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‘We’re still doing this’: Brands adapt campaigns after players sidelined for NCAA tournament

On3 imageby:Andy Wittry03/22/23


UCLA guard Jaylen ClarkTennessee guard Zakai Zeigler and Virginia forward Ben Vander Plas used their name, image and likeness rights to participate in recent marketing campaigns that were unveiled before the start of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Because of injuries, though, none has played in March Madness.

Clark, UCLA’s third-leading scorer and one of the nation’s top defenders, suffered a season-ending Achilles injury March 4. The online electronics and technology retailer Newegg, based 20 miles east of L.A. and employer of numerous UCLA alumni, launched a campaign centered on Clark the day after Selection Sunday. Clark, who has his own YouTube channel, promoted an MSI Katana 15 Gaming Laptop and Seagate Expansion external hard drive.

“To have a YouTube channel that he’s kind of maintained and posted interesting behind-the-scenes videos of himself as a student-athlete – that was very appealing to us because a lot of our products are for creators,” Newegg director of public relations and partnerships Eric Wein told On3.

Zeigler, Tennessee’s second-leading scorer and also a top-notch defender, suffered a season-ending ACL injury on the last day of February. In March, The Dairy Alliance launched a campaign that featured Ziegler.

Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio who was a key frontcourt reserve for the Cavaliers, suffered a fractured hand in practice during the week of the ACC tournament. He had two marketing opportunities at the time. Vander Plas wanted to postpone the first one because of his injury; he moved forward with the second, which was Pringles’ first national NIL campaign.

“As far as BVP as a person, I can’t say enough good things about him,” Maddie Walsh, the director of marketing and athlete engagement for the Virginia-focused NIL collective Cav Futures, said of Vander Plas. “He’s the kind of player who makes a difference just by being in the room.”

It’s clear what corporate partners saw in the players as brand ambassadors. Each player is a veteran and key contributor on a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. Other elements, such as Clark’s interest in technology and content creation and Vander Plas’ mustache and personality, provided additional value.

So, how did the parties involved in these campaigns adjust their strategies – if at all – after a key spokesman no longer was able to compete during the month when the sport has its largest audience?

Clark injury led to ‘maybe a mild pivot’

Newegg publicly launched a campaign featuring Clark on March 13, one day after Selection Sunday and nine days after Clark suffered his injury.

“All the footage was in the can and we just said, even to our partners, ‘We’re still doing this,’” Wein said. “They were supportive because he accomplished a lot this season as one of the top defensive players. He’s a finalist for defensive player of the year … and so there’s still his reputation, likable personality, hard worker. And, really, it’s focused on him being a student-athlete and new technology.”

Wein said Newegg has a 25-person media team that creates the company’s content in-house. Clark participated in a half-day photo and video shoot at a private, indoor basketball court.

When Wein promoted the Newegg campaign in an email, he wrote, “Jaylen Clark was filmed in Los Angeles on Feb. 21 and was healthy. According to UCLA, he is currently injured.”

“We wanted to be clear, of course, when the shoot took place because we didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, he’s dunking. He’s healthy, but we don’t have details on his injury,’ so we’re clear about the date of the shoot,” Wein said.

The only adjustment, which Wein described as “maybe a mild pivot,” is Newegg couldn’t promote the campaign with Clark by saying, “Look for him in the tournament.” But in a silver lining amid an unfortunate situation, an athlete might receive support from his or her followers when promoting a partnership while the athlete is sidelined with an injury. “He was injured, so there’s a lot of enthusiasm seeing him post on his social media and support for him despite not being able to play in the tournament,” Wein said.

Wein said the company’s goal was primarily brand awareness. Newegg tracks social media engagement, click-through rates and traffic from a sales banner on the company’s homepage, where Wein said the banner performed “above other featured sales” that received the same placement online.

“It didn’t really affect us,” Wein said of Clark’s injury, later adding, “We hope to continue NIL agreements with student-athletes.”

After Vander Plas injury, ‘it didn’t feel right to post anything’

In the lead-up to the ACC tournament and before a Pringles representative contacted Vander Plas, Walsh said Vander Plas planned to participate in another campaign with a different company. The campaign was scheduled to launch the day he fractured his hand.

“He reached out to me to let me know that he wanted to postpone because of an injury and it didn’t feel right to post anything,” Walsh said.

A few hours later, Vander Plas forwarded the Pringles campaign offer to Walsh so she could assist with brand communications, negotiation and content planning. The “Pringles March Madness Collection” campaign features Vander Plas, Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Duke’s Dariq Whitehead. Each has a mustache, just like Mr. P, the character featured in the company’s logo.

