Five brands mastering March Madness marketing

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. ñ the playoffs begin for the over-30 league teams Aug. 4 at the fitness center here. The championship game is scheduled to take place Aug. 10 at the fitness center gym here. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Kerelin Molina)

There are a few more weeks of March Madness – the Sweet 16 games start Thursday – but brands have already started their campaigns. Here are our favorites so far.

March Madness is underway and in the grand tradition of sporting events, brands are just as excited as the fans. Here are five of our favorite campaigns from the culmination of this college basketball season.

1. Allstate

We named Allstate one of last year’s March Madness winners and the insurance giant is at it again. Like last year, Allstate is playing to the “bracket busting” angle with its disruptive mascot Mayhem, played by Dean “The Beeper King from 30 Rock” Winters. It has potential to be repetitive, but Mayhem’s GIFs and videos, which poke fun at how obsessive people get about their brackets, are funny enough that it works.

Mayhem is busy on Twitter, as are astronaut Buzz Aldrin and sportscaster Dick Vitale, who are competing and ribbing each other over picking their brackets. Allstate is also taking its campaign to Snapchat, which is recapping games on Live Stories, playing a big role in the championship for the first time year, much like it did with the Super Bowl.

2. Papa John’s

Sporting events are inherently social. And if you’re having a bunch of people over to watch the game, what’s the most obvious food choice? Pizza.

Papa John’s has been that hard on social. To entice consumers to overlook larger chains like Pizza Hut and Domino’s, the brand has rolled out some pretty good promos for online orders.

Through March 27 – when the Elite Eight round ends – two large two-topping pizzas are $7.77 each. Papa John’s is capitalizing on that deal with another one; if your order is $15 or more, you can use a different code to get a free pizza the following day.

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3. Acura

Acura is putting its one spin on March Madness brackets, pitting some of the Internet’s most viral basketball videos against one another in a Twitter tournament. The eight entrants include complicated dunks by acrobatic basketball players The Dunking Devils; and someone nailing a shot by hitting the ball with a baseball bat.

People vote for their favorite video, with the winner being determined after three rounds. It’s a clever campaign that involves Acura with March Madness, despite the auto brand having no real clear tie to basketball. Complementary creative will promote new vehicles at key times during the tournament, both on ESPN and ESPN.com.

4. Harley-Davidson

There are different reasons we christen brands with a subjective title like “best.” In the case of Harley-Davidson’s March Madness campaign, it’s about the strategy behind it. Motorcycle sales have been in a slump and as a result, Harley-Davidson jacked up its marketing budget and plans to start a turnaround with an aggressive campaign that kicked off during March Madness.

“Live Your Legend” appeals to a younger guy with the coolness factor, while simultaneously targeting more middle-aged men with the fatherhood angle. “If you wait until [your kids are grown up], your kids will miss the lesson: live your legend,” the commercial announcer says, over a shot of a dad and his son pulling into the garage together on a Harley and a tricycle.

Harley-Davidson certainly knows its audience. Since the ad was posted on YouTube Wednesday, it’s already been viewed more than 1 million times.

5. Bing

Like Allstate, Bing is a sponsor of March Madness, obligating the Microsoft-owned search giant to do something. But Bing earns a spot on this list for the cool technology behind Bing Predicts, which provides a sophisticated statistical case for each team’s estimated outcome.

There are 16 teams left in the tournament, but there were originally 68, creating more than 9 quintillion possible brackets. As the tournament’s official “Bracketologist” for the second year, Bing will combine years of statistics and its machine-learned search and social data to help people pick their teams for a more nuanced reason than, “Where did I go to school?” (Go Ducks, by the way.)

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