Buffalo Wild Wings Leverages March Madness to Get Back to Sports Bar Roots

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Buffalo Wild Wings is going back to basics this March.

Once a can’t-miss location to catch sporting events, Chief Marketing Officer Seth Freeman believes the company had strayed from its position as a hub to meet friends for big games. Now, fresh off a sale to Inspire Brands, Buffalo Wild Wings is using March Madness to roll out a slew of activations in a campaign to return to its roots.

“March is the first step on a journey toward reclaiming our heritage as a great sports bar,” Freeman said. “The number one thing we are addressing is that we’ve strayed from our essence as a sports bar and have gotten too close to being a fast-casual dining chain.

“That’s not who we are, and that’s not why our guests love coming to our restaurants. We are making strategic decisions to return to our essence.”

READ MORE: Inside Buffalo Wild Wings’ Super Bowl Plans

Inspire Brands acquired Buffalo Wild Wings in February 2018, making up a portfolio including Arby’s, Sonic and Rusty Taco. Buffalo Wild Wings has partnered with the NCAA as the “Official Hangout for NCAA March Madness” for the past seven years, and Freeman said it has remained among the most important platforms for the chicken wing chain.

“Our partnership with the NCAA allows us to tap into the cultural relevance of March Madness in so many ways, whether it’s in-restaurant, in our TV ads, or on social media – the opportunities are endless,” Freeman said.

But the last seven years have brought myriad changes to how, and where, fans watch sports. Thanks to the advent of smartphones, they might not even watch on a TV at all, let alone in a communal setting like a sports bar. Buffalo Wild Wings has had to adjust its marketing accordingly.

This month, the brand has deployed an aggressive ad campaign with three spots taking a “stand against fans watching games under sub-par conditions, like on their phone or in their cubicle or basement,” encouraging a stop at Buffalo Wild Wings. A new menu also hits the tables as well.

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On social channels, Freeman promises the brand will be part of active conversations of the games. Buffalo Wild Wings is also partnering with standouts from past NCAA Tournaments including Christian Laettner, Juwan Howard, Charlie Bell and Tyler Hansbrough to appear to targeted fan bases on Instagram.

“If you’re a Duke fan, you’ll probably see Christian Laettner show up in a story telling you that you better get out of the house to watch the Blue Devils game in all its glory at a Buffalo Wild Wings sports bar,” Freeman said.

Perhaps the most brazen activation for March Madness is the “Jewel Stool,” a riff on the 30 percent uptick in vasectomies during the first weekend of the tournament. The stool has “jewel-cooling coils,” a chilled drink holder and a beer light, for when the recovering patient is ready for another cold one.

“We can connect the dots: They specifically schedule their vasectomies so their doctor-ordered R&R coincides with the most exciting sports weekend of the year,” Freeman said. “The Jewel Stools give vasectomy patients a place to recover without sacrificing the viewing experience with their friends.”

Another big piece of the re-positioning of the Buffalo Wild Wings brand is its partnership with DraftKings and tapping into the future potential of sports betting. Last fall, the company partnered with the gaming company to offer a custom fantasy football game exclusively for restaurant guests. Now the two brands partnered for an “unbustable bracket” competition with 500 prizes up for grabs, including free wings for a year and Final Four tickets.

READ MORE: March Madness Wagers Expected To Cross $8.5 Billion According to AGA

March is always circled on Buffalo Wild Wings calendars, and, even without this year’s massive campaign, their 1,200 U.S. locations would likely stay busy. But the company’s leaders also realize there’s no better time to reintroduce those customers to its core essence as a sports bar rather than let the brand continue to drift into a lane it doesn’t want to be in.

“We want to be the place to be so you don’t miss a second of the action,” Freeman said.