Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve spent the last month under a rock, you’ve likely managed to miss all the fuss around March Madness, the much-beloved NCAA basketball tournament that ramps up around this time every year.

But, if you went to a college represented in the “Sweet Sixteen,” you’re watching. If you dislike a college represented in the Sweet Sixteen, you’re watching . . . with your fingers crossed. And all over the nation, offices and neighborhoods alike are starting to argue over their brackets long before the “Final Four” are close to being crowned. Even if you don’t care about basketball at all, it’s easy to get swept up in the “hoopla.”

The genius of the March Madness branding is that it capitalizes on our national obsession with sports and adds a compelling community angle that makes everyone want to get involved.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the players aren’t pro athletes being paid millions of dollars every year; college stars have careers just starting to hit the spotlight. As a result, even people who don’t usually follow sports can relate, and they end up taking part in the office pool or sitting down to watch a game.

It’s truly a perfect storm of fun, competition, “Be True to Your School” loyalties and enough emotional ups and downs to start a soap opera!

What more could a marketer want? March Madness offers huge advertising and branding opportunities, and there are plenty of best practices and lessons you can pull from all the brand madness happening off the court.

  • It’s not about you… but it could be! Pop quiz: what do Pizza Hut and Spam have to do with basketball? The answer: not much, unless you count the fact that people watching basketball might enjoy eating those things. Even brands that aren’t official sponsors or directly linked to the NCAA are popping up with well-timed campaigns that take advantage of the buzz (and yet keep them safely out of the line of fire of official sponsors).While a public event might not have much connection to what you do, that same event might have a tremendous connection with your community. Why not host your own bracket on your Facebook page, or put up a sign in your store window telling everyone your favorite teams? You could even offer a special for folks who show you their winning bracket. But whatever you do, make sure you…
  • Give the people what they want. Promotions around events don’t become popular just because they’re connected to events people like. They also need to provide clear value for the customer.How about offering a discount on a popular product if a customer tells you what team they’re cheering for? Or a two-for-one deal if a customer comes in wearing a school shirt? Both of those offers make it worthwhile to take part—and make it much more likely your happy customer will mention your promotion to a friend.
  • Think small. You don’t need to come up with an epic commercial or decorate from floor to ceiling or raffle off a car to take advantage of an event like March Madness—and if you get too big and too specific, you might run afoul of the NCAA, anyway! Remember: Small, straightforward nods matter, too.Why not send a quick Tweet asking your followers who they’re cheering for? Create a quick YouTube video by asking everyone who comes in to your brick and mortar store who they’re cheering for—maybe even invite them to do their school cheer! Start a hashtag on Instagram, and invite everyone to send a picture of them celebrating a great shot at home or out with friends
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. Save the gravitas for the folks at Nike or Gatorade. People get pretty intense about sports, but at the end of the day, they’re having fun following their teams. You should have fun, too.Why not hold a contest for the best bracket name involving your business? Post clips of the funniest March Madness ads on your Facebook page. You could hold a “big dunk” contest with a Nerf ball and a portable kids’ basketball hoop in your parking lot—and then post the videos online.

The ideas are endless. National events like March Madness offer an opportunity for all types of businesses –whether B2B or B2C –to connect with their audiences in fresh and innovative ways. And who knows? You may just broaden your appeal, providing a nice lift for sales as you move into Q2 . . . and baseball season.