At Youtech, we like sports and we don’t care who knows. It should come as no surprise, then, that we had a March Madness pool going called “Youtech Madness.” Twelve of us drafted brackets and strapped ourselves in for a month of madness. Games streaming on laptops and dialed-up smack talk became the norm.
Despite the obvious enthusiasm, not all of us are, shall we say, as knowledgeable as others. As a girl who suggested making brackets based on uniform design and player cuteness, it’s safe to say my basketball prowess isn’t up to par. Before this year, the last major upset I could recall was the Tune Squad’s unlikely victory over the Monstars thanks to Michael Jordan and his “Secret Stuff.”
But, this year would be different. I made a bracket for the first time and soon found myself invested and sucked into the tension, not just because of the nail-biting games, but the palpable drama of the journey. The players, the coaches, the teams, and the Sister Jean’s of March Madness push forward their team identities in an awesome display of what we marketers like to call branding: the act of creating a name, symbol, and identifiable style that differentiates your products from another’s.
From the desk of a sports novice(ish) comes some important insights from March Madness marketers and those marketing themselves should take into account while building a winning brand.
#1: Knowing nothing and knowing everything can get you the same result.
Though it’s maddening to labor over your bracket for hours – pouring over W/L records, tracking the experts’ predictions – and still lose out to your co-worker who filled out their bracket in five minutes, this is just a part of March Madness. This type of result can happen in marketing, too. Sometimes, despite all contrary indicators, a marketing plan just doesn’t perform as well as expected. However, it’s comforting to know that with more research, data, and brainpower, you will have better odds of success than companies who don’t put in the work. Our best successes have come when collaboration, creativity, and data- and experience-driven hypotheses are emphasized.
#2: Everyone loves an upset.
OKAY, LET’S TALK LOYOLA. The 11-seed Ramblers stunned crowds as they steadily knocked higher-ranking teams off the totem pole with their confidence. First went down the University of Miami (6), then Tennessee (3), Nevada (7), and Kansas State (9), which sent the history-making Loyola Ramblers to their first Final Four appearance since 1963. The Ramblers unfortunately saw their hopes of a contest for the Championship dashed in a crushing loss to the Michigan Wolverines on March 31 in San Antonio. The team’s star player/superhuman Mortiz Wagner “tractor-pulled” his team to a victory after scoring 24 points and snagging 15 rebounds in a 69-57 win over Loyola.
We’re not going to downplay it: that was tough to watch. The loss was gut-wrenching not just for the team, but for Chicago. Despite our reputation for churning out top basketball players and dynasties (90’s Bulls), the city of Chicago has been a sort of college basketball wasteland. Top talent goes out of state in search of more exposure at better schools. DePaul, the school with presumably the most to gain due to its proximity to quality players in the area, has only won one game in the NCAA tournament since 1989, and has finished last in the Big East in eight of the last 10 years. The Loyola Ramblers have arguably spurred on a renaissance and inspired a new wave of young talent to create a true Chicago powerhouse.
Moral of the Cinderella story: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. It takes time to build a winning team and a brand. There will be losses along the way, but trust your training and keep your eyes on the big picture. With shrewdness, ingenuity, and a product or service the market desires, your brand can quickly rise the ranks. Part of this is due to the potential for content to go viral. The explosion of social media allows even tiny companies the chance of being beamed to millions of potential customers given a piece of highly shareable content being shared by the right person.
#3: It gives you someone to root for.
Part of the drama of March Madness, even if you haven’t followed any of the teams religiously, is that it gives you someone to root for and a reason to be involved in the madness. Think about it: one month out of the year, millions from all walks of life, ages, and basketball wits are glued to the TV at the same time, riding the same emotional rollercoaster. We all stick it out in the trenches together knowing we have equal chances of winning or losing. Plus, our bracket performance is out there for our peers to see and taunt.
Did I want to win our March Madness pool? Sure. Did I? No. BUT, this year, I got a lot more enjoyment out of it because I had a real stake in it. There was something to lose, but also something to gain, which boosted my own engagement and response.
When it comes to devising a marketing strategy, we are obviously rooting for a plan to do well as far as client satisfaction, but take it a step further by quantifying our results and holding ourselves to certain standards. What are we working so hard for if it’s not for goals? This is why establishing KPI’s and SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Limited) is so important: they keep you accountable of your actions and give clients a reason to root for you.
#4: The right people need to be at the helm.
Pundits and die-hard basketball fans could talk for hours about famous coaching archetypes, breaking down every detail of what makes a technically “good” or “bad” coach. This year’s final matchup brings Villanova’s Jay Wright, a zen master with “custom-tailored suits are as sharp as Villanova’s 3-point shooting;” and University of Michigan’s John Beilein, who focuses more on old-school fundamentals and defense. As polar opposite as these two coaches and their styles seem, they find their teams in contention for the same title. Clearly, both styles have their merits.
One thing is for certain in business and in sports: a great spawns from a great leader, and great leaders produce teams of leaders. When team members are united under one goal and empowered in their place in making it happen is the sweet spot of true success.
#5: At the end of the day, always remember the fundamentals.
Some things are so true, they cannot be overstated, such as “defense wins championships.” What we all learned in Marketing 101 are the oldest plays in the book, but are there for a reason: they work. It’s important to not get so hung up on being innovative that you completely lose sight of your objectives.
Loyola didn’t just self-combust into stardom: it was riding the longest winning streak in Division 1 basketball (14 games). Star Loyola guard Ben Richardson (who also plays with childhood teammate-turned-fellow Rambler Clayton Custer) attributed the team’s success to its unity “being unselfish with the ball,” because “it can be anybody’s night.” every team member crammed as many points per period as they could, never taking a single one for granted. They didn’t play flawless games, but they played fearless games.
It’s crazy to think that such a memorable and historic March Madness Cinderella Story was built on an overwhelmingly simple concept: being unselfish. But, that’s what it takes in marketing and branding: keeping it simple for the consumer. Getting your point across efficiently is a major step in customers and other companies understanding who you truly are, which builds trust and, in Youtech’s experience, empires.