MBPT Spotlight: Buffalo Wild Wings Aims To Keep Fans In Play

With a new college football bowl naming rights deal in place, an alliance with the NCAA soon to enter its third season and fan-customer interactive platforms such as GameBreak in play, Buffalo Wild Wings is in a great position to support and enhance its motto, “Wings. Beer. Sports.”

The Minneapolis-based casual serve restaurant recently unveiled a multiyear deal as title sponsor of the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl (previously the Capital One Bowl), beginning with the game on Jan. 1, 2015 to be played in the new Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium (and airing on ABC). The restaurant had previously been title sponsor of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Sun Devil Stadium (Tempe, Ariz.) featuring teams from the SEC and Big Ten.

As part of its alliance with Florida Citrus Sports, Buffalo Wild Wings—affectionately known as B-Dubs—gets national exposure through TV, radio, social and digital media, in-stadium signage and presence throughout the schedule of Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl-related events.

In 2013, Buffalo Wild Wings, which has more than 1,040 locations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, entered into a partnership with the NCAA to become the “official hangout of March Madness” via a deal that runs through 2016. That includes marketing, media and activation rights related to all 89 NCAA championships, in particular the Div. I basketball Men’s Final Four and college football’s National Championship, “historically top drivers to Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants,” according to the company.

Buffalo Wild Wings has supported its “official hangout” status with a multiplatform campaign that includes TV, Internet, social media, a bracket app and activation rights that the brand said would increase each year.

TV spots are best known for showing how fans and customers in Buffalo Wild Wings locations are so connected to the games they are watching that they can send the action into overtime, and thus extend their time enjoying wings and beer (and a multitude of other items on the menu).

Buffalo Wild Wings, which has worked with Fallon and 22Squared (formerly WestWayne), is expected to name TBWA LA as its new AOR, according to industry analysts, but that has not yet been confirmed by the restaurant or the agency.

Earlier this year, Buffalo Wild Wings launched Gamebreak, a single sign-on, multiplatform gaming experience allowing consumers to play a wide range of fantasy-style and competitive sports games in restaurant (via tablet), online and on a mobile app for Android and iOS devices. That is in addition to social media activations that have involved Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Here, Bob Ruhland, VP of Marketing for Buffalo Wild Wings talks strategy, message and results. An edited transcript follows.

There are other casual serve restaurants in the sports/college sports category. What has been most effective for Buffalo Wild Wings to differentiate itself and its message?

We bill ourselves as providing the ultimate social experience for sports fans. That is our North Star. We want the experience people have in B-Dubs being no different than the experience fans can have in a stadium. We start from that perspective. Our feeling is that in order to differentiate ourselves we have to be genuine to who we are and authentic. By being authentic, we envision ourselves as being an iconic and ultimate sports brand. So in order to be an iconic sports brand, it gets back to being authentic and genuine to the brand. So we feel that we have to embrace the NCAA. Our current partnership with Pepsi allows us to work through pass-through rights with the NFL. We have sponsored a bowl game in the past. We feel that having that connection with our guests and general population allows us to be that expert when it comes to being the sports fan’s biggest fan.

How impactful is it to have naming rights to a CFB Bowl game?

We are always looking at opportunities that can further enhance the experience that our guests have both inside and out of the restaurants. We are always looking at activations that can enhance our brand. [Having a bowl naming-rights deal] is another unique way to connect with our guests—creating the ultimate social experience for our sports fans—and allowing the fans not at the game to be a part of the action as well.

Given the new College Football Playoff format and Buffalo Wild Wings’ alliance with college football and pro football, will there be unique marketing for on-site activations?

Absolutely, You will see a continuation of our activations around the NFL and through the college football season. And next year you will see some really great work around March Madness and our NCAA sponsorship. We are really excited with the direction that the brand is going. We feel that the future is very bright for the brand. Buffalo Wild Wings is a brand for the fans and we’re excited to continue to bring our unique Buffalo Wild Wings experience to college football fans across the country.

