By Barry Janoff
June 9, 2016: I went to a Buffalo Wild Wings recently for a Buffalo Ranch Chicken Sandwich and Stella Artois on tap and a UFC fight broke out.
UFC 198, which was on PPV almost everywhere else in the country, was no charge in B-Dubs locations nationwide, here playing on about half of the dozens of TVs located throughout the restaurant thanks to an alliance between Buffalo Wild Wings and the MMA organization.
It turned out that many of the customers were there specifically, to use B-Dubs' tagline, for Beer. Wings, Sports. The sport, in this case, being UFC.
Taking on the task of entertaining UFC fans and enhancing the experience for them — as well as for customers who might be neophytes to the world of mixed martial arts — is not new for Buffalo Wild Wings.
In 2013, Buffalo Wild Wings signed a deal to become a corporate partner with the NCAA, anchored by multi-level marketing and activation during March Madness. That alliance has included advertising, social media-driven platforms, special promotions and experiential events, with Buffalo Wild Wings locations being designated as the "official hangout of March Madness."
The casual-serve restaurant brand also had, since 2015, naming rights to the college football post-season Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, played in Orlando's Camping World Stadium featuring teams from the SEC and Big Ten.
Although the two companies have worked together before, under terms of an expanded deal signed in May with UFC, Buffalo Wild Wings recently aired in more than 900 restaurants across the country UFC 198 (in May) and UFC 199 (June 4 in The Forum, Los Angeles), with plans to show the milestone UFC 200, scheduled for July 9 in T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas.
Marketing to support this included a dedicated TV spot, Internet, social media, a special UFC Takeout Pack and a sweepstakes offering a trip to attend UFC 200 and other goodies.
The effort was part of a broader platform, #BDubsAliveEvents, in which Buffalo Wild Wings uses a quirky sense of humor seen throughout its marketing to connect unsuspecting customers with athletes and/or brings them to destinations such as concerts and sports games.
A TV spot, "Takeout Fakeout," starred UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin, who oversaw a rouse in which a guy who enters a Buffalo Wild Wings in Las Vegas to pick up a takeout order prior to UFC 197 is greeted in person by the pair.
After watching some UFC 197 preliminary fights on TV, the guy's friends arrive in a pre-arranged limo, which takes them all to see UFC 197 in person in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where they also got to meet UFC president Dana White. (See the full spot here.)
Buffalo Wild Wings pulled off another #BDubsAliveEvents prank last month when it had David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox in a restaurant in The Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium, listening off-camera to negative comments about him from New York Yankees fans. In the spot, "Rivals," "Big Papi" then confronted the people with their own words — "I don't think he's professional," "I can't wait for Ortiz to leave," "He has a real big attitude about himself" — which led to humorous non-confrontational resolutions.
Buffalo Wild Wings earlier this year celebrated Super Bowl 50 with a spot starring Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots and some of his brothers, who took a "Blazin' Challenge" to see who could eat a dozen of B-Dubs' spiciest wings in six minutes. The competition was shot for YouTube 360º, which helped bring Gronk's ultimately futile efforts to life.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Bob Ruhland, who has been vp-marketing North America for Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings since 2011, about connecting with people through sports, its new foray into eSports with Turner Sports' E-League, the brand's off-beat marketing attitude, getting star athletes to help "prank" customers and how alliances with the NCAA and UFC are driving brand awareness.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Buffalo Wild Wings has been associated with UFC, but what motivated you to enhance the alliance this year and actually involve some of the UFC guys in activations?
Bob Ruhland: What has happened is that during the course of our relationship with UFC we have gotten better at identifying mutually beneficial areas for their brand and ours. The passion that UFC fans have and the passion that B-Dubs fans have, we felt, would be amazing to activate around live events, have involvement from a couple of their fighters and rally around the UFC Takeout Pack and sweepstakes. It is important that the alliance benefits both sides and that it is a natural fit as opposed to making it seem as if it is a forced relationship.
NYSJ: Have you been able to take learning experiences from March Madness marketing and translate that your efforts with the UFC?
BR: Certainly. What happens is that you learn from one and implement elements into other relationships and partnerships. What we have found through our partnership with the NCAA is that you really have to be authentic. Just having the marks and the protected phrases and being able to use March Madness in marketing and promotions is great, but you really have to communicate an authentic message around that property. We have been successful at doing that with the NCAA and now we are learning how to do that with UFC. People are understanding that, as we did with March Madness, our locations are destination and gathering place for UFC fans and consumers.
