Marketing and Sponsorship: Werner reaches unique ladder recognition lifting NCAA champions to cut the cords

When Hall of Fame coach Everett Case established an NCAA tradition 75 years ago by cutting down the net after his N.C. State team won the Southern Conference basketball tournament, he didn’t have a ladder. Case’s players held him aloft, as he established a spring ritual now as ingrained within March Madness as layup lines and tearful cheerleaders.

For the past 14 years, a ladder hasn’t been a problem. WernerCo has had NCAA rights as the “Official Ladder of March Madness” since then. As a result, it’s the only ladder brand known by many consumers, and it’s unthinkable that the postgame nylon-cutting ceremony sponsored by Werner wasn’t always a fixture.

N.C. State legend Everett Case is widely credited with starting the net-cutting tradition in 1947 for a Southern Conference title.N.C. State University Athletics

The best marketing injects emotion where there is none. Werner’s NCAA platform has accomplished that while also achieving the most difficult of marketing tasks: creating distinction and awareness within a low-interest consumer category.

“They’ve taken a commodity and created a brand,” said Rick Jones, whose FishBait Marketing has been working with Werner since the program started. “There’s a very high degree of difficulty there, and it’s against s backdrop that’s the very end of March Madness and is the dream of every player and coach, which makes it stick.”

Authentic is the most overused word in sports marketing. Werner’s NCAA promotion works because its unquestionably genuine.

“I knew it was a great idea right away, because it was so natural,” said Devron Edwards, CBS Sports vice president of NCAA partnerships, who helped fashion the original deal, which came via a passthrough from former NCAA sponsor Lowe’s. “I’m not surprised that it worked. When you think about this, ladders are authentic all the way back to the  peach basket. So, they’re the only ladder company with a national TV commercial. The key was that it couldn’t be forced, it had to be real.”

It’s become real enough that victorious coaches will be astride Werner-branded ladders at the finals and regionals of Division I, II, and III NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments over the next month, along with having appeared in conference tournaments including the Big Ten, Colonial and Mountain West conferences.

Accordingly, Stacy Gardella, Werner head of global marketing technology and operations, last week was scrutinizing a freight forwarding spreadsheet with considerably more intensity than the multitudes currently poring over their NCAA brackets. Werner has to get 78 ladders placed in the correct NCAA venues over the next few weeks.

“It feels like we’ve changed the industry,” said Gardella, who has been managing the program for 12 years. “Ask anyone to name another ladder and they can’t. We’ve increased brand health, along with sales, which has allowed us to innovate — not the easiest thing to do when it comes to ladders and climbing equipment.”

The sponsorship and the ladders have evolved over the years. To get support from coaches, Werner added sponsorships from the WBCA and NABC, along with the Naismith Men’s and Women’s College Coach of the Year awards.

Stanford used a Werner ladder to cut down the nets last year.getty images

For ideal TV exposure, Werner soon realized that a 9-foot ladder would be best for cutting down a net hanging from a 10-foot rim. Ladders aren’t made that size.

Eventually, the rungs were made larger to accommodate basketball players’ size. Werner later integrated its NCAA rights to market a new “podium” ladder, with higher guardrails and a wider platform for “work facing in any direction.” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo danced atop a podium ladder in a 2014 TV ad. Fiskars bought in as the NCAA’s “official net-cutting scissors,” and a storage slot was added to the ladder.

Werner has leveraged the sponsorship with a variety of promotions over the years, often using a “Who will rise above the rest?” tagline. Now that it is a sponsor independent of Lowe’s, Werner can team with a variety of retailers. This year, it’s using the NCAA platform to commemorate the 100th year of Werner, which started making metal moldings.

Werner also uses its coaching connections during the tournament. Former UConn coach Jim Calhoun will join Jones for a private bracketology webinar this week with Werner retailers. During the Final Four in New Orleans, Werner will be providing key customer entertainment for around 120 people, which will include presentation of the Coach of the Year Award on Sunday.

The championship ladders end up as gifts to winning schools. Over the years, those blue and yellow ladders have accrued enough celebrity that they often make retail appearances and media tours around Final Four locales. Local weather forecasts have been televised from astride a Werner. Courtesy of the popularity of March Madness, there’s now a peculiar sort of fame for the brand that crosses every demographic.

During last year’s Final Four in Indianapolis, Jones needed to find a church, since it was Easter Sunday. Not recognizing him, the Methodist minister asked Jones what he was doing in Indy. Sure enough, the minister later told his flock that if they wanted to see the ladder, that altogether different sort of icon would be on display in the church parking lot, after the sermon.

“That minister was a Dukie,” said Jones, laughing. “So there were plenty of people afterwards who wanted to touch that ladder.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at

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