It’s the second full day of games of the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament – otherwise known as March Madness – and I, like many other sports-loving Americans, have had my head swimming with all things bracket-related. (Thanks, Marquette, for the comeback and come on, Spartans!)
In my house, the March Madness tradition is on par with Christmas, where my husband and his friends take two full days off from work to drink Bloody Marys, eat junk food and try to keep tabs on four different TV channels simultaneously. Even for those who don’t follow regular-season play, March Madness is like three weeks of Super Bowls – you don’t need to have already invested to get invested.
And speaking of investments, marketers have been getting creative in trying to capture their piece of the tourney pie without breaking the bank. This year, a 30-second ad spot during the championship game on CBS could reach a record $1.4 million. Buffalo Wild Wings may have had the funds to pony up and become “The Official Hangout of March Madness,” but unfortunately, the exorbitant price tag required for using terms like “March Madness” and “Final Four” in marketing makes getting in the fray impossible for most.
Well, at least getting in the official fray.
There’s a whole culture surrounding the tournament that marketers want to capitalize on and where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Enter: the marketing ambush.
According to Bruce Horovitz’s March 18 USA Today article, “March Madness marketers run the ambush route,” an ambush means finding low-budget ways to digitally link brands with the tournament without paying huge ad or sponsorship fees by sidestepping the trademarked terms.
Horovitz uses Pizza Hut, Spam and Hooters as examples:
• Giving away pizzas. Pizza Hut is offering college basketball fans, who sign up in advance, the chance to win a coupon for a free medium pizza with one topping ($8 value) if all four No. 1 seeds in the tournament advance to the semi-finals in Atlanta.
Never mind that Pizza Hut is not a sponsor or in-game advertiser. “We are not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes,” says Caroline Masullo, director of digital marketing. “We consider this to be smart marketing.”
• Trying to go viral. Spam has posted on YouTube a video of a goofy character, “Sir Can A Lot,” who runs around screaming that he can’t get over “the madness of March.” It’s using the video to target fans on social media.
“The ‘madness of March’ video was created because we looked at March and figured that would be trending,” says Nicole Behne, senior brand manager.
• Creating buzz. Hooters is offering downloadable deals during the tournament that it’s dubbed Hooters Hooky basketball coupons. Among the offerings: free fried pickles. “We decided to be the official sponsor,” says marketing chief Dave Henninger, “for the passion of watching college basketball tournaments.”
The NCAA isn’t happy with ambush marketing infringing on its trademark but hasn’t publicly acknowledged the offenders.
This type of workaround campaign is becoming more common as ad costs continue to rise (witness all of the talk of “the big game” around Super Bowl time as well) but what do you think? Is it unethical to piggyback on the popularity of big sporting events like this? Or is it, as Masullo said, just smart marketing? Would you ever consider ambush marketing? Do you think differently about brands that do?