Taking the Final Four Away from Indiana: A Lesson in Adaptive Marketing

How Brands Can Use Real-Time Responses to Admonish Indiana Without Detracting from the Games

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If we stop mentioning that the Final Four takes place in Indiana, does it actually take place in Indiana?

With the backdrop of the state of Indiana passing a law that could open the door to legalize discrimination against the LGBT community, much has been said about the prospects of Indianapolis hosting future tent-pole sporting events like the Final Four or the Super Bowl. We've seen companies pull funding, job creation and event participation from the state, but we haven't heard much about the present impact of such a big sports gig -- the native marketing of the state through association with the game.

Every one of the Final Four teams trailed at some point in their Elite Eight games. But each of their coaches made in-game lineup adjustments and strategic shifts that led their team to victory. The institutions at the center of college basketball's signature weekend need to be similarly adaptive to respond to the cultural flashpoint in Indiana.

We've heard NCAA president Mark Emmert say that he'll "closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events." The NCAA isn't likely to detract attention from the games by standing up against the law now, but if it had the desire, it could do so in real time.

Brands could also use this cultural moment to act in real time, right now, in a way that responds smartly without disrupting the games themselves -- but make a strong statement to quietly admonish Indiana.

It doesn't mean frantically searching for a new location, desperately reorganizing the travel of thousands of people, and jeopardizing millions of dollars in investments. It means adapting the strategy to cut location out of the conversation.

Yes, Indianapolis has already extracted the majority of the games' value through housing, as well as the dollars that will be injected into local businesses this weekend. But there is also great value to the state and city municipalities in the exposure they get from the Final Four (VisitIndy, the city's tourism board, has stated they hope the Final Four is a platform to attract other visitors and events).

So, for brands and organizations whose desire is to join the number of companies protesting the new law, there are ways to remove the spotlight from the state -- not the game. Here are some ideas:

1. Make it about the fans. Instead of overhead video of the stadium and the city's skyline, let's see more live shots of Badgers and Blue Devils fans or hometown heroes.

2. Feature team-local culture. Instead of Jim Nantz talking up the host city's local cuisine, how about sparking discussion about Carolina vs. Kentucky BBQ?

3. Curate your material. Capital One's "In the Annapolis" spot is probably the funniest of its NCAA ads, but any of its others will get the brand job done without even slightly mentioning this year's Final Four location.

4. Shift the focus. The NCAA can encourage and help partners to drop the Final Four lockup (which features "Indianapolis" in big block letters) from their end cards in favor of the broader, locationless March Madness icon.

5. Make it count. Each time there is a reference to the state, visual or spoken, there could be a donation made to an Indiana-based LGBT cause -- emphasizing the NCAA's commitment to tolerance.

In my role, I'm constantly in search of ideas that adaptively keep brands culturally relevant. But in this case, we need ideas that will help a sport, broadcast networks and brands avoid cultural irrelevance. And in doing so, it's an opportunity for this event to show what it stands for.