time and had the least amount of TV-social lift. Bud Light spent the fewest dollars and increased social media engagements 24,782 percent. All the aforementioned names are recognized major brands, but some went beyond leveraging television and online streams to spend their money wiser, increasing awareness and driving consumer engagement.

The NCAA Tournament takes broadcast breaks, be it before and after games or the off days leading up to the next round. Some web content providers have reported a 91.7 percent increase in traffic during March Madness as sponsored contests and bracket challenges draw an influx of new users. It’s also an opportunity to present solid, impact branding without it disappearing after a 30-second TV spot or having it get lost through social media scrolls. The branding stares back when the user enters the contest and throughout the duration of the tournament while they check back for results. It’s subtle, but sometimes the most influential marketing is done by teasing the brand.

Timing, creativity and audience recognition all play a role in product marketing, and any misstep during an event like the NCAA Tournament could result in plenty of missed opportunities. Get it right, and your brand awareness – no matter the target market – increases exponentially through multiple channels, regardless of company size and marketing budget.

Essentially, the NCAA has laid the groundwork for you. It branded its annual tournament into separate events that helped create exposure opportunities for small and large brands alike. That’s the marketing genius behind March Madness. When the target audience is everyone, opportunities during the NCAA Tournament exist for every single brand.

Now, it’s up to you to capitalize.