The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into one of Buffalo Wild Wings’ biggest partnerships: its long-standing sponsorship of NCAA March Madness. Platters of wings practically define gatherings of friends and families watching big games—but just before the basketball tournament commenced, Americans were required to stay home and avoid social interaction. Sheltering in place is the antithesis of the togetherness a sports championship inspires. Seth Freeman, Buffalo Wild Wings’ chief marketing officer, has managed to change the restaurant’s current messaging while remaining relevant to customers and staying true to the brand.
Step One: Tweak the Website
The casual dine-in segment comprised the majority of Buffalo Wild Wings’ business. But now, take-out and delivery are customers’ only option.
“We pulled back on selling the in-bar experience,” Freeman said. “Fans are coming to the site with the sole purpose of purchasing as opposed to finding out about events.”
By making the website more transactional and removing obstacles from the check-out experience, Freeman’s team significantly increased conversion rates. The next challenge: encouraging repeat sales.
Step Two: Optimize the Funnel
Approximately nine million customers participate in the restaurant’s Blazin’ Rewards loyalty program. This pool of already-engaged consumers offered the eatery an opportunity to target individuals with the right offers at the right time.
“We’ve taken a much more concerted approach to our market basket analysis,” Freeman said. “We’re targeting fans from a behavioral perspective based on observations of their movement through the site.”
Step Three: Invite User-Generated Content
Buffalo Wild Wings’ March Madness-themed campaign was all buttoned up and ready to go, but the global health crisis forced its last-minute abandonment. Freeman quickly pivoted with the new #SportsLiveOn campaign, inviting social media followers to share videos of themselves playing sports at home.
Via Instagram stories, Buffalo Wild Wings has motivated followers to share their athletic tricks such as bat flips and golf shots (nods to the cancelation of Major League Baseball’s Opening Weekend and the Masters Tournament, respectively). The restaurant is reposting the top five from each category, punctuating the series with “Even when sports aren’t on, sports live on.”
“March Madness is a big time for us, and we were disappointed not to bring it to life,” Freeman said. “But I’m proud we were able to adjust in a unique and different way.”
Step Four: Leverage Social Influencers
Under the #SportsLiveOn umbrella, Buffalo Wild Wings hosted a virtual H-O-R-S-E tournament on its Twitch channel. The players were MaxIsNicee, an Internet personality known for his impersonations of NBA players like LeBron James, and Thomas “Snacks” Lee, Jackson State University’s basketball team manager who gained notoriety by scoring a three-pointer during the team’s senior night game. In keeping with social distancing measures, MaxIsNicee and Snacks dialed in from their homes, replacing balls and backboards with rolled-up socks and laundry baskets.
Freeman and his team exercised ingenuity in the face of a crisis—a skill he developed while earning an MBA from the Robinson College of Business. Back then, he worked full-time as an associate brand manager for Russell Brands, attending classes at night with two young children at home. Though the program is structured to provide flexibility for working professionals with families, Freeman said earning that diploma wasn’t easy. He graduated in 2004.
“Throughout my journey at Robinson, I learned a lot about resiliency. Going to school part-time, working, and managing a family require you to juggle a lot,” Freeman said. “Those issues pale in comparison to what we’re dealing with as a nation, but the program taught me to be creative in the midst of adversity.”