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Marketing the madness

|March 17, 2017
Basketball emoji repeated on background
Written by
Andrew Blanchette

Andrew Blanchette

The madness has begun.

In eight cities across the US, 64 college basketball teams are facing off in one of the biggest sporting spectacles of the year. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a single-elimination thrill ride where underdogs defy odds, small schools find glory and millions of fans participate by trying to predict the impossible.

The tournament, dubbed ‘March Madness’, has become one of the most powerful brands in sport. Effective marketing and communications have played a major role in turning this small college tournament into an annual event that rivals the Super Bowl.

High stakes

March Madness is a ‘limited-time offer’ – a classic marketing technique used to create brand excitement. Not only does the tournament occur just once a year, every game is single-elimination—you lose, you’re out. That means if you miss it, you won’t get a chance to see it again. Limited-time offers create a sense of urgency. They give fans and customers a reason to get involved, and quickly.

This dynamic also creates an opportunity to execute highly concentrated brand promotions. Unlike the NBA, which promotes its games eight months of the year, March Madness can apply all of its resources into a small timeframe. The NCAA builds tournament awareness leading up to the first game and promotes each game over just a 20-day span. Right now, March Madness is everywhere you look.

Cinderella stories

A good story brings a brand to life. It helps people plug in and understand why you do what you do. But most importantly, it tells people why they should care.

March Madness is notorious for its amazing story lines. Whether it’s a David vs Goliath match-up, an underdog victory, or the top four seeds making it to the Final Four, there’s always a ‘bigger’ reason to watch. As storylines develop, fan investment grows.

The March Madness brand doesn’t rely on great stories to attract hardcore basketball fans. And conversely, no matter how captivating the story, some people will just never care about basketball. A great narrative is used to persuade those in the middle. The passive, partial-attention fence sitters who could just as easily watch an NHL hockey game instead of NCAA basketball. If a unique story can capture the hearts of this audience, tournament success will follow.

The same is true in business. It doesn’t have to be a Cinderella story, but in a competitive market, brands need a compelling narrative to capture customers and build loyalty. The story can’t stay stagnate—it needs to evolve and grow with the business.

Fan participation

March Madness is an opportunity for any team to win it all. Although the odds might be stacked against them, the lowest seed could do the improbable and take home the trophy. Tournament fans can experience the same rush. March Madness brackets (picking winners and losers for every round of the tournament) are a key part of the tournament’s brand. Millions of fans compete online to see whose basketball knowledge is worthy of their own championship ring. The odds of filling out a perfect bracket are 9.2 quintillion to one (9,200,000,000,000:1), but this doesn’t stop people from trying. Just like their favourite underdog team, they know with a little luck, they too can go all the way.

Brand participation is a trend that continues to grow and play a large role in marketing and communications plans. Customers want to be involved, heard and feel like they’re helping shape their favourite brands. Just like brand stories, participation generates an emotional connection between audience and brand. Deep connections mean strong loyalty.

——— Andrew Blanchette is a former Director, Social Intelligence at NATIONAL Public Relations


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