Buffalo Wild Wings 'hits the button' for March Madness

The national food chain encourages hoops fans to get off the couch.

Thirty-three years ago, a prescient individual walked into a Buffalo Wild Wings—known to loyalists as "B-Dubs"—and asked the bartender to switch the channel from MTV to one airing the local game. "The rest is history," said Bob Ruhland, vice president of marketing for the brand. Since then, Buffalo Wild Wings has swapped music videos for athletics and adopted the tagline "Wings. Beer. Sports."

For March Madness this year, the national casual restaurant chain is reminding hoops fans that it's the "official hangout for" the NCAA tournament with a campaign that comically illustrates how Buffalo Wild Wings makes games more exciting.

"March Madness is the most important thing within our calendar at this point and time," Ruhland said. "That’s not taking anything away from NHL or NBA that’s going on right now, but it’s just this influx of fans because of brackets they’ve created at home. They turn their attention to college hoops and watch how that unfolds."

And more than anything, college basketball fans want to win those brackets, which the brand illustrates in four spots created by TBWA\Chiat\Day, Los Angeles. In one ad, a waitress takes a player out of a game when sarcastically prompted by her customers, and in another diners accidentally break a free-throw shooter’s bones when they bite into the food version of a voodoo doll. (Ruhland said they’re making this a "secret menu item"). A third shows the lengths a bartender will go to inspire a team’s comeback. And when the games go into overtime, Buffalo Wild Wings will air an ad encouraging fans to enjoy the five extra minutes of game time. 

A social media extension from agency space150 gives fans more ways to influence their bracket's luck using #HitTheButton. On Facebook and Twitter, the brand is providing videos and gifs—such as a "Free Throw Gong"—to distract rivals. The "Foodoo" doll from the commercial will appear on Instagram Stories with a playbook. And broadcasters and former basketball coaches will answer fans’ questions via Twitter, and at the restaurants, guests can take photos using a March Madness-themed Snapchat filter.

The basketball effort continues the brand's "Hit the Button" campaign, centered on the idea that Buffalo Wild Wings employees have the power to change the outcome of a game by simply pressing a button. The theme, first introduced in 2008 by then agency 22squared, has appeared intermittently in the restaurant's advertising and was revived earlier this year in a Super Bowl spot starring Brett Favre. In the spot, it was revealed that Buffalo Wild Wings caused the quarterback to hold the record for the most thrown interceptions in NFL history.

That kind of control gives people "a reason to get excited to be out at a B-Dubs as opposed to watching it and vegetating on their couch," said Ruhland.

But will it be enough to get fans through the doors? Nation’s Restaurant News reports that the Minneapolis-based chain has experienced only "four quarters with negative same-store sales" since 2003 "and three of them were in 2016." Buffalo Wild Wings, said the publication, raised prices too aggressively last year and is one of "five chains facing a tough year in 2017."

Plus, the 1,230-store chain has to compete with a new crop of copycats. According to the foodservice research group CHD Experts, there were more than 3,200 chicken wing restaurants in the United States by December 2015, and of those, only half had been in business for more than five years. 

"In the cold light of dawn, we are a restaurant that keeps score by the food and the beverage that we sell," said Ruhland.

Still, the marketing executive brushes off the idea that Buffalo Wild Wings is battling a crowded category. He doesn’t consider other wing chains as "serious competition." Instead, Ruhland is more worried about sports fans staying at home. "We’re in competition with the couch and the people who have a 4K TV," he said. 

One way to stand out, Ruhland said, is to offer something to diners when games go into overtime—an incentive to visit the restaurant—but the concept is still in development. The brand is also toying with ways to attract non-sports fans, but "I don’t think we’ll ever move away from sports," Ruhland.

In fact, Ruhland plans to extend the campaign theme to other sports. "There are people who wish a football player or a hockey player would be taken out of the game," he said.  

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