The Super Bowl Ads: 9 Inexpensive Lessons for the Rest of Us

(Reading Time: 7 minutes)

Who won Super Bowl LI? Besides the Patriots, that is.

For starters, Fox did pretty well. Days before the game, a Fox exec crowed, “We are going to finish with the highest revenue day in Fox history.”

When you sell dozens of Super Bowl ads for $10 million per minute, there’s probably a pretty good pizza party in the break room.

So advertisers must have done well too, right? Not so fast.

Communicus, a research firm, has conducted several studies of the effectiveness of Super Bowl ads. Their findings? Only about one advertiser in five actually builds its brand.

There’s a danger: Those of us without super-sized marketing budgets might be blinded by the hype. We might be inclined to believe that things like “likeability scores” matter. They don’t.

I’m not going to play the subjective “best and worst ad” game. Instead, here are some lessons from these Super Bowl ads for the rest of us – the challengers, the upstarts, and the believers in effectiveness.

LESSON 1: Get the Right Tool for the Job

At the ANA Masters of Marketing conference this fall, Gary Vaynerchuk had this to say:

“When I buy my first brand, the first thing I’m gonna do is run multiple Super Bowl ads. I believe that the #1 underpriced value of attention in today’s marketing world is the Super Bowl – because every single person watches it.”

I respect Mr. Vaynerchuk. But on this specific point, I have to suggest that we tap the brakes.

Super Bowl ads don’t make sense for any brand in any category just because millions are watching. (Especially when you consider that most viewers are looking to be entertained.)

Strategy is situational. Like any other marketing vehicle, Super Bowl ads are only a value if they efficiently gets you closer to your goals.

Take the example of King’s Hawaiian, makers of sweet breads and rolls, which made its Super Bowl debut Sunday. King’s is an everyday-use item, so you could make the case that its money is better spent on frequency – a targeted campaign over months – instead of reach, which is what the Super Bowl delivers. On the other hand, Super Bowl ads are strong levers to get retailers to stock your product, which has tremendous long-term value.

These are the kinds of trade-offs that you, as a brand leader, must consider. When comparing options, ask: Where are we, where do we want to go, and what is the outcome we seek? Then select the tool that best gets you there. It may not be a Super Bowl ad after all.

LESSON 2: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

In recent years, Michelob Ultra has positioned itself as the beer for an active lifestyle.

It’s working. Mich Ultra is one of the very few major beer labels that is growing its market share.

On Sunday, Mich Ultra fought any temptation to go for gags or celebrity appearances. Instead, it illustrated a truth familiar to its audience: the bonds that form in communities like running groups or Crossfit boxes. Flashy? No. Effective? Almost certainly.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile nodded to the occasion, with Justin Bieber (at his most tolerable) presenting a history of football celebrations. The logic chain – from celebrations to unlimited moves to unlimited plans – was a bit of a stretch. But in the end, T-Mobile continued its message of “unlimited,” which has helped drive the “Un-carrier” to strong growth.

Keep a laser-focus on your core idea, and over time, you’ll separate from the pack. Mich Ultra and T-Mobile provided good examples for the rest of us: In a cluttered world, clarity and consistency win.

LESSON 3: If You Have a Platform, Please Say Something

Anheuser-Busch also brought us an example of what not to do, with Super Bowl debutante Busch.

With its never-ending “Buschhhhh” sound, Busch was parodying its advertising of the ‘70s.

Of course, parody only works if the audience recognizes the original. A huge chunk of the viewing audience never saw those old Busch ads.

Meanwhile, Busch told us next to nothing about its product, its personality or its purpose. “Crisp and cold” seems like table-stakes for a mass-market value-priced beer.

And Lifewtr opted for the “inspirational short film” approach. But we learned little about what makes Lifewtr different from other bottled waters, such as PepsiCo stablemate Aquafina, apart from the art on its label.

LESSON 4: Reasons to Believe Matter

H&R Block extended its “Get Your Taxes Won” campaign by announcing that its tax-preparation systems are now supported by Watson.

