Brand Marketing: When Mountain Dew Made March Madness Fun

John Ross knew the fine print. He didn't care. He was going to break the 40-yard dash record for the NFL combine, and no pre-arranged shoe endorsement contract would stop him. Not even one that included an opportunity to win an island. Yes, an actual island.

Adidas made waves last week by announcing the chance for an NFL combine participant to win their own island. There were stipulations of course. One is to break the 40-yard dash record set by Chris Johnson (4.24 seconds). Naturally, that limited the possible winners to just a handful of athletes. On top of that, you must have a shoe contract with Adidas.

Former Washington Huskies wide receiver John Ross, wearing his Nike Vapors, snapped the record by .02 seconds, coming in at 4.22. Give the man an island! No. Nevermind. Wrong shoes.

While no combine participant walked away with their own literal piece of paradise, the promotion sure got the attention of a lot of people even if it was a brand contest nobody actually won. After all, the parameters were pretty strenuous. And while we all can dream of being fast enough and wearing the appropriate apparel to win an island, it won't happen for us. Ever. But what if there was a fun corporate brand contest that we could win AND enjoyed participating in?

Such was the case in the 1990s. Enter the Mountain Dew Bottle Cap March Madness Game. That's probably not the official title of the contest, but it explains its premise...kinda.

Here's how it worked: every Mountain Dew (and I assume Diet Mountain Dew) bottle cap had a Division 1 college basketball team under it. You might open it up and see LSU (not bad), IUPUI (still don't know what that stands for), or Duke (lucky you). If you owned the cap with the team that won the NCAA tournament that year, you would win one of a litany of prizes.

   It was an ugly prize, but it was also so, so beautiful.

It was an ugly prize, but it was also so, so beautiful.

The game was fun for a ton of reasons. It was accessible. No matter who you were, the contest would spark your interest in March Madness. For my friends and me, being teenagers at the virginal stage of our allowance to drive, we would stop randomly on streets to go pick up a littered Dew bottle, just knowing that yellow cap could have Kansas listed beneath it. I wouldn't say we were keys to the litter cleanup in Spartanburg County, but we certainly were some type of pioneers, dumpster divers of corporate marketing.

   Thumbs up from this guy, probably because he found Gonzaga under his bottle cap.

Thumbs up from this guy, probably because he found Gonzaga under his bottle cap.

Mountain Dew lids became the Wonka bars of our time. We all wanted to find the golden ticket. We wanted a cap that said Kentucky or Syracuse. Our hopes ran high when we read "North Carolina" only to see the "AT&T" that followed it. In reality, our collections were full of Louisiana Techs and Wisconsin-Green Bays and Arkansas States and, if we were oddly lucky, our hometown college Wofford. However in 1997, among a collection of over 40 caps, I found the Holy Grail. I found a lid that said Arizona.

Arizona came into the tournament as the #4 seed in the Southeast regional. After beating South Alabama and College of Charleston, Arizona faced a giant test in Kansas. But the Kansas Jayhawks, whose alternate mascot is "Cheap Tents" because of how they fold in tournaments, ended up losing. Surprising especially because they entered the tournament with only one loss and had Paul Pierce on their team. Arizona went on after beating Kansas to knock off North Carolina in the Final Four, and then in a championship thriller, the Wildcats beat Kentucky in overtime. As exciting as winning the NCAA title was for Miles Simon and coach Lute Olson, better still was me holding the bottle cap with their school's name on it, knowing I too was a winner.

Now the moral of the story is not the thrill of victory nor is it the prize won, which happened to be a massively oversized hideous green 1997 Final Four jersey. The point is this: corporate marketing goes a long way when you make contests fun. When it's more than a random number to punch into a website. When it's more than "sign up here and be entered to win a prize!” When companies can tie-in mass fandom with fun and marketability, it’s a win-win for everyone.

A couple of my buddies and I would run together after high school when we were freshmen and sophomores. Our “run” consisted of starting from my house and running a half-mile trek down the road to a rundown convenience store where three quarters would buy a 20 ounce Mountain Dew, one we’d consume as we walked back to the house. If we were lucky, our caps had a major D1 school on them (you got Georgia Tech? Sweet!) or an offer for a free 20 ounce Dew. Mostly we settled for caps that had schools like Colgate, St. Francis, VMI, and Bethune-Cookman. But even that was cool because all of a sudden we were rooting for St. Francis to win their conference tournament, even though we had no idea what state they were in.

I’ve often wondered why the good people at Mountain Dew no longer run such a great promotion, but I guess the biggest reason is that their rival Coca-Cola is now the key sponsor of the NCAA tournament. Which sucks because nothing that Coca-Cola makes comes close to Mountain Dew.

   Arizona won. Miles Simon won. Lute Olson won. I won. WE ALL WON.

Arizona won. Miles Simon won. Lute Olson won. I won. WE ALL WON.

So enjoy the madness over the next few weeks, my friends. It’s a flawed method of determining a champion, but there’s nothing as exciting as the NCAA tournament. The Cinderellas, the buzzer-beaters, the crying piccolo girl, and the contagiously fun coaches all make March more enjoyable than it would be otherwise. But just think how much more so it would be if every soft drink you consumed could win you a jersey you would never wear in public. That is the American dream.