March Madness Reveals Best Practices for Brand Activations

Twisted Tea created special vasectomy underwear for March Madness time.

There are certain moments in time for brands which seem kismet. Valentine’s Day and chocolate. Super Bowl and gambling platforms. Back to school and backpacks. 

“Certain brands are almost required to launch an activation during a major event,” says Adam Ritchie, principal, Adam Ritchie Brand Direction. “If you're Guinness, the world expects you to show up strong for Saint Patrick's Day.”

In popular culture, live events now become national holidays. March Madness is one of these opportune times for snack, beverage and athletic brands to enjoy their time in the sun. And unlike the Super Bowl, which lasts one day (although the two-week lead up time seems to be gaining traction with advertisers), March Madness lasts almost a month, allowing brands and organizations ample time to get a repeated message out to the intended audience. 

However, brand activations during major events can be tricky. First of all, the field is inundated with products and services trying to take advantage of a pop culture zeitgeist. Standing out can be difficult. Also, some feel it’s a party everyone should be invited to. Some companies try to squeeze their way into the conversation, without acknowledging their poor fit with the audience. 

“There are the outlier brands who have no business being involved with an event, but they swoop in and claim it for themselves anyway," Ritchie says. “IHOP once hijacked National Pizza Day from the pizza brands with its "Pancizza," a giant pancake delivered in a pizza box. And that was even before they went after burgers!”

PRNEWS took a look at best practices for brand activations, focusing on the current March Madness cycle. 

Timing is Everything

At first glance, a look at Twisted Tea’s latest activation may have you doing a double-take. Twisted Tea chose March Madness to align with one of its audiences—men who’ve undergone a vasectomy. 

Twisted Tea released a pair of branded vasectomy underwear, called vasectomundies—a unique pair of boxers with two strategically placed pouches for ice-cold cans of Twisted Tea. The press release from Twisted Tea states that “fans "on the bench" can now enjoy a cold, refreshing Twisted Tea while icing their... sore spots.” 

You might wonder how vasectomy and March Madness match up. Well, according to healthcare research, the United States sees a 30% increase in vasectomies every March—just in time to relax on the couch, recover and watch the tournament. 

“Even though March Madness is enjoyed by everyone, a certain segment of the population plans a once-in-a-lifetime event around it,” Ritchie says. 

And believe it or not, Twisted Tea is not the first brand to do the research and discover the vasectomy link. Buffalo Wild Wings released “The Jewel Stool” four years ago—a special chair to cool your parts and your beer simultaneously. 

Originality Wins

While Twisted Tea’s vasectomundies is a unique activation in itself, Ritchie says being original really helps any brand entering the market. 

“Major popular culture events are like sports themselves, and the competitors are brands vying for attention,” he says. “If you're going to compete, be original. You're stepping onto the court wearing a branded jersey, and you get to design the ball you're about to shoot.”

DiGiorno recently leaned into originality when announcing their latest pizza creation for tournament time. The company released the Cry Pie, an all-onion pie for those getting emotional during March Madness. We’ve all seen winning coaches and losing athletes shed a tear after big games depending on what side of the outcome they’re on. The fans are no different. 

“We know many of our loyal consumers are also fans of the biggest moments in sports,” says Kimberly Holowiak, senior brand manager for DiGiorno. “Combined with the cultural truths surrounding college hoops, we looked for a way to insert the brand authentically and creatively into the seismic sports conversation we see annually in March.” 

DiGiorno took notice of college hoops becoming synonymous with superfans whose tears caught-on-camera go viral and make news.    

“We thought, how can we honor those icons while adding value in a playful way? That’s how our tear-masking Cry Pie was born,” Holowiak says. 

While it may seem like a complicated idea, the thought of crying during a sporting event is quite simple. Most people have done it as the emotions run wild, especially during a very important game. And all matchups during March Madness face elimination—so the stakes are high. Holowiak says keeping it simple contributed to the creation of the activation.

“The best ideas don’t take much explaining to show the value,” she says. “Know your brand first and foremost, and consider what you can add into the conversation around that popular event.”

Research Shows the Way

A little research can go a long way when learning something new about your customers. Hormel Black Label Bacon may not have fancied themselves a typical March Madness brand, but discovered through consumer insights that basketball and bacon fans go together.

“We used consumer insights (in-house data and from OnePoll and MRI-Simmons) to pinpoint the most dedicated basketball fans and understand what their bacon consumption/brand usage was,” says Nick Schweitzer, senior brand manager for Hormel Black Label Bacon. “We found that consumers most invested in spring basketball over-index on bacon consumption and consume more premium brands, including HORMEL.”

And if you don’t have access to a sophisticated data platform, Ritchie says social media can provide much useful data for audience research purposes. 

“I like to run social media searches for the name of the event and related hashtags, and see who's posting about it,” Ritchie says. “A 15-minute dive can tell you a lot about the ages, genders and locations of people who really care. You can also find the official Twitter account of the event and see who's replying to the posts. It's a snapshot of who's engaged.”

Research can also benefit activation ideas when discovering unlikely partnerships. The special detail about the bacon is that it’s smoked with basketball court hardwood, making it a natural fit for a March Madness activation. Schweitzer says the brand discovered Connor Sports, the official court supplier of the NCAA Final Four, to partner with after coming up with the smoked hardwood idea. 

“When we came up with the idea, we reached out to Connor® Sports to gauge their interest and determine if they would have leftover wood from the same pieces that are being used to make this month’s college basketball courts,” he says. “Connor Sports trimmed the ends of the actual wood that was used to make this year’s courts, creating hardwood maple chips to be used by the smoked meat experts at Hormel Foods.”

How a brand shows up in the moment can really make an impactful statement when it comes to brand activations. 

“Any bacon brand could slap a logo on the hardcourt, but only Hormel Black Label Bacon is bold enough to use the hardwood to make it."

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal