With conference tournaments dominating this week in men's college basketball, it means that official March Madness is just around the corner. And when the NCAA men's tournament begins next week, brands are going to be more ready than ever to take advantage. That's because March Madness has become a multifaceted, extended marketing "season" much as the NFL Super Bowl represents earlier each year.
In fact, in some ways, March Madness arguably has become an even more effective tentpole marketing platform than the Super Bowl.
Fan demographics are more purely favorable, for instance, because they rely so heavily on college alumni. Engagement is high, with millions of Americans filling out tournament brackets even if they don't know a thing about college basketball. And with 68 teams in the hunt for a championship, at least at the beginning, there are that many more people and markets who might be enthusiastic about the tourney than about the two-team Super Bowl.
"It's an alumni audience, not a kid audience," Craig Bierley, director of advertising and promotions for Buick, told brandchannel. Buick is one of the major corporate sponsors for March Madness, in its second year of that relationship, which Bierley partially credits for dropping the average age of Buick buyers to 57 from around 61 years old just two years ago.
This year, Buick will be focusing its March Madness efforts on its new Verano subcompact, an important entry by the brand in a new segment, with sponsorship of March Madness on Demand video streaming by CBS Sports and Turner Sports, in-game advertising and expansion of its popular Human Highlight Reel online-video and TV campaign, which features the altruistic exploits of former NCAA athletes.
As Jim DeTrude, director of marketing for Infiniti, the other major automotive sponsor of March Madness, explained, "There's a cultural engagement that takes place beginning on selection Sunday and carries through the tournament" that makes March Madness a unique marketing property.
His brand will be attempting to leverage that uniqueness to get attention for the all-new Infiniti JX crossover. Infiniti's campaign will include traditional TV advertising, online promotions in and around bracket selection, and, for the first time, heavy involvement in on-site marketing at the Final 4 in New Orleans. Infiniti is also working with coaches to help raise up to $700,000 for Coaches vs. Cancer, and encouraging fans to fill out a Round by Round Bracket at CBSSports.com/Infiniti.
Other brands are hitching their wagons to March Madness as well. Enterprise Rent-a-Car, for instance, is bowing a new 30-second TV ad featuring employees who were once competitive college athletes. In this brand's case, however, it is collegians who are the target. Enterprise claims that no American company recruits more college grads than it does, last year filling more than 8,000 entry-level positions with recent grads.
Powerade has launched a campaign dubbed "Power Through" just ahead of March Madness that includes print and digital elements, along with a sweepstakes contest.
The Coca-Cola-owned brand is the official sports drink of the NCAA, but the idea is to imply Powerade's status as the "underdog" to PepsiCo's Gatorade, a feeling that many athletes can identify with. (7-Eleven is helping spread the love via QR-enabled cups.) Sibling beverage brand Coke Zero is also running a "School Shout Out" through March 10th.
Meanwhile, Unilever is highlighting Dove Men+Care in its third annual March Madness campaign with a new-technology twist of the kind that often attracts young men.
Dove is partnering with Viggle, a month-old service that rewards people with points when they check into TV shows or commercials, as the social marketing partner for the campaign, which features basketball legends Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Nash, and Tom Izzo—coinciding this week with Shaq’s 40th birthday and the announcement of Izzo as Big Ten Coach of the Year.
"We wanted to reach our guy absolutely everywhere he's ready to consume the message," Rob Candelino, Unilever marketing director of personal washes, told Ad Age. That's why, in addition to sharing the personal stories of the Dove Men+Care spokesmen, the “Journey to Comfort” campaign is launching a Facebook app, “The Big Excuse,” that allows Facebook fans to send customized voicemails from O’Neal. The idea: "Since many guys don’t get a chance to sit back and watch the games due to work obligations, Dove Men+Care is helping guys get off the hook with their boss, wife, or friend with a funny and excusatory voicemail from Shaq."
This March Madness season also finds ESPN streaming live games to Facebook for the first time in any sport. And Turner Broadcasting continuing to leverage its partnership with CBS Sports to carry every single tournament game live in its entirety on one TV network or another, including Turner's TBS, TNT and TruTV. DirecTV is temporarily adding TruTV to its lineup during March Madness just like last year and has promised to keep TruTV afterward as well.
Turner is running new "Bracketmania" promos across its networks aimed at steering fans to its coverage during March Madness, featuring cameos by actors Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, hip-hop artist Big Boi and Turner's own employees: CNN anchors Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper. "When you look at the March Madness audience, it transcends sports," Turner Sports SVP Christina Miller told Huffington Post. "It's about pop culture. And there's this sense of urgency around it."
Other NCAA sponsors include Capital One, which promotes men's and women's NCAA sports via its Capital One Cup; AT&T (which is running a sweepstakes); and LG (also offering a contest prize trip to the Final Four as part of its Home Court Challenge).
Turner Sports, CBS Sports and the NCAA today announced the release of the March Madness Live app for Android and iOS devices.
Non-sponsors are also leveraging March Madness. Yahoo!, for example, has lined up a number of all-star brands, headlined by Mercedes-Benz and DiGiorno, for unique social and digital initiatives on Yahoo! Sports (the #1 online sports destination with more than 53 million unique monthly visitors).
When college hoops fans turn to Yahoo! Sports, and more specifically the portal's NCAA and Fantasy Sports hubs during March Madness, they will find DiGiorno and Mercedes-Benz brand messaging seamlessly integrated into the premium NCAA Tournament coverage experience that will enable fans to monitor their brackets, watch the latest game highlights videos, and get up-to-the minute analysis from the Yahoo! Sports' award winning writers. Highlights include:
Mercedes-Benz is utilizing Yahoo!’s ability to connect with users across four screens (desktop, mobile, tablet, and TV). The brand will be integrated into Yahoo! Sports’ Connected TV app during the broadcast and IntoNow from Yahoo! as fans check-in during the game as well as sponsor takeovers on Yahoo! Sports and Yahoo! Sports NCAA pages, including original video presented on Rivals.com from Yahoo! Sports.
DiGiorno, meanwhile, is sponsoring the “Like” your bracket social feature, which will broadcast updates to users’ Facebook feed and is tied to Yahoo!'s popular Tourney Pick ‘Em bracket.