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For this year’s March Madness, ESPN is encouraging basketball fans to trust their guts

The multichannel campaign features three 15-second ads depicting people having epiphanies about their brackets.
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ESPN via YouTube

· 4 min read

When you’re filling out your March Madness bracket this year, forget all the research, stats, analytics, and sports podcasts. Just pick teams based on vibes.

No, you’re not being scammed by the frenemy who won your March Madness pool last year. This is real advice from ESPN, which recently rolled out its March Madness campaign for the year called “Go With Your Gut.”

Created with longtime partner BSSP, an independent creative agency, the campaign wasn’t designed with a specific target audience in mind but instead aimed at encouraging “anyone who wants to join in the fun” to fill out their own bracket on the ESPN Tournament Challenge platform, BSSP Creative Director Robyn Tenenbaum told us.

“There is no such thing as the perfect bracket,” Tenenbaum said. “It’s really hard to do. So with that pressure off the table, we really want to urge people to just listen to those instincts, those little gut hunches that they might have.”

Final Four three: The campaign, which started running across broadcast, streaming, digital, audio, and social in late February, is centered around three 15-second spots:

  • One features a man deciding to go with the UConn Huskies after feeling “husky” in an ill-fitting shirt.
  • Another shows a woman landing on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after fighting with an Irish man while building furniture.
  • The third is about a woman spotting a blue jay while birding, which convinces her of the merits of the Creighton Bluejays.

The concept came both from research that showed some people really do fill out their brackets this way—and also from the personal experiences of the creative team. Seth Ader, ESPN’s VP of brand marketing, once picked Wisconsin to win a round of his bracket because his young daughter told him it rhymed with the name of her teacher, he told us.

The main KPI of the campaign, according to Ader, is measuring new-user signups and the number of brackets filled out for both the men’s and women’s tournaments year over year. Users who fill out a bracket and correctly pick the champion will be entered for a chance to win cash prizes.

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Expectations are already high, Ader told us: ESPN is anticipating a total of 20 million brackets this year based on last year’s record high of about 19 million, and March Madness doesn’t officially begin until March 14.

Cutting-room floor: Before the team settled on their final three concepts, they wrote dozens of other ideas that didn’t make the cut. The first, for instance, involved someone eating a sandwich, which led them to pick Wichita State, Tenenbaum recalled. Ultimately, ESPN went with UConn because of its “powerhouse” women’s team, Creighton because it’s an underdog, and Notre Dame because the concept involved two people working together to arrive at the epiphany, not just one, Tenenbaum said.

Robin’s Easter egg: Those who come across the Creighton spot in the wild should keep an ear out for the bird sounds in the background. As it turns out, they’re real azure-hooded jays chirping away, according to Tenenbaum.

Ader said that he has heard stories of some TV networks editing “piped-in bird sounds” into the broadcast of golf tournaments that were “called out” by viewers who noted that those bird sounds were not accurate considering the tournament locations.

Go big or go home: In addition to the attention to detail, ESPN decided to “spend a few more resources of ours in making the investment for live-action [advertising]” this year, Ader said. The brand promotes its Tournament Challenge every year, but not always to this extent, and sometimes the network has rerun campaigns from years past.

“We’ve seen very strong brand growth and brand-health metrics, so we’re doing really well,” Ader said. “We’ve also seen our Tournament Challenge game lead the way in the industry, and we wanted to just fuel that momentum.”

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