It’s the perfect time on the calendar to launch this spot. And Watson offers a credible reason to believe (RTB) that H&R Block will find all your tax deductions. Imagine the spot without Watson, and “Get Your Taxes Won” is an empty claim.

As consumers grow ever more skeptical, you can never have too many RTBs. If you’re not incorporating healthy doses of RTB into your marketing, move this to the top of your to-do list.

LESSON 5: Adapt to the Times

GoDaddy, Squarespace and Wix all returned, with three very different approaches.

In a departure from its history, GoDaddy traded controversy for familiarity. Its ad was full of Internet sight gags, and the message tacked on at the end – “build a site in under an hour” – was clear enough.

Wix was the winner in the group. Jason Statham and Gal Gadot appeared in the game’s best blend of bombast and messaging: “To succeed in a disruptive world, Wix makes it easy to create your own stunning website.” AdAge reports that this was the most-watched ad before the big game; when it comes to driving your message home, repeat viewings don’t hurt.

And then there was Squarespace. I’m always happy to see John Malkovich. But the message – “Get your domain before it’s gone” – feels five years out of date.

LESSON 6: Smart Upstarts Get More for Less

Heinz opted not to advertise in this year’s Super Bowl, even though last year’s “Weiner Stampede” spot won the adorability sweepstakes.

Instead, Heinz used PR and online videos to call for a new national holiday, “Smunday” – the Monday after the Super Bowl. Heinz’ online petition had just under 60,000 signatures as of Sunday afternoon.

In years past, brands like Newcastle and Nutri Ninja have also found ways to leverage the spectacle on a tighter budget. Challenger brands would do well to study fringe examples like these.

LESSON 7: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

It’s a bit of a tradition for brands to showcase big ideals during the big game. We saw at least a half-dozen examples of this. Not all were equally convincing.

Budweiser told the tale of its immigrant founder, Adolphus Busch. This resulted in a #BoycottBudweiser Twitter campaign in the week prior to the game (and a boycott of the boycott). Given the nature of executive orders these days, it was a bold step by the brewer.

Audi’s “Daughter” spot supported equal pay for women. But, as many have pointed out, Audi’s U.S. executive team is comprised of 12 men and 2 women.

And I may never know what the connection between Honda and “chasing dreams” is.

Lots of brands are talking about purpose these days. But purpose is something you live, not something you say. Remember: Do something meaningful, and you’ll have a story worth telling.

LESSON 8: It’s Never Only About the Ad

And I don’t mean only in the Super Bowl. This applies to your marketing programs as well.

“Ad reviews” can be fine, as far as they go. I certainly recommend that you look at ads critically. Specifically, look for clear choices of Target Consumer, Key Thought and Ad/Campaign Idea.

But the rules of the game have changed. The idea of pre-releasing Super Bowl ads was unheard-of as recently as a decade ago; now it’s common practice. And as consumer habits change, it provides opportunities to extend beyond the game itself.

The most notable example of this is 84 Lumber. Fox rejected the first cut of 84 Lumber’s spot. So 84 Lumber re-edited it, pointing viewers to to complete the story of a Mexican mother and daughter’s journey to the States. The online version closes with the words, “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”

The landing page invited visitors to “start your own journey with us,” with a link to a careers page. Pre-game tweets by 84 Lumber included: “Go with courage. Go with kindness. See the journey this Sunday during halftime.”

Remember that an ad is just one part of the overall marketing program. Smart brands look for ways to make the entire system more powerful. The whole can be much greater than the sum of the parts.

LESSON 9: Think Like an Owner

The question is often asked: “Can these $5 million Super Bowl ads possibly pay out?”

There’s a better question: “Is this the best possible investment we can make?”

Five million dollars will get your name out there. But awareness doesn’t always equal sales or winning.

You could also use that $5 million to improve a production facility, thereby improving margins for years. Or to create a truly unmissable point-of-purchase campaign.

The point is this: Think like an owner, not just a marketer. Successful challenger brands look at the big picture. They know that the name of the game is winning – and making the decisions that enable that.

The Patriots seem to know something about that, too.

What ads did you find most effective? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

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’s based near Portland, in Oregon wine country.