Steve MannSteve Mann

From “steaks on a plane” to bringing back an old-school wedding singer, to ordering pizza with your shoes, the annual NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament has once again opened the court to some memorable marketing campaigns and memes (sorry, crying kid).

What makes these brand activations so meaningful? The massive 68-team college hoops event known as March Madness, which, over the last 79 years, has become the trigger of all marketing triggers.

In marketing-speak, a trigger is a cue that provokes us to think of something. In his book, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” Jonah Berger outlines six principles that make things popular. Triggers are one of those principles, and according to Berger, when brands align with popular triggers, it can profoundly affect consumer behavior. Think Corona and the beach, Coca-Cola and the holidays and P&G and the Olympics.

When it comes to March Madness, there are even triggers within the trigger: “Selection Sunday,” “Sweet 16,” “Elite Eight,” the upcoming “Final Four,” “Bracket Busters” and more.

Why do triggers work?

Research shows consumers choose brands that engage them on their passions and interests 42 percent more often than they do those that simply urge them to buy the product being advertised. 

Savvy brand and marketing managers understand this formula, so it’s not surprising that every March, while fans around the world focus on their teams and their brackets, billions of dollars change hands between the NCAA, TV networks and their corporate partners. Advances in technology enable engagement via numerous platforms: TV, mobile devices, social media, live-streaming via apps and more, making the game, and brand-fan connections more accessible than ever before.

Marketers know that millions of people — even those who don’t watch college hoops the rest of the season — will pick a team, fill out a bracket and follow the tournament one way or another. So, they’ve smartly aligned their brands with it. The most engaging sponsorships have gone beyond big TV ad buys and get grassroots, cultivating connections online, in-store and even in-person.

But creating awareness and engagement is only part of the job. Marketers also need people talking about their brands. Word of mouth means business. And nothing generates game-changing word of mouth like a trigger of this magnitude.

While March Madness isn’t the perfect fit for every brand, Berger believes that products and ideas need to take advantage of existing triggers, and that there’s also a need to create new links to those that are most prevalent. He writes, “triggers and cues lead people to talk, choose and use.” Marketers should look for triggers to link their brands with — things such as special days, seasons, common words or phrases — in order to build buzz, create meaningful connections with key audiences and encourage action.

No matter who cuts down the nets on April 3rd, the companies that have chosen to align their brands with the tournament and have been creative and authentic in doing so, have already scored their “one shining moment.”


Steve Mann is Vice President at Beehive Strategic Communication.