This week the road to the Final Four (and office bracket pools everywhere) rolls into Indianapolis for the Final Four. Players—wait, excuse me—Student Athletes, coaches and their fans from coast to coast have their eyes on the ultimate prize: one shining moment and an NCAA championship. Brands know that almost everyone has stopped to catch a glimpse of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Whether they’re rooting for this year’s Cinderella team or rooting against Molly in accounting that picked her Final Four based on team colors, bracket fans tune into the action. That leaves marketers trying to figure how best to “capture” an already captive audience both in broadcast and online. If you’ve watched even a minute of this year’s tourney you’ve noticed a trio of brands front and center. AT&T, Capital One and Coca-Cola have been impossible to ignore during NCAA programing, and there is a good (and expensive) reason for that. These three brands have ponied up the big bucks to be on the NCAA’s Corporate Champion program roster. The Big Three Marketing Playbook What does this mean? Well, it’s simple. If you are one of the Big Three on the NCAA frontline then you are in the game from the opening tip until the final musical notes and images of “One Shinning Moment.” With that type of marketing commitment comes opportunity, and it is always interesting to see how major brands try to capitalize on it and connect with customers. The playbook used by the three Corporate Champions has been interesting to say the least. In “coach speak” you would say Coca-Cola is definitely committed to its “system.” Year in and year out, they make their product the star (this year: Coke Zero and rivalries) and link it to the fans through social media. Fans watching games via the NCAA March Madness Live app can engage with each other during the broadcast in the Coke Zero NCAA March Madness Social Arena. Coke Zero is also encouraging fans to try something new this March Madness (like Coke Zero or making a “frenemy” with a rival) and use Twitter to tell the world about it using hashtag #OpenToTry. AT&T and Capital One are following the blueprint of Coach Cal and his Kentucky Wildcats — assembling a roster of top recruits that include some of basketball and Hollywood’s biggest stars. AT&T has put together a series of TV spots with a dream team of hoopsters led by the humor of Shaquille O’Neal and memories of one of college basketball’s biggest March stars, Christian Laettner. Those two big men, along side basketball hall of famers Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Clyde Drexler, have welcomed fans into their living room for a unique look at the madness. Not to be outdone is Capital One, which has gone the superstar route too, pairing the one-and-only Charles Barkley with big-screen star Samuel L. Jackson and director Spike Lee. The trio has taken us along for the ride as they try to get to the same destination as college basketball’s best this year. On the way, we catch a glimpse of some great comedic chemistry on the screen that leaves us wondering if there is room for one more on the journey to IN-D-IN-APOLIS. Who’s Winning? We will find out the night of Monday, April 6, who cuts down the nets and is crowned college basketball’s national champion. But as far as who captures this year’s sponsorship crown — it is hard to bet against Capital One. The mix of Barkley with the recognizable Jackson and Lee is a powerful team. There are a ton of basketball fans (me included) that would love the chance to hang out and talk hoops with the likes of O’Neal, Laettner and the AT&T gang. But in this branding game, that isn’t enough. Molly in accounting won’t know Dr. J or “Clyde the Glide,” just like she probably had no clue who (or where) Robert Morris College is. And that is the difference-maker in this sponsorship showdown (and probably your bracket challenge too). Capital One did the right thing by adding Lee and Jackson to their team and, in the end, will have what it takes to be the sponsorship champion this year. As for Molly, you better hope her favorite color isn’t blue because there is going to be a lot of it in Indianapolis this weekend thanks to Kentucky and Duke. And the more blue there is come Monday night, the less chance you have of seeing any green from your bracket. Good luck (and for your sake), “Go Badgers and Spartans!”

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