Walsh credited everyone involved in Vander Plas’ marketing opportunities with handling the sensitive news with care before the program’s announcement. “There was a lot of trust in those conversations – him telling me, and us telling the brands – because nobody wanted the bad news to get leaked early,” Walsh said.

Pringles created limited-edition cans featuring the three players’ likenesses. While the cans aren’t available for purchase, fans can enter a competition to win the collection of cans by posting a photo of real or manufactured mustache on Instagram.

Virginia’s official team Twitter account ultimately announced the news of Vander Plas’ injury at 5:34 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 9, amid the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Six days later, Vander Plas promoted Pringles on his Instagram account, where he referenced his injury.

The video begins with Vander Plas holding up his right forearm and shaking his head. “While this injury is really unfortunate and my hand might be in a cast, there’s still one thing that I know,” Vander Plas said, “My ’stache and my snack game are still strong.”

With his left arm, he then covers his cast with his personalized Pringles can. Throughout the video, he maintains a sly smile as he delivers the ad copy to the camera.

“Even just hours after the devastating news,” Walsh said, “he was entirely positive and professional in our conversations about how to handle the NIL campaigns.”

Zeigler injury didn’t deter Dairy Alliance

Twitter users who scroll their timeline might have seen Zeigler’s name and likeness in a promoted advertisement in the form of a tweet from The Dairy Alliance. The tweet, which features a poll, says, “We’re dunking Zakai Zeigler and [Memphis guard] Kendric Davis in milk to promote milk’s awesome benefits to athletes! YOU choose who gets dunked first when you tweet their name with #DunksOnYou – and the more YOU tweet, the more WE dunk.”

The tweet is dated March 7, a week after Zeigler’s knee injury. As of Tuesday afternoon, it has 3.7 million views on Twitter.

The Dairy Alliance didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Small business group also used basketball stars

A campaign that featured high-profile players was Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses Voices program. North Carolina guard Caleb Love, who led the Tar Heels in scoring last season, and high-scoring Iowa guard Caitlin Clark were featured in an ad that advocated for the modernization of the Small Business Administration (SBA). While Clark and Iowa are in the Sweet 16, Love and the Tar Heels didn’t make the NCAA tournament.

“Caleb Love, fanatic, Andia’s Ice Cream,” Love says in his introduction in the ad, promoting a business in Cary, North Carolina, near Chapel Hill. The ad also features former North Carolina women’s basketball player Iman McFarland, who’s now the owner of 21st Century Expo Group.

“The small businesses we love rely on the Small Business Administration to be our resource in Washington,” McFarland says in the ad. “But Congress hasn’t reauthorized the SBA since before Caitlin and Caleb were born, back when you couldn’t order snacks using an app.”

Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices national director Joe Wall told On3 that the players, who were selected in September, were “obviously incredible opportunities for us.” He said each player has a family member who’s a small business owner.

“We realized that we had to be fairly creative and do things kind of outside the box in order to break through the noise in D.C., so we kind of came up with this concept last September,” Wall said. “Honestly, I was watching College GameDay and it just like clicked in my head. … Neither of these two athletes were born, right, just to kind of to show how long it’s been (since) the last time that Congress reauthorized the Small Business Administration.”

Wall said Goldman Sachs consulted a list of the top men’s and women’s basketball players in the country. The program wanted to feature one man and one woman in the ad. Some players, like those who may have taken advantage of an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the Covid-19 pandemic, were immediately ruled out because they were born in 2000 or before. They didn’t fit the narrative goal of using players who were born after the last time Congress reauthorized the SBA.

“Caitlin has obviously established herself as the likely national player of the year this year and prior to that, obviously, received a lot of attention for her incredible play both last season and during her freshman season,” Wall said. “Caleb, obviously, kind of took the country by storm last March Madness with his play and was a significant reason for their amazing run that North Carolina made.”

Wall said the campaign wasn’t affected by the Tar Heels not participating in the tournament this year.

“No, I think it’s just connecting to iconic college athletes that both have significant brands with our small businesses. That’s super positive,” Wall said. “We’ve received honestly nothing but positive feedback with regards to the ad, so I don’t think it has made a material difference.”

Goldman Sachs will receive metrics regarding ad performance.

“Our goal is a little bit different than most corporate campaigns in that we are hyper-focused on a fairly small group, and that’s Congress,” Wall said. “So for us, it’s creating a little bit of noise in Washington, having people talk about the ad. The fact that it’s the first of its kind is good for us because by linking the ad, they’re talking about small businesses. Any linkage to small businesses is good for us.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices national director Joe Wall.