March 16, 2011
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!