How to avoid fumbling a precarious Super Bowl season

How to avoid fumbling a precarious Super Bowl season
Jan 22, 2021
For marketers, there’s no bigger bet than a Super Bowl ad.

This year, advertisers will reportedly pay $5.5 million for 30 seconds of airtime, a massive investment justified by an audience that’s many times larger than that of the next biggest live event. Not only is the audience huge, but it’s also tuning in largely to see ads it considers part of the event, not an interruption of it.

The mass interest in Super Bowl advertising naturally translates into mass-media interest in marketing. For a week or two in late January, Good Morning America and Today resemble Ad Age or Adweek, breaking creative on national TV. Ad campaigns are all over outlets as diverse as People and CNET. That media interest can be a huge value-add for in-game ads, but a few boldly creative brands without in-game spots manage to hack into it as well. (Chief among them: ICF Next client Skittles.)

All the effort to crack the coverage cycle makes good business sense. The Super Bowl is a massive consumption occasion that people start thinking about a few weeks in advance. Brands—particularly food and beverage brands jockeying for a spot on Super Bowl party spreads—can reap a significant sales windfall.

For marketers, that makes the Super Bowl less of a day and more of a season. It just so happens the Super Bowl season we’re approaching appears to be on shaky footing.

A precarious Super Bowl season

The National Football League (NFL), which thus far has mostly managed to tiptoe through the minefield of playing a football season during a pandemic unscathed, is reportedly eyeing a backup date for the game in the event of an outbreak. Beyond COVID-19, the game is scheduled just a few weeks after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, an event that drew more eyeballs and media attention than normal due to the civil unrest since the election. These times continue to produce new, disruptive surprises.

If you’re making your biggest marketing wager of the year, that’s a lot of known unknowns. And it might be a factor in why some Super Bowl mainstays like Avocados from Mexico are passing on the game this year, with others following suit or even donating to coronavirus-related efforts.

But scary as it seems, Super Bowl marketers have managed uncertain times before. Just last year, in fact.

While we tend to lump everything that happened before March as the bucolic “before times,” the 2020 Super Bowl season was rife with disruption, distraction, and tragedy. Brands navigated a presidential impeachment, increasingly ominous news about the encroaching novel coronavirus, and the tragic death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter during the run-up to the game. 

Here’s what brands should have learned.

The bar for news gets higher

In a typical news cycle, mainstream media outlets start weighing in on Super Bowl campaigns anywhere from two to even three weeks prior to the game. In 2020, that window shrunk dramatically, with non-trade coverage largely compressed within the week before the game.

A few campaigns and spots captured some share of the media limelight and received some well-deserved awareness, like Jeep’s Bill Murray Groundhog Day spot or Hyundai’s Smaht Pahk ad. Others, like Kraft Heinz’s Planters spot, garnered much attention before the game and even made its way into pop culture, appearing in Saturday Night Live and even New Yorker cartoons. But most other spots didn’t make much media noise until after the game.

In the past, teasers for spots drove standalone stories. Increasingly in 2020, media outlets lumped these into roundups, if they covered them at all. If the teasers only teased “an advertiser is going to advertise,” they were a tough sell.

The glut of real-world news was one factor here. Another, which has also accelerated over the past year, is that shrinking news staff simply need to prioritize where they spend their resources. This means that if brands want their Super Bowl stunts covered, they need to make them truly compelling.

Be prepared to be nimble 

Occurring exactly a week before the 2020 gameday, the Bryant tragedy disrupted the pre-game cycle like few events before it. Multiple ads—from Toyota to Hard Rock Hotels—were quickly edited to remove scenes that may have evoked any resemblance to the Bryants’ fatal helicopter crash. Other brands paused campaign promotion altogether.

In most cases, brands acted out of an abundance of caution and sensitivity, moving well before consumers asked them to do so and avoiding any in-game or day-after backlash.

This year, brands will need to be prepared to adjust similarly for events and possibly even for a shift of game dates. This will not be a “set it and forget it” news cycle.

Read the room—but remember to entertain it

As all the Bryant-inspired spot edits and shifts showed, brands brought empathy to the process. Given the state of the world, they’ll need to do the same this year. 

That will undoubtedly translate into more corporate social responsibility-oriented efforts than most years, but it doesn’t mean brands can’t be funny or entertaining. People still look to the Super Bowl—and its ads—for entertainment. Marketers have scored throughout 2020 by selling escapism, often in entertaining and hilarious forms. 

You need to meet people where they are. But don’t forget that, in this case, you’re meeting them in a place they’re going to be entertained. 

A challenge with possibility

An ongoing pandemic, a new administration, social unrest. Yes, Super Bowl 2021 will certainly be a challenge for brands. 

But it’s a challenge that doesn’t lack precedent—or possibility.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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Meet the author
  1. Jeremy Mullman

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