Super Bowl 50: 7 Lessons for Challenger Brands

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About five million dollars. That’s the cost for one of this year’s 30-second Super Bowl ads.

For most of us who lead challenger brands, that kind of outlay simply isn’t in the realm of possibility. As underdogs, we’re used to doing more with less.

The Super Bowl – and, in particular, the hype surrounding its ads – is perhaps the greatest example in business of flawed thinking on a grand scale. Though attention is heightened during the big game, viewers are primarily looking to be entertained. (This is how we get a Bud Light ad with “caucus” jokes. Oof, you are so ribald!)

Of course, ads that entertain don’t necessarily sell. And challenger brands know that it’s all about selling.

So let’s talk about what the rest of us can learn from this year’s Super Bowl ads.

1. Watch the right scoreboard.

A few hours after the big game ends, USA Today publishes the results of its Ad Meter survey.

The Ad Meter essentially asks consumers which Super Bowl ads they liked best. The results generate significant media coverage. Some brand managers will add a strong Ad Meter showing to their resumes.

There’s one major problem, though: Likeability is not the same as effectiveness.

When people say, “I liked that ad,” it often means “I liked that joke” or “I liked that short film.”

But as a business leader, the result you seek is behavioral: “I bought that product.”

Remember that ad from the 2014 Super Bowl, in which Erik Estrada, Dee Snider and other ‘80s pop-culture icons dismantled a Radio Shack store? Consumers loved it. It earned the #5 spot on the Ad Meter. And about four weeks later, Radio Shack closed nearly 20% of its locations, on its way to eventual bankruptcy. Lots of laughs, but no traffic. Oops!

Successful challenger brands are laser-focused on results. Ignore the Ad Meter. Look instead at performance.Successful Challenger Brands Focus on Results

2. Awareness is never the goal.

Many Super Bowl ads are justified to management with the “awareness” argument: “Everyone will know our name!”

You know who has great awareness? Charles Manson. But are you buying anything that guy’s selling?

CEOs, if your marketing folks are all about awareness, you’ve got the wrong marketing folks. Awareness won’t keep the lights on. You want conversion and trial. Don’t settle for less.

3. Match your tactics to your objectives.

Super Bowl 50 featured a huge crop of new-to-the-game advertisers. This is to say they believed their Super Bowl ads were the best way to achieve their objectives.

But it’s also telling to hear why former advertisers chose not to take the plunge this year.

As one example, Nissan stayed on the sidelines. Here’s a quote from Nissan spokesperson Jeannie Whited in AdAge: “The Super Bowl was a significant and effective moment for us, but it’s not the ongoing experience that we want to create.”

Instead, Nissan is shifting its budget into college sports and game-day marketing, incorporating local dealerships into the campaign.

The lesson for challenger brands is simple: Strategy is situational. Start with your objectives. Then employ the tools that will best get you there.

4. All claims are not created equal.

AdWeek reported that Butterfinger would cover up to $50,000 in excessive-celebration fines as part of its “Bolder Than Bold” campaign.

Personally, I love the cheekiness of this promo. But it also begs a question: What exactly does Butterfinger have to do with “boldness”? It’s a tenuous claim.

budweisersuperbowlBudweiser placed itself in a thornier patch. One of its Super Bowl ads, called “Not Backing Down,” featured a defiant tone. It proudly claimed “Not Imported” – despite the fact that Bud is part of a multinational portfolio, and many of its sister brands are very much imported. Bud created a similar conundrum with last year’s “Brewed the Hard Way” spot, which took potshots at craft beers, even as parent company A-B InBev is snapping up craft brewers. Bud’s market share has been slipping for years, and this campaign smacks of desperation. Attitude is no substitute for relevance.

The word “authenticity” has been overused to the point of emptiness. But remember that many challenger brands win because they are in fact different – and so their claims stand up to scrutiny. Be one of those brands. Do something meaningful, and you’ll have a story worth telling.

5. If there’s news, deliver it.

In another spot that played like a sales-meeting hype video, PayPal announced that “PayPal is new money.” Okay. But what does that do for a potential user who is skeptical or unaware? Maybe PayPal has more ads in the pipeline to add some substance to this campaign, but its Super Bowl debut was a missed opportunity.

Similarly,, featuring a piano-playing Jeff Goldblum, aimed for some kind of celebration of apartment living. What they didn’t do is tell you why you should try them out. And Avocados From Mexico went for pop-culture gags, but can you remember the message?

No NewsDeliver the news. And if there’s no news, that’s not an advertising issue. That’s a business issue.

6. For maximum return, get creative.

Though the results aren’t in, it’s safe to say many of this year’s Super Bowl ads won’t show a return. That money was better invested elsewhere.

But Return on Investment isn’t just about maximizing the “R.” It also means minimizing the “I.”

I’m a fan of challenger brands that creatively leverage the big game on a small budget. Newcastle Brown Ale has done perhaps the best job of this in the recent past, though I also loved Nutri Ninja’s online videos with lesser Patriots stars in 2015.

This year, Adobe created videos featuring a marketing manager in a bar, stressing over the millions he spent on a Super Bowl ad. The videos were then placed on websites targeting marketers and decision-makers. It was a smart way to leverage the occasion without paying top dollar. And Ritz crackers racked up 30 million pre-game views of its “Big Game Snacks” video, without saying the words “Super Bowl.”

As an underdog, you should always be seeking ways to spend less but get more. The above brands offer some examples of how to do that.

7. It’s about the big picture. Always.

This year, the question will be asked: Can $5 million Super Bowl ads possibly pay off?

But to answer the question is to accept the premise of the question.

A better question is this: What is the best possible way to invest that $5 million? While the Super Bowl may get you a one-time mass audience, many other tools can get you sharper targeting and sustained frequency. Or you could enhance a production facility. Or pay the salaries of many talented employees.

Successful challenger brands always look at the big picture. And they know that strategic decisions are about winning.

Why did the Broncos put together an underdog performance for the ages? In simplest terms, they had the better plan and the better execution.

That’s how you’ll win too.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2016 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

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