How brands like Coke, Nissan and Wendy's are approaching a very different March Madness
A year ago this week, Invesco was on the verge of unleashing its biggest sports marketing play in several years with a March Madness campaign that leaned into passionate—and large—college basketball crowds. But to this day, those ads have never run, because the NCAA pulled the plug on the tourney just days before it was set to begin as the pandemic forced the nation into lockdown.
“It was something to live through—having done all of the work, all of that strategic thinking, and then to find ourselves … in the middle of something that was so unknown at the time,” says Emily Pachuta, Invesco’s chief marketing and analytics officer for the Americas.
With the NCAA tournament set to return next week, much more is known about COVID and the steps brands must take to protect their media investments. But March Madness sponsors and advertisers are still dealing with plenty of uncertainty as they seek to get the best bang for their buck from a three-week sporting spectacle that will look much different than previous tourneys.
The entire event will be played in the state of Indiana, with limited crowds (capped at 25% of capacity) and played on a slightly condensed schedule. Social distancing rules will squash the kind of experiential marketing programs usually held at various tournament venues across the country. And brands, which normally feed into the phenomenon of people playing hooky to catch Thursday and Friday first-round day games at sports bars, must account for the fact that most people are still homebound.
The cancelation of last year’s tourney and the sporadic nature of this season—some teams had to take lengthy COVID-related pauses—has hurt college basketball’s momentum, along with the in-person attendance curbs, suggests Jeremy Carey, managing director at Optimum Sports, an Omnicom-owned sports marketing agency. “If you are taking fans away from being able to root for their team for a year ... it’s going to have some level of negative impact,” he says. Another potential TV ratings drag is that college basketball’s traditional powerhouses, such as Duke and Kentucky, are having down years and might not make the tourney.
Still, Carey says that the tourney—which ends with the Final Four on the first weekend of April—is “going to be the best media opportunity for any marketer within this time period. Whether it’s trending down or trending up, it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of anything else.”
In 2019, tournament ratings jumped 11% from the year prior across TBS, CBS, TNT, and truTV. And advertisers shelled out $910 million on TV ads, according to Kantar.
But total TV viewership of 2020-2021 regular season college basketball fell nearly 4%, according to Nielsen data. That drop, however, is not as steep as other programming, including the National Football League, whose regular season ratings slid by about 7%.
The tournament begins March 18 with the “First Four” games and will air across CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV as part of a CBS Sports-Turner Sports partnership now in its 10th year.
CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus addressed the potential lack of elite teams like Duke and Kentucky during a media briefing today, conceding that those blue bloods help ratings. But he added: “We are going to focus on the teams that are in there, and focus on their stories—and if the tournament develops like it always seems to, I think we’ll do fine from a viewership standpoint.”
Ad sales “have been remarkably strong,” he added, saying “we are just about about sold out of the tournament.” More than 100 brands bought ads with strong interest from insurance providers, automakers, financial services companies, restaurants and telecoms, according to Turner and CBS ad sales execs.
Recovering from last year
Last year’s cancelation forced the NCAA to renegotiate sponsorship deals, which are brokered by CBS and Turner.
Invesco, which signed its deal in late 2019, got a one-year extension as did other sponsors such as Nissan and Wendy’s, the companies confirmed. “This year is effectively year one for us,” says Invesco’s Pachuta. Some marketers are re-using content created for the 2019 tourney that never ran. Nissan will repurpose an ad it had planned to run last year showing a Sentra on an epic chase from the West Coast to the Final Four site—but the brand had to recut it to replace a scene of Atlanta, which was supposed to host last year’s championship, to Indianapolis, site of this year’s finals.
Invesco won’t run the crowd-focused ads it made but never used last year because “it’s just not appropriate” amid social distancing, Pachuta says. Instead it will run new ads from Grey New York starring CBS broadcasters Grant Hill and Greg Gumbel, including some that plug its “QQQ” exchange traded fund, deemed the NCAA’s “official ETF.”
Wendy’s, an official NCAA sponsor since 2017, had high hopes for last year’s tournament, as it planned to heavily promote its breakfast menu, launched in March 2020. “Clearly, March Madness evaporating from the world was an interesting challenge that we had to work through,” says Wendy’s Chief Marketing Officer Carl Loredo.
There were a number of options presented to Wendy’s once the tournament was canceled last year, he says. “We love this partnership with the NCAA. It was extended for another year given what happened last year but we see this moving well beyond even this contract term,” says Loredo. Wendy’s began running a March Madness-themed TV campaign on March 1 that will progress with new spots during the tournament.