How important has it been for Buffalo Wild Wings to be an official corporate sponsor of the NCAA and support its sports and student-athletes?

It has benefited our brand incredibly to be affiliated with the NCAA. Not only the student-athletes and to support the positive side to sports and education that they represent, but also the ability to use the protected marks and phrases of the NCAA. That makes us authentic and genuine. Unlike brands that are not official partners with the NCAA [and can’t use their logos and images] we are not trying to skirt the idea of March Madness, we can come right out and say March Madness. We have a direct link to the games, logos and trademarks. It provides us with authenticity on a national stage. But also, because you have a field of 68 teams, we can take that authenticity, having 1,040 locations across the country, to a state-by-state level. So if you are in a B-Dubs location in Minneapolis, where we are headquartered, we can go in and root for the [University of Minnesota] Golden Gophers and talk about the NCAA tournament and use the official marks of the Gophers. It gives us that authenticity that we so crave.

How loyal are college football fans to brands that support their schools and teams?

We find that they are very loyal to us because of our authenticity. If customers go into a B-Dubs in their hometown or a location where they are traveling, they can have interaction with other sports fans in a positive and constructive way. And when we do marketing outside of a [specific] location that shows and talks about the experiences and food and drinks available to them and ties that in an authentic way to their favorite team, it does drive them into the restaurant.

Buffalo Wild Wings recently launched GameBreak and has had other activations that put customers into the game, and the theme in TV spots has been that people in restaurants can impact the game—via sprinklers, fans, refs, etc. How are people responding to that?

When you talk about the excitement that you experience when you are in a stadium, it is the excitement we try to build in a genuine way inside Buffalo Wild Wings. We like to think that nowhere is sports more live than in a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant. So in a lot of ways we have created a stadium in and of itself. It’s a stadium of sports fans who have a common love of sports. And this is the place where they can hang out, spend time watching their favorite team and their favorite sport. We feel that adding the interactive social media elements, GameBreak, adding to Instagram as we did during the FIFA World Cup a ‘Fannerism’ campaign with [social media agency Periscope] where people could share photos of themselves watching the games in a Buffalo Wild Wings, we are happy that this is resonating well with our guests.

What is the status regarding a lead marketing agency?

We don’t have a [lead] agency right now—22Squared out of Atlanta did all of the great Fall TV that is on-air right now. We will make an announcement regarding our agencies for 2015 in the not-too-distant future.

It still is early in the GameBreak evolution, but do you foresee doing more of that?

Buffalo Wild Wings provides the ultimate social experience for our sports fans. In the social space it’s important for us to engage with all sports. When they use GameBreak, for example, there are some games we currently are offering around football, you can do some of these games when you are at home sitting on your couch on a Sunday while watching football games. But there are some games that you have to be inside of a Buffalo Wild Wings in order to participate.

Where do you see the future for social media, apps and other platforms in the overall Buffalo Wild Wings experience?

We will do more of this in the future. Next year at this time when we go into fantasy football for our second year with GameBreak, there will be certain player tips you can get just by using the Buffalo Wild Wings app, but you will also have to be inside a restaurant perhaps through some geo-fence technology to access the key opportunities for who to play this week or next week. We feel that consumer- and fan-friendly technology helps us to build an immersive experience, and increases their experience, within the walls of a B-Dubs.

How key is the connection with fans and customers on a local level?

It is a great connection point. The origin of Buffalo Wild Wings was a location across the street from Ohio Stadium, home to theOhio State Buckeyes. We have always been right from the start 32 years ago embraced by the college population. What has happened over time is that local becomes increasingly important as you become a larger and larger brand. So you have to maintain and build those local team connections. The local team sponsorships, and the local college populations, and them wanting to have a place where they can hang out and have good food at a value price makes for the perfect combination for our brand in the casual dining spirit. It has worked out well.

At the end of the day, does ‘Wings. Beer. Sports.’ still resonate with fans and customers?

It does. And at the end of the day, I get to pinch myself and realize that I work in an environment that is wings, beer and sports.

This interview was reprinted with permission from NYSportsJournalism.com