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Restaurants look to capitalize on 'March Madness'

College basketball’s men’s and women’s tournaments, which begin tomorrow, may be called “March Madness,” but many restaurant chains view them as a very sensible way to net sales.

Not only do the big pizza and Buffalo wing brands get into the games every year, but so do casual-dining chains that run promotions to grow Facebook “likes” and in-store sales of beer and appetizers.

Brands’ strategies range from limited-time offers designed to drive traffic to high-value contests and sweepstakes constructed around the popular tournament bracket.

Applebee’s, for instance, is courting guests on its Facebook page with its Fan Fanatics contest, which rewards people with Applebee’s gift cards the more they participate and interact with the brand. Fans receive one point for posting on Applebee’s Facebook page, 10 points for uploading a photo, and another point for every tweet they post on Twitter cheering on their favorite team and mentioning Applebee’s.

After each round of the men’s tournament, the fans with the most points win gift cards, including the grand prize of a $500 gift card to the overall winner after the national championship game April 2.

Applebee’s based its March Madness efforts on a consumer study it commissioned with Harris Interactive. The study found nearly 25 percent of more than 2,000 people surveyed said they have done something related to the tournament, like fill out a bracket or play hooky to watch games, during work hours.

The chain is looking to pack in the crowds in its nearly 2,000 restaurants in the United States with a half-price appetizer promotion at night and a special “Fans Watch Here” invitation that people can create from a tab on the brand’s Facebook page. TV commercials during March also tout the game-watching experience at Applebee’s.

Watch Applebee’ slam dunk commercial; story continues below

Domino’s Pizza also is running a contest on Facebook called “The Road to Domination.” Basketball fans need only “like” Domino’s on Facebook to play, by filling out an online bracket for all tournament games. Participants will be eligible for thousands of giveaways of Parmesan Bread Bites and 20-ounce Coke products, but one grand prize winner will receive a trip for two to the 2013 NCAA Final Four in Atlanta.

Domino’s has nearly 5,000 restaurants in the United States and is the official pizza sponsor of the NCAA.

While Ruby Tuesday also is offering a bracket contest in exchange for a Facebook “like,” the brand is upping the ante with the Million Dollar Bracket Challenge. Any fan filling out a perfect bracket could win $1 million, but every other participant also is eligible for free food and other prizes during the tournament.

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Other brands have tied in an aggressive offer to March Madness, but with an unlikely precondition meant to get basketball fan’s rooting for the tournament’s ultimate Cinderella story.

Pizza Hut said it would embark upon a cross-country tour handing out free pizzas if a No. 16 seed upsets a No. 1 seed in the first-round games played Thursday and Friday. Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, however, the No. 16 seeds are 0-108 against the top-seeded teams.

The brand also will support fans of all the No. 10 seed teams this year in honor of its $10 Dinner Box. Pizza Hut is throwing free pizza parties on the campuses of Xavier University, Purdue University, West Virginia University and the University of Virginia with its special food truck, the Pizza Hut 10 Seed Bandwagon.

“The founders of Pizza Hut were underdogs themselves, starting a global brand from the ground up,” Kurt Kane, Pizza Hut’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement. “We are again cheering for the underdogs in this year’s tournament rooting for the ultimate upset, and with the launch of our new $10 Dinner Box we are backing the No. 10 seeds to go all the way.”

Little Caesars Pizza is running a similar promotion. If a No. 16 seed upsets a No. 1 seed, the chain will give away a free order of Crazy Bread without another purchase to anybody who comes into a store Monday, March 19, and says the word “crazy.”

Papa John’s Pizza is capitalizing on March Madness not with a contest but with a limited-time offer debuting Wednesday. The Buffalo Chicken Pizza will be promoted with a special price of $10 for a large pie. The item — combining creamy ranch sauce, chicken strips, bacon, onions, mozzarella cheese and spicy Buffalo sauce — will be available through the end of April.

“America told us that they wanted Buffalo chicken and that bacon was a favorite,” Andrew Varga, the brand’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement. “We’ve combined the two and delivered an exciting new pizza just in time for basketball tournament season. We think that this is a pizza all fans will agree upon.”

Buffalo Wild Wings is hoping to stir up a little more debate than that with its “More March” promotion for the tournament. Fans are invited to visit the “More March” tab on the chain’s Facebook page or the “More March” microsite to vote on which other month they would gladly lose to accommodate more days in March for more basketball. Fans also can find Buffalo Wild Wings locations and fill out tournament brackets on the site.

For each month, the chain has prepared special “branded entertainment” videos, available only online, which show why each of the 11 other months could be sacrificed for more March. The brand’s TV commercials play on a similar theme:

Watch Buffalo Wild Wings commercial; story continues below

Buffalo Wild Wings also has partnered with Coke Zero in its “Enjoy More Madness” sweepstakes. The chain’s nearly 800 U.S. locations will display a unique Coke Zero “code word” of the day, which guests can then text to a special number furnished by Coke Zero in order to win thousands of prizes from Coca-Cola and the NCAA.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

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