‘Official Partners’ and Others Gear Up for March Madness Marketing

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The NCAA’s annual March Madness basketball tournament is about to get underway, and there will be no shortage of “Official Partners” tying their brands to the tournament and using the high-profile event for marketing activations. 

The NCAA’s annual March Madness basketball tournament is about to get underway, and there will be no shortage of “Official Partners” tying their brands to the tournament and using the high-profile event for marketing activations. 

Some old favorites will be back, such as Capital One’s road-tripping stars Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Barkley and Spike Lee, bantering and making fun of each other as they “road trip” to the tournament. This year, the trio will be joined by country music icon Willie Nelson (singing a basketball-themed version of “On the Road Again”). 

Meanwhile, Nissan has introduced its own road-themed advertising campaign, featuring its all-new electric Ariya car in a series of commercials that depict people driving to the tournament alongside various college mascots. In one spot, for instance, USC women’s basketball head coach Lindsay Gottlieb is driving a passenger in the front seat and a tree mascot in the back. When the passenger indicates the mascot is hungry, he opens the sunroof to give it nourishment. Another spot features former basketball players Candace Parker and Kenny Smith reminiscing about the “good old days” (but regretting their hair choices). 

The U.S. Army is using the basketball tournament to launch a new campaign that features a redesigned star logo and the resurrection of its “Be All You Can Be Tagline” for a new generation. The new campaign, which features two videos and a “full brand ecosystem,” is designed to spotlight the opportunities provides for individuals to explore their passions and build communities. 

The centerpiece of the campaign is two films featuring Jonathan Majors, who is having a moment as a star in both Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Creed III.” Evoking imagery from the American Revolution to World Wars I and II and more recent missions, the films are designed to link the Army’s past and present. 

Highlighting the “Zero” in its name, Pepsi Zero Sugar is teaming with DraftKings on a reverse bracket challenge that will reward one person who manages to get none of the winning teams in the bracket correct. Points will be awarded for teams winning their matchups, and, from the number of brackets scoring Zero points, one winner will be awarded $100,000.

Building upon its college football campaign starring Deion Sanders and Nick Saban, Aflac is bringing two legendary college basketball coaches, Dawn Staley (University of South Carolina) and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), together for the brand’s March Madness campaign. In the new campaign, the two coaches translate for the Afflac Duck’s nemesis “The Gap Goat.” Depicting the gap some individuals might have after medical procedures, the goat enters the spots bellowing “gaaaap” and carrying medical bills. 

As the “Official Hamburger” of the tournament, Wendy’s is touting a one-dollar single hamburger deal when ordered through its app during the tournament’s duration. To hype the deal, Wendy’s advertising will once again feature NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller cheering on people who are eating at a Wendy’s

Hormel is taking its tie-in to the tastebuds with a “Hardcourt Smoked Black Label Bacon,” which has been smoked with the actual northern maple wood used to make the courts on which the Men’s and Women’s Final Four and National Championships take place. To make the product, Hormel teamed up with Connor Sports, which supplies the court for the tournaments. Connor trimmed the ends of the wood to make the wood chips for smoking. In honor of the 68 teams playing in the NCAA Tournaments, the limited-edition bacon will only be available to 68 fans via sweepstakes. 

“For the first time, college hoops superfans won’t just live and breathe the game this March, but they’ll have a chance to eat it, too,” said Nick Schweitzer, senior brand manager for Hormel Black Label Bacon, in a statement. “Even if your bracket is busted early, you can still get the taste of sweet victory with our limited-edition bacon.”  

As the “Official Hair Salon” of March Madness, Great Clips is offering college basketball fans to win tickets to either the Men’s or Women’s Final Four games via a “Hats Off” sweepstakes. The company is encouraging fans to share photos or videos of them flipping a hat on social media – using the hashtag #HatsOffSweepstakes. A promo video for the sweepstakes depicts college basketball players, fans and trick-shot artists showing off their creative hat flips

Marriott Bonvoy, meanwhile, has created a number of experiences and stays as the “Official Hotel Parnter” of the NCAA. The experiences, which range from simple hotel stays to VIP Experiences at the Final Four locations, will be accessible through the company’s Mariott Bonvoy Moments loyalty platform. “Travel and sports are both about connecting people and creating lasting memories, and we're beyond excited to continue our partnership with the NCAA to help fans make the most of what are sure to be unforgettable tournaments,” said Julius Robinson, Marriott International’s chief sales and marketing officer for the U.S. and Canada, in a release.

At a time when the stars are often celebrated, Degree, the “Official Deodorant” of the NCAA and Final Four, is awarding $25,000 Name, Image, Licensing deals to five walk-on athletes (i.e. those who were not recruited nor awarded scholarships to play for their teams). Four of the athletes have already been determined (University of Connecticut’s Andre Johnson, Jr., University of Notre Dame’s Lauren Zwetzig, University of Wisconsin’s Ronnie Porter, and Duke University’s Spencer Hubbart), and the brand is asking consumers to nominate the fifth athlete, who will be revealed during the Final Four championship. 

Pizza Hut (the “Official Pizza of March Madness”)  is taking the nostalgia route, bringing back a limited-edition offering of mini basketballs. The basketballs, emblazoned with “No One Out Pizzas The Hut,”  will be available for purchase through the company’s website and app. The company is supplementing the basketballs with special packaging for its “Big New Yorker” pizza that turns into a basketball hoop and backboard. The basketballs will also be featured in the brand’s March Madness challenge, which pits Warner Bros. Discovery Sports and CBS Sports personalities in a bracket-style tournament. 

As the “Official Sporting Goods Retail Partner” of the NCAA, Dick’s Sporting Goods is launching its largest brand campaign to date, with the theme “Sports Change Lives.” The new campaign features a 90-second video spot that depicts the positive impact sports participation has on individuals’ character, friendships, physical and mental health, academic achievement and more. The brand will also run 15-second sport-specific commercials as well.

LG Electronics USA is using the high-profile platform to highlight the importance of mental health and wellness among student-athletes. The new “Game 4 Good” campaign is intended to break the stigma around mental health by featuring four NCAA men’s and women’s college basketball athletes who have demonstrated a commitment to mental health. The athletes (Stanford’s Haley Jones, Louisiana State University’s Flau’Jae Johnson, Indiana University’s Trayce Jackson-Davis and University of Houston’s Jarace Walker) will be featured in a video series emphasizing how they “Game 4 Good.” As part of the initiative, LG will donate $10,000 to each athlete’s mental health charity of choice. 

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