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March Madness: The Do’s and Don’ts

Every Spring, financial marketers across the U.S. wonder how they can tap into the fervor the NCAA’s “March Madness”  college basketball tournament. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to structure a March Madness promo at your bank or credit union.

The Wrong Way

Don’t use the term “March Madness” in your promotions unless you are an approved, official sponsor of the tournament. If you aren’t a sponsor, the NCAA will sue you. And win.

Starting in 2009, the NCAA started aggressively enforcing its trademarks, sending a flock of eagle-eyed lawyers out to scour the web for those who may be infringing on “March Madness,” “Elite Eight” and “Final Four” (“Sweet 16” was apparently untrademarkeable).

Nevertheless, every year a bevy of financial marketers unknowingly walk a legal tightrope:

  • Central Illinois Credit Union – “March Madness Loan Promotion”
  • Countryside FCU – “6th Annual March Madness Certificate Special”
  • Fairfield Municipal FCU – “March Madness Loan Special”
  • Meriden Schools FCU – “March Madness Car Loans”
  • Penn State FCU – “March Madness Credit Card Rebound”

The Right Way

It’s okay to use the idea of “March Madness” — using plays-on-words and the concept of brackets — just don’t use the actual trademarked term itself: “March Madness.”

Like 66 Federal Credit Union, for instance. Their “Battle of the Brackets” promotion is a standard “pick-your-teams” contest awarding a 60” HDTV. The promotion is topical, the contest is familiar and the prize is relative — without creating any trademark risks.

Choose your teams and you could win a 60” HDTV. It’s simple, familiar and avoids legal headaches.

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Then there is FirstBank, who is running its ad for “Bank Merger Madness” in the Denver Post, right next to the article announcing first round match-ups in the basketball tournament.

With no copy other than the tag, “Independently owned since 1963,” the ad is meant to remind Colorado banking customers that FirstBank is not seeking to buy, or be bought by, any other bank. It will appear once, on March 15, before any games, and again on Thursday March 18, before any of the 32 first round games. In both cases placement will be directly adjacent to the newspaper’s editorial NCAA bracket chart.

An ad in the Denver Post running opposite an article on the “March Madness” contestants. The ad was created by TDA Advertising & Design.

Hats off to the media planners at TDA Advertising & Design for working so closely with the Denver Post on this clever ad placement.

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  1. Thanks for the article, it really saved my behind. I was about to register a domain with the term “March Madness” in it.


  2. Rich Bysina says:

    Q: What about a phrase like “March Merchant Madness” to attract people to make purchases at businesses who are members of a local Chamber of Commerce?

  3. Rich,

    Let me preface my reply with this disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, nor is anything I say to be construed as legal advice, and if you need legal advice you should talk to an attorney.

    There. Got that out of the way.

    Patent, trademark and copyright laws are there to protect intellectual property with commercial value. Simply put, others should not be able to benefit from the work of others (for free). The NCAA believes it has invested significant time, energy and money into building its basketball tournament brand. That includes the stored brand value of phrases like “Final 4,” “Sweet 16” and “March Madness.” Most legal experts would probably agree. So the question before the court in your case would be, “Are you trying to exploit or capitalize on the goodwill and brand value built up by the NCAA?” I could easily argue that yes, you are. The other question is, “Could consumers conceivably be confused by your use of March [X] Madness?” In other words, might a consumer think that the NCAA has in some way endorsed, sponsored or partnered with your Chamber of Commerce. Again, I could easily argue that yes, this is the case.

    If you haven’t been “caught” yet, you may get through this season. But I wouldn’t do it again.

  4. Mark Matzell says:

    Great article! Now…how does one report report the infringemen to the NCAA?



  5. I noticed one of the ads says “March Mania.”

    Does this pass the test you mention as: “Are you trying to exploit or capitalize on the goodwill and brand value built up by the NCAA or Could consumers conceivably be confused by your use of March [X] Madness?”

  6. I’m not a lawyer, so this is just a layperson’s opinion, but I don’t think “March Mania” treads on the NCAA’s trademarks.

  7. Altra Federal Credit Union ran a very successful online “Bracket Madness” contest last year. We worked with a vendor who handled all the back-end and we donated a $1 to local Boys and Girls Clubs for every bracket entered.

  8. You bring up a good point Carol. I don’t think the the NCAA feels that they own the word “Madness.”

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