Even if you don’t know the difference between a pick and roll and a double dribble, you probably have a vague sense of what March Madness is all about. It’s the annual tradition of a single elimination college basketball tournament that takes place over three weeks in March, resulting in a national champion.

Along the way, brackets are formed and busted; many wagers will be placed; work hours will be lost to the daytime tradition of watching games online or on TV; and for a brief period on the sports calendar, college hoops will be front and center.

There’s a lot to be learned here from a marketing perspective. In a world where it’s hard to grab anyone’s attention for more than a brief period of time, it’s worth studying how the NCAA men’s — and increasingly, women’s — annual basketball tournament stays in the headlines for the better part of a month.

Ready to learn a few marketing lessons while hoping your favorite school earns a bid and makes a run? Here are five to ponder.


Behold the Beauty of the Brackets

One of the signatures of the NCAA tournament is the bracket. You’ve seen this thing. It’s an ever-condensing chart that starts with 68 teams and shrinks via single elimination to 32, 16, eight, four, two, and finally, one winner.

We’ve seen a ton of brands, especially media organizations, borrow this format for fun promotions; brackets to choose the best pizza place, or brackets to choose the best athlete or movie star of his or her generation. We’ve worked with a presentation trainer who used brackets to help companies hone their “Final Four” key messages. His approach was to place all the words that describe the company on lines in a bracket and have them face off for prominence until four remained. It was both a fun and effective exercise.

You can try this in other ways… talking to your company about a theme for the holiday party or your next promotion? Set up a Sweet 16 bracket and have your ideas face off with one another until there’s a winner.


Noteworthy Naming Nets Notice

I’m a big believer in giving a catchy name to anything you want your buyer to remember, and the NCAA tournament nails this. There’s not just “March Madness” — there’s the Sweet 16, the Elite 8, and the Final Four. At the end of the tournament, the highlights are played to the song, “One Shining Moment.” All of these names evoke memories and burn themselves into the brain of the fan and even the casual follower.

The lesson here is to think about the products and services you sell and how they are named. Could they use a little alliterative oomph? Get creative and see where the freedom to come up with new names takes you.


Embrace the Unpredictability and Excitement of Live Events

OK, we all know you and your company aren’t likely to rent out Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to host your next event (though we do tip our cap to our clients and friends at the National Apartment Association who did just that for their last annual conference!). But there are plenty of ways to go big with live events on a smaller scale.

Here locally, we know of a growing accounting and IT services firm that turns its offices into a massive game watching venue for the first full day of tournament action — inviting clients, partners, and friends for a day of networking and fun.

Related, you might also take inspiration from the approach of owning an event or time of the year as an opportunity for engagement and brand building. The possibilities are endless. At Abel Communications, for example, we like to own Opening Day of the Orioles season as a culture-builder. We close the office for the afternoon and go downtown to take part in the pre-game festivities to enjoy and celebrate our city. What might your company own on the sports or culture calendar to celebrate and bring people together?


Be Open to Change

Great brands, events, and people are always willing to adapt and change. March Madness is no exception. Over the years, the NCAA has gone from airing a few regional games per day to making sure that every game is available on TV or online via a website or app. The tournament format has increased from 64 to 68 teams while the venues have gotten larger and larger.

When March Madness starts, the first full slate of men’s games are played all day on a Thursday and Friday. A few years back, the NCAA and CBS made it possible to stream every game live on your computer. At one point, they even added a “Boss Button”, which made the screen quickly turn from a game to a fake spreadsheet in the event your boss walks past while you’re watching. Good times.

On another front, the women’s game has significantly grown and now commands a great deal of national attention. One might argue that Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese (from Baltimore!) have more name recognition and marketing appeal than any player on the men’s side. Women’s sports are having a moment, and brand marketers should take note.


And Finally… Just Have Fun

This might be inherent in everything I’ve written so far, but let’s take a moment to acknowledge the business benefit of a good time. Amid the need to crush our goals, grow our businesses, and hopefully do some good along the way, life sure is more fun when we can let loose every once in a while. Even if you’re not a basketball fan, the hype and unpredictability of March Madness provides an opportunity to connect with friends, fill out a bracket or two, and take in a uniquely American sporting (and marketing) phenomenon.