“There’s just going to be so much pent-up energy we could probably be running these games at 5 a.m. and everybody would be all over them because they’re just so excited to have March Madness,” says Loredo.
Contingency plans and at-home viewing
This year, the worst-case scenario is a mass COVID outbreak that forces game cancelations—something that some brands are accounting for with contingency plans by not leaning too heavily into college basketball imagery, in case media needs to be redeployed elsewhere.
Reese’s, an official NCAA sponsor, downplayed the basketball imagery on its seasonal in-store displays in case the tournament got canceled, for instance. The brand will run hoops-themed TV ads during the tourney, but it is reusing a campaign that ran during March Madness in 2019.
On social media Reese’s will ask fans to use “#saltyreeses” (a play on being “salty” if your team does not do well) and get prizes in return (it plugs the Reese's with pretzles variety). The brand expects more fans to be engaging on social media since fewer will be out and about. “We know that they are not going to watch the game going to their friends house or a bar, they are going to be at home,” says Veronica Villasenor, VP of chocolate for Hershey Co.
One brand that might benefit from all the homebound viewing is Pizza Hut, an official NCAA sponsor, which will run ads plugging its “$10 Tastemaker” deal for a large three-topping pizza that’s “perfect for the whole family to enjoy during the madness right from the comfort of their home,” according to a representative.
Beer brands, on the other hand, could suffer from a lack of sports bar viewing. Molson Coors and Anheuser-Busch InBev are pressing forward with ad buys, as they continue to try to make up for lost bar sales with more grocery sales. Coors Light will run a campaign that nods to last year’s tournament cancelation as one of the first signs of the pandemic’s effect on American sports and entertainment with a creative theme that plays into the time that has elapsed between then and now. AB InBev will plug its new Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer variety—putting an emphasis on using programmatic buys to fuel e-commerce buying.
Leaning into streaming
CBS and Turner will cater to the tournament’s live-stream and second-screen audiences with several enhancements to its “NCAA March Madness Live” platform that is designed for mobile devices, as well as Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Xbox One and Google TV. NCAA sponsor AT&T is putting its name on a feature called “The Catch Up” that will “provide users with a succinct summary of any key plays or moments in the game before they start watching live streaming coverage,” according to Turner and CBS. The telecom will also jointly sponsor with Nissan another feature called “Fast Break” that includes live, whip-around coverage of multiple games at once. In 2019,
Allyson Witherspoon, Nissan’s U.S. chief marketing officer, expects streaming game viewing to grow in the work-from-home environment. “Everyone is very used to being on camera full time … the multitasking of being both on Zoom as well as watching [games] on the bottom or upper corner,” she says. Plus, it’s easier to have the games on when you don’t have to worry about the boss watching over your shoulder.
Xfinity is playing up this notion with ads that show people at home surrounded by screens that they try to explain as being used for virtual meetings, when in fact they are full of games. The Comcast-owned internet and cable TV provider, which is not an official NCAA sponsor, will support the campaign primarily with digital buys on ESPN properties.
Matt Lederer, VP of branded partnerships at Comcast, cited research showing a high percentage of people streaming content while working during the pandemic. “You can only imagine what that behavior will be like when [March Madness] starts,” he says, adding that “the services we offer are uniquely positioned to allow people to do that.”
Brands that normally use the tournament for experiential marketing and sampling programs will lose out on those opportunities this year. During prior tournaments, Wendy’s would be on site including at regional games, giving food to fans. This year, the fast food chain is providing food for the players for the first time.
Coca-Cola Co.-owned Powerade, an NCAA sponsor, is also catering to players by providing them with gifts such as portable laptop desks and other items meant to make their potentially long stays in hotel rooms more comfortable. The sports drink is also rolling out individual hydration stations on courtside benches equipped with personalized squeeze bottles that replace the normal communal coolers that are no longer acceptable in the pandemic.
During TV coverage, the brand will run its new “Power in Numbers” campaign that plugs new bottle packaging adorned with the numbers 0-99 that is aimed at allowing athletes to match their bottle with their jersey number.
Nissan, which normally would show off its vehicles at tourney sites, will instead erect a “Fan Cave” at the Final Four site form which select influencers will broadcast live to the automaker’s social channels. It’s an attempt to virtually recreate experiences it would normally do at in-person fan fests. “There were a lot of things that we felt could be repurposed and remixed in different ways that still would be incredibly impactful, and this Fan Cave is an example of that,” Witherspoon says.
Contributing: Jessica Wohl