After the final horn sounded, the confetti fell and the 2016 NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship team was crowned at NRG Stadium in Houston. Coca-Cola was there, instantly, to help fans celebrate the moment.

For years, Coke has produced commemorative cans for the winning team’s hometown markets, but Villanova Wildcats fans experienced the latest in the company’s innovative efforts to connect with consumers in real time. On Monday night, after Villanova won the championship on a buzzer-beating 3-point shot and fans filed out of the stands, they were handed limited-edition Villanova Championship Coca-Cola cans. 

The cans were created to not only commemorate the win and honor Villanova University in real time, but also to complement the new Share a Coke and a Song campaign. The cans featured the Wildcats’ logo and the lyric “One Shining Moment” from the song featured each year in a highlight reel at the conclusion of the championship broadcast. It was a must-have souvenir for Villanova fans that seemingly appeared out of thin air.

Villanova Cans

But the creation and delivery of the can didn’t happen overnight. It was result of months of planning and coordination with Coke’s partner colleges and universities, the NCAA® and the Houston-area Coca-Cola Refreshments (CCR) bottling plant.

“Everybody wants information in real time,” says Kasia Horner, who handles NCAA sports marketing for Coke. “It’s one thing for media and creative content to react to the outcome of a game and be produced and distributed in real time. It’s another thing for a consumer goods company to react, produce and distribute their product in real time. And that’s exactly what we did at the Final Four.”

The real-time commemorative can program started as a test during last year’s NCAA Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis, and the team brought it back for this year’s finale.

“These are the innovations that we want to look to as we find new and different ways to inspire and engage our customers,” said Louis Ross, senior packaging graphics manager, Coca-Cola North America.

When the tournament bracket was announced on Selection Sunday, Horner determined which teams had marketing relationships with Coca-Cola, then worked with Ross to develop packaging artwork for each of those teams, in the event one would go all the way. As teams were eliminated and the field narrowed, so did the list of potential candidates for the commemorative can. Heading into Final Four weekend, three Coke schools – North Carolina, Oklahoma and Villanova – were still standing.

“We were left with three Coca-Cola schools,” Horner said. “Our production partner and our bottler were on standby waiting for the outcome of the semifinal matchups.”

When it was determined that Villanova and North Carolina would compete in the championship game, Horner put into motion the production of the commemorative cans for both schools along with a special Final Four commemorative design. In a matter of 36 hours, 60,000 cans were produced, filled in the Houston bottling plant and delivered to NRG Stadium.

Villanova Cans

“It’s a unique challenge in that it’s not a normal production process,” Ross says. “You have to coordinate everything in real time. There is constant coordination and communication to make sure everything is in place.

“The bottler began filling the commemorative cans at 3 a.m. the morning of the championship game and they were ready for delivery in a matter of hours.”

The cans were then placed on two Coca-Cola branded trucks and delivered early in the day to the stadium, which was under heavy security given the importance of the championship game. The guarded cans were then distributed throughout the stadium so they could be handed to fans as soon as the game ended.

After the winner was determined, the losing team’s cans were kept under wraps and returned to the bottling facility, where they were destroyed and recycled, in order to ensure there were no inaccurate cans in the market.

Villanova Cans

The exclusive “One Shining Moment” commemorative cans were only available to fans who attended the game, which made it a very unique gift and a great example of the partnership between Coca-Cola and the NCAA.

“This is our 14th year as a Corporate Champion of the NCAA. We are always looking for opportunities to be innovative with the marketing and activation of this partnership,” Horner says. “The passion our consumers have for their teams is off the charts, and so our ability to tap into that passion and offer an immediate surprise to fans is something very rewarding for both of us. Putting these cans in the hands of fans – just minutes after their team’s victory – is really fun to watch.”

Starting next week, fans in Philadelphia (where Villanova is located) will be able to purchase six-packs of commemorative Coca-Cola cans emblazoned with the Wildcats logo and saluting the school’s championship season.