As appeared in QSR Magazine 8/23/21 online version


Quick-service restaurants (QSR) have always been a figure in college sports marketing. Whether it is a local pizzeria advertising in the stadium or a national chain running an integrated campaign with television tie-ins, college fans have responded well to brands in this category over the decades.

The upcoming fall collegiate season will not only mark the return of fans into stadiums; it is also the opportunity for brand marketers—like quick-service restaurants—to use both traditional and emerging marketing efforts to reach fans both current and new. There are five trends we are seeing in the space that are of note and might be helpful to quick-service restaurant companies looking to extend their involvement or engage with college sports fans for the first time.

Taking Advantage of College Sports Breadth

Brands are learning that college sports fans are a large national audience, numbering over 182 million, even as they have their individual affiliations. According to SSRS/Luker on Trends, there are more college sports fans than there are for any professional league in the U.S. This represents a strong opportunity for brands to work nationally and regionally to develop their strategies, while targeting locally. It is not uncommon to see QSRs partnering with a dozen or more different school properties to activate a single campaign.

Changing Consumer Preferences

Over the years, we have seen the same trends as exist in the larger restaurant and food industry as consumers move to healthier choices.  For the first time in the past few years, sandwiches and chicken have supplanted hamburgers and pizza, which long dominated the category and still represent a significant percentage of brand engagement. Within the campaigns, we have seen creative attention shift to messages of wellness, as well as convenience. In parallel to quick-service restaurants, delivery services have recently become stronger on the national scene and expect more growth in that category.

Digital Forward Approach

The pandemic certainly impacted the assets and channels available to brands in the intercollegiate athletic space. Smart brands pivoted their spend to digital engagements with some positive, and potentially surprising results. Using first-party fan data and targeting digital programmatic advertising approaches, brands have seen 3-4x the engagement that they’d expect with digital creative. Culver’s, a family-friendly restaurant with cheese curds on the menu, turned to digital to “remain relevant and seasonal with (Wisconsin) Badger fans on game day and every day.”  This is a pattern that can be seen with others in the quick-service restaurant landscape. One national burger restaurant chain used in-app and points-of-conversion tracking to find the sweet spot for their campaigns, tying in their digital activations with on-site and student-based activations on campuses.

Smart Use of School IP

One chicken restaurant chain utilized school IP alongside professional athlete endorsements to create activations that extended beyond college sports to billboard, city bus wraps, and other out-of-home.  These have proven especially important in locations where they have opened new locations.  They rolled out point-of-purchase signage in the stores to showcase their proud partnership. For example, Braum’s Ice Cream and Dairy Stores did a creative campaign utilizing an online memory game, which encouraged interactive fan engagement while highlighting the menu options and fan imagery like mascots and school logos.  A large sandwich chain utilized school IP in their mobile apps and online ordering systems. Brands across categories find that the use of school logos, mascots, and other imagery and color schemes, which are owned by the schools and licensed via their multimedia and licensing partners, make campaigns compelling and relevant to sports fans which translate to higher affinity and conversion.

It’s About More Than Food

About five years ago, Jersey Mike’s Subs began college sports marketing. As a growing company, their restaurants were opening in key collegiate markets and they saw college sports marketing as a way to drive awareness and foot traffic. To connect with students, they wanted to create A Sub Above experience and introduced Jersey Mike’s Tailgate Tour in 2019. After a year off due to the pandemic, the 14-week, 14-stop mobile college football tailgate tour kicks off at the University of Minnesota football game this fall. A branded, fully customized tailgate trailer gives football fans a chance to sample Jersey Mike’s authentic fresh sliced subs, download the app to enter a sweepstakes, and experience other game day fun including an outdoor lounge with Adirondack chairs and picnic benches, mobile device charging station, corn hole lawn games, giveaways and more. Jersey Mike’s is also expanding use of IP rights with TV-visible signage, and digital and social activations for broad reach across nearly 50 schools.

These trends hold lessons for quick-service restaurant owners and operators that can help them grow their businesses, on game day and every day.

Jennifer Davis is the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer (CMO) at LEARFIELD, a leading media and technology services company in intercollegiate athletics.