How Aviation Gin Toppled Marketing Giants to Win Adweek’s March Adness Bracket

The underdog beat Burger King, Coke, Nike, Google and Spotify

Starting at a mere No. 16 seed, Aviation Gin defeated several of today's top brands in Adweek reader voting. Dianna McDougall for Adweek
Headshot of David Griner

They entered the tournament the ultimate underdogs, but somehow the scrappy team at Aviation Gin defied their 16th-seed ranking and took home the championship in Adweek’s first March Adness bracketed tournament to name today’s top advertiser.

Truly a Ginderella story for the ages, Aviation faced off against a litany of today’s biggest and best marketers—Burger King, Delta, Google, Coca-Cola, Nike and Spotify—and managed to win over the most votes each time, advancing through the tournament one grueling step at a time.

A cynic might dismiss the gin brand’s accomplishment by pointing to the star power and social media potency of its celebrity owner, Ryan Reynolds. But while Reynolds certainly threw a few supportive tweets and Instagram posts the brand’s way, he largely stayed out of the fray due to a busy filming schedule in Croatia throughout the tournament.

Before we get into the details of how Aviation Gin took home the trophy (there is a literal trophy, though honestly nothing else at all was riding on this tournament, which Adweek’s newsroom just created for fun), let’s take a look at the final bracket.

Click the bracket below to see a full-sized version:

“Given that we were the outsider baby brand in this whole thing, and everyone loves an underdog story, we knew that galvanizing our fan base was going to help us out,” says Adrian Molina, senior brand manager for Aviation Gin. “Ultimately, for Aviation, it was the power of the brand resonating with our consumer base and the strength of the creative marketing—led of course by Ryan Reynolds.”

Over the tournament’s multi-week run, it was Molina’s tenacity as the brand’s social media voice that got fans engaged in the tournament and fired up to keep voting through multiple rounds.

Early in the competition, he rallied coworkers at Aviation and its parent company, Davos Brands, to support the cause. But more importantly, he found ways to activate Aviation’s fan base while also educating newcomers to the brand about its marketing.

In the end, it was Aviation’s consistent engagement that made all the difference in the world when facing off against brands with gargantuan name recognition. While the final round—Aviation Gin vs. Spotify—was a breeze for the spirit brand (thanks largely to Reynolds personally regramming the final voting), earlier rounds came down to incredibly nail-biting margins.

Take, for example, these vote totals in Round 4 and Round 5:

Round 4

Aviation Gin: 1,599 votes
Coca-Cola: 1,562 votes

Round 5

Aviation Gin: 1,531 votes
Nike: 1,479 votes

For Molina, the contest was a testament to how challenger brands can use their agility and social media savvy to topple giants that are often too slow or preoccupied to see a threat coming.

“A lot of these brands have TV ads or do cool experiential stuff, but I think the biggest takeaway is just, given the world of social media, it’s all about the here and now and really engaging at that moment,” Molina says. “Some brands didn’t fully engage or leverage their followings. So be it. But the more a brand is transparent—the more it’s like a person instead of a corporation behind the account—the better fans will respond.”

Here’s a look back at some of Aviation Gin’s most memorable marketing moments:

@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."