Brands pivot campaign strategies for March Madness comeback

The 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament generated nearly $1 billion in ad revenue.

March Madness was one of the first major cancelled events in 2020, signaling the start of the pandemic’s massive impact on live sports. 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) men’s tournament suffered a $600 million annual decline in total revenue and brands were forced to shelve their March Madness spots. 

The tournament returned to the courts this year with media rights holders CBS and Turner Sports anticipating millions of viewers tuning in (the tournament’s first five days reported 18% lower Nielsen-measured viewership than 2019) and more than $1 billion in revenue. Brands became more optimistic about March Madness’ comeback, but had to pivot their creative strategies. 

Coldwell Banker launched its ad campaign “Guiding You Home” one week before March Madness was expected to kick off last year. The ad debuted the new look of the real estate company’s new logo, dubbed the “CB North Star.” The spot, created by Siltanen & Partners, featured people from all walks of life finding joy as they returned home. 

As the pandemic spread, Coldwell Banker kicked off a sub campaign in April titled “Hometown Heroes,” which celebrated frontline workers including nurses, truck drivers and soldiers. 

Coldwell Banker decided to re-air its original “Guiding You Home” spot across linear and streaming platforms for this year’s March Madness. The ad, which was filmed pre-pandemic, raised some concerns from the company about what the public’s response would be. 

“We filmed this before [people had to be] masked, so are people going to respond to that?” David Marine, CMO of Coldwell Banker, told Campaign US. “But, the real important point was our timeless message about what our homes truly mean to us, and [how] people appreciated their homes more than ever last year.” 

Coldwell Banker didn’t lose any money due to March Madness’ cancelation, but the pandemic shifted the company’s focus toward streaming platforms such as Hulu and YouTube. The company also targeted appointment television events, like March Madness 2021, according to Marine. 

Capital One also had to get creative about its March Madness 2021 campaign. The banking company recruited Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Barkley and Spike Lee, who have starred in their campaigns since 2015. In 2020, Capital One featured Gladys Knight singing “Midnight Train to Georgia” as the trio headed to Atlanta. Capital One’s previous agency, DDB, created the ad, which never aired. 

The bank’s new agency of record, GSD&M, decided to repurpose the 2020 footage and wrote the train scene as a dream sequence for Barkley. He’s awakened by Jackson and Lee, who tell him he’s headed to Indianapolis this year. The group later covered Jackson 5’s “Goin’ Back to Indiana'' decked out in ‘70s-inspired costumes. 

Brands investing extra time and money into redoing their March Madness campaigns is a lucrative move, according to Mike Juhas, EVP of client services at Digital Remedy, a media solutions company. Multiple platform options, including OTT and CTV, are also appealing for advertisers of all sizes. 

“The top-tier advertisers are always utilizing March Madness, and now medium-sized, smaller advertisers are getting involved on the online side,” Juhas said. “The linear point of entry is so high, and inventory is so limited. Digital expands that a lot.” 

Although March Madness hit a bump in the road last year, the increase in streaming will only continue to make the tournament attractive to advertisers, according to Juhas.  

“Technology has gotten better and the accessibility is there,” Juhas said. “People are going to pick up their phones and be able to watch games, which is just going to provide more inventory for advertisers to hit their consumers.”

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