Which brand are you cheering for?

March Madness. It is a sportsmen’s paradise. It is a bettor’s paradise. It is a cultural phenomenon. While not a global stage like the Superbowl, also known for its array of world’s greatest commercials, the NCAA basketball tournament does offer a look at branding in a unique and pure form.

Seventy-two teams are vying for one National Championship. While only a dozen really stand a chance of getting it, anything can and occasionally does happen. Typically, a few higher seeded teams make it to the “Sweet Sixteen” with one or two reaching the “Elite Eight.”

The brackets, as they are called, are also a fine Petri dish for looking at brands. Each of these competing schools is a brand, featuring a pedigree, product name, and a track record. For the serious fan, myriad other factors come into play but for the sake of this discussion let’s just look as those three: name, pedigree and record.

These criteria resemble any given product available in the marketplace. For example: Bud Light is from Anheuser Busch and is the number one selling beer in America. The Buckeyes are from Ohio State and are the number one team in America.

Both are elite brands, with huge awareness in the marketplace. For better (and I suppose worse), both define America to a “T.” They each bring over 100 years of tradition, pedigree and position. We recognize the names and the colors and logos. With Bud Light and the Ohio State Buckeyes we know what we’re getting. The brands deliver on their promise. The other number one seeds (Duke, Pittsburg and Kansas) can just as easily be compared to the other most popular beers (Miller Lite, Coors Lite and Budweiser)

Where it gets interesting is with the challenger brands, the middle seeds if you will. Certain craft beers and imports occupy the mid-level and are often replacing one-another in these positions. Heineken and Corona might be four and five seeds, with Amstel Light an aggressive sixth. Likewise, in the basketball tournament we have Florida and Wisconsin and an aggressive newcomer, San Diego State. One can debate exact positions, throwing in other brands, and people do. In this light March Madness and the Beer Wars have much in common. But brackets can be assigned to any brand category (from automotive to cereal) and they often are.

As we go down the teams in the tournament we see all manner of brands, from up and comers like North Colorado to the once great Michigan State. And that’s where it gets fun. For most casual observers, here it really is about pedigree, name and record. Beyond all the babble from experts, we assess these teams on their brand image alone. “Wow. They did pretty well in that region and their uniforms kick ass.” It’s a lot like seeing a new product in store or on TV. “Wow. My friend told me about this. Looks like something I’d like.”

Whether or not there are branding lessons in this, it sure is fun. For the record, though I went to the University of Wisconsin, I also dig the Richmond Spiders. Their logo is awesome!


Turmoil in the Libya!
Catastrophe in Japan!
Tiger’s Blood & Adonis DNA!

Remember the bit from Sesame Street where they assembled a group of items and sang that song asking viewers to guess which item(s) didn’t belong? It was a catchy, fun way to teach youngsters about numbers and groupings. By design, choosing correctly was not difficult.

Consider the above headlines, all of them dominating the media and competing for coverage. How would you group them? If you’re like me, then chances are you break them into two camps: frivolous and serious. Obviously, the horrifying situations in Libya and Japan put them into the serious camp. By comparison Sheen Land, NCAA basketball and SXSW must be placed into the more frivolous bucket.

But is that the only way to categorize these events? In terms of popularity one could argue that Sheen belongs in the same group as Libya and Japan. If one aggregated stories about all three (allowing for time differences), Sheen’s metrics would dominate. In the coming days, countless stories about the crisis in Japan will no doubt surpass discussions of anything else. In fact it already has. According to Adweek, “Yahoo News served more pages than in any other hour in its history.”

But not by every metric. Not by mine. Most of the Tweets I’m receiving are about and from the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. What am I consuming most in terms of mass media? The NCAA Tournament. Bracketology.

So, if “serious” equals “important” then how come I’m not consuming important content more? Easy answer: it’s less fun to consume. Like broccoli.

Nothing new about that. When given a choice, People have always preferred to be entertained than informed. Back in the day, the Beverly Hillbillies regularly outperformed even the powerhouse news program, 60 minutes.

The more things change… Even though the Internet and social media allow individuals to customize their content, we still choose entertainment. And while we could debate and discuss this ad nauseam, I’m taking another tack.

What’s new is the changing definition of importance. In the new world importance is more and more defined by numbers. How many “followers?” How many “Likes?” How many “Views?” For example, The Huffington Post claims, perhaps rightfully, to be more “important” than the New York Times. They justify this because of views. Therefore, if the categories game (serious vs. frivolous) is now a numbers game Charlie Sheen is as “important” as Muammar Gaddafi. Call it “virtual importance.”

Don’t read me wrong. Social media has unarguably done tons for positive change, driving the overthrow of Egypt’s government, helping to elect America’s first black President and so on.

But with consumers driving content, as opposed to mass media, the choices we make have become criteria for determining importance. And not just financially but culturally. By that measure, the line between crap and quality is more than blurring, it’s inverting.

“You know you still want me!”

For all the talk about mass media’s demise, television is holding its own, especially regarding events. Frankly, that might be an understatement. So-called “event television” (such as the Academy Awards, Olympics, etc) cleans up. Evidence abounds. Adage reports almost every advertising slot for the Academy Awards sold out. A bajillion people watched the Winter Olympics, culminating in the epic hockey match between the United States and Canada. The Super Bowl captured the nation’s attention same as it always has. Likely March Madness will do the same. And so on…

If the giant no linger dominates our culture on a daily basis (it doesn’t), TV still leaves the biggest footprint. Even the most watched videos on You Tube pale in comparison to most watched television shows. “Pants on the Ground” or the Super Bowl? In five years which will be remembered? In five minutes?

New media is an amazingly potent drug, no question. Its ability to hook people supersedes that of television the way Crack does Cocaine. But the effects of Big TV last longer and cut deeper. Virals get shot around willy-nilly, recipients inhaling the fumes giddily before moving on to the next. Event TV is savored, talked about, and analyzed.

I grew up with TV but have learned to live without it. My computer screen satisfies at least 90% of my viewing desires. I even watch my favorite TV shows on line: The Office, 30 Rock and The Simpsons. Yet, I still make time for Big TV: The Super Bowl. The Academy Awards. The Olympics. Presidential Debates. These programs feel better served up in the living room versus my office. The oft-used communal campfire metaphor holds true. Event TV we want to share with family and friends.

Event TV and “water cooler programming” are old ideas. But it’s not just the Super Bowl. Numerous sporting events (playoffs, bowl games, tournaments) capture a mass audience. As do award shows. And game shows. Repugnant as American Idol and The Bachelor are to me, these programs own my family and probably yours too.

Open the flap further, and even more programming fits into the event tent. Tier two spectacles like Monday Night Football and 60 Minutes may seem like your father’s idea of popular culture but they still deliver respectable numbers.

My point? TV continues to be a potent, irreplaceable part of our popular culture. Indeed, of the world’s popular culture. While advertising effectiveness on television is perhaps another story, contrary to faddish obituaries the medium is alive and kicking.

Though predicted, television did not wipe out radio or, for that matter, the cinema. Those media evolved around it, found niches and expanded. Likewise, the Internet will not destroy TV; rather TV will evolve around it, finding sweet spots to flourish.

A casual observation: It’s all about the screen size. Smart phones and computers serve content to individuals. While the cinema caters to large groups of people. But the great in-between still favors television. Call it the medium-sized medium.

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