NYSJ: One of Buffalo Wild Wings' elements involves overtime, so that when a game during March Madness went into overtime it was, in effect, presented by B-Dubs. Has that developed into something that fans and customers associate with your brand?
BR: (Laughs.) We have used that as an element in our marketing. And now it has gotten to the point where, in the eyes of sports fans, we have become synonymous with somehow controlling the outcomes of games. We are fortunate that fans have allowed us to own part of overtime. And because of that, it has become part of our brand's DNA. We will continue to communicate that and use it to our advantage. Overtime is probably the purist and most exciting part of sports, when something is going into sudden death or a five-minute overtime. So that if a game goes into overtime, it was due to B-Dubs doing something so that people could have more time to enjoy that game, enjoy the food, the beverages.
NYSJ: Buffalo Wild Wings has a unique sense of humor in its marketing — a guy ignoring texts from his friend, who winds up getting arrested, to focus on a game; having Rob Gronkowski and his brothers eat Blazin' Wings, sending David Ortiz of the Red Sox into a New York location to listen to negative comments about him from Yankees fans and then having him come out to meet them. How did that translate in the UFC spot where a fan is surprised at a B-Dubs location and gets to meet UFC president Dana White at an actual UFC event?
BR: The challenge for all marketers is to find a way to communicate the benefits of your product or service, and do it in a way that will resonate and break through the clutter. Incorporating a sense of humor that supports the brand but also reflects the fun that people can have at a B-Dubs does work for us. That, and the live events that we do, putting together sports with related programs such as the UFC Takeout Pack, really differentiate our brand.
NYSJ: Are you finding that UFC people are associating their events with Buffalo Wild Wings? Do they like the brand, the food, the atmosphere and attitude?
BR: Dana White (pictured below) does love the brand. When I saw him at UFC 197, he said it would be cool for him to actually be in a B-Dubs and watch the event. That likely can't happen because of the role he plays with UFC and that he needs to be at the event itself in person. Here's a guy who puts on this entertainment, and he said watching in a B-Dubs that it's just as good as being at the event. That's quite a compliment from Dana.
"The challenge for all marketers is to communicate the benefits of your product or service, and do it in a way that will resonate and break through the clutter."
NYSJ: As an official top tier partner with the NCAA since 2013, are you finding that more people are associating Buffalo Wild Wings with March Madness and the NCAA or is there still a learning curve?
BR: It really is working for us, not just with March Madness but across the other NCAA championships and with the student-athletes it impacts. After the college football Bowl season and after the Super Bowl, March Madness is a major time for us. Sports Business Journal conducts an annual survey asking its readers if they know which brand or company is affiliated with the NFL, the NCAA, other major sports leagues. What's interesting is the growth that we've seen through our partnership with the NCAA. People know that we are partners with the NCAA. They view the relationship as a positive one. We have Buffalo Wild Wings bowl game, which is also helping to strengthen the NCAA alliance. We now want to see that same sort of perception around e-gaming, around soccer, around UFC, We want see it around all of those.
NYSJ: Why did Buffalo Wild Wings become a sponsor of Turner Sports' recently launched E-League?
BR: What you are seeing is that people are heralding eSports similar to when Nascar came into vogue, when UFC came into vogue, when extreme sports came into vogue. There is that same buzz and energy around e-gaming. When you look at the numbers that show how many people have access to e-gaming across the country, it appears as though the planets are aligned for this to be a great addition to the sports spectrum. We’re always exploring new ways to engage with passionate sports fans. And now we are part of the conversation wherever E-League is shown (via TBS and its digital platforms), as well as in our own locations.
NYSJ: Buffalo Wild Wings has done many activations incorporating social media and consumers, making them feel as if they are part of the action, so how does eSports fit into that strategy?
BR: We always look to identify new ways for people to have an immersive sports experience in our restaurants. Showing E-League's (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) tournament is one of those symbiotic relationships that helps both the league, the client or the advertisers, however you look at it. One begets the other.
NYSJ: It is a bit early for college football, but what plans can you share?
BR: People always want to talk about football, and college football. We are looking at our plans for football right now. We will have new creative. We are excited about the direction our agency is taking. We haven't finalized everything but we are excited about what's coming up.
Buffalo Wild Wings Spices Up UFC 200 With TV, Sweeps, Star Athletes
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