A peek inside brands’ Super Bowl war rooms

A Dunk in the Dark moment is unlikely, but brands and their agency partners will be mining online conversations nonetheless.

Super Bowl LV is just days away. And while some things will be the same as in years past — a few thousand spectators will even be in attendance — what’s happening behind the scenes will look a little different. 

The idea of the Super Bowl war room, made famous by Oreo’s iconic Dunk in the Dark moment in 2013, is changing. One reason is that the traditional concept of the physical war room has been made obsolete through advancements in technology. Another is the reality of a pandemic that has dramatically changed the way PR and marketing pros do their jobs in the year since the last Super Bowl.

For agencies, the big difference is how and where they’re connecting. Rather than a large presence on the ground this year, war rooms will be 100% virtual, with connections happening online via Zoom breakout rooms and similar platforms. Some agencies are breaking down these meetings by responsibility.  

“We have teams that will be gathering on online platforms prior to the start of the game, throughout the game and post-game,” explains Chris Console, SVP of BCW Sports. “We are strategizing by trying to have different breakout rooms based on roles and responsibilities, such as creative development, community management and monitoring.”

Brian Williams, EVP at Weber Shandwick/3PM, notes that his firm’s war room will also be focusing on monitoring and looking for opportunities to join conversations. 

“Except for technology linking us all, this year is no different,” he says. “There are just less snacks.”

Another consistency with past Super Bowls is the high level of preparation necessary for brands and agency teams.  

“All war rooms require a ton of preparation, building monitors, scenario planning, including with legal and press partners for amplification, writing response matrices and preparing sample content,” says Nicole Weltman, SVP of digital at Lippe Taylor. “The purpose of the room is to have all key decision makers connected so decisions can be made in real-time and content can be deployed immediately. This can be facilitated over Zoom, as long as roles and responsibilities are clear.”

The combined challenges of navigating this work virtually and addressing the sensitive events of the last year, from the COVID-19 pandemic to political polarization and social unrest, means that preparation and sensitivity will be even more critical than ever.

“Our strategy for war rooms is to over-prepare and have the right people in the room because you can never prepare for everything,” continues Weltman. “Hiccups that are common to Zoom meetings could affect war rooms this year, as well as dealing with uncharted social sentiment. More people may be live-tweeting the game than ever before, because as in-person gatherings are down, people will take to social media to enjoy the day with others, virtually.”

Weltman’s colleague, chief planning officer Kate Charles, adds that agility isn’t the only key to successful engagement this year. Transparency is also key. Consumers increasingly express preference for brands that are civically engaged, but not if only for their own gain. With that in mind, Charles argues that “at a time where consumers may be craving normalcy, some light-hearted entertainment could be a welcome distraction, and the transparency of an ad simply being an ad may be appreciated.”

Other experts agree. Williams notes that due to these unprecedented times, Weber Shandwick/3PM will be paying attention to striking the right note, while Jack Barbour, VP at Golin New York, says that his firm will be focused on dialing up the “fun.” (3PM was created by parent Interpublic Group to service the Anheuser-Busch InBev account). 

All of this is true whether a brand has ads or activations planned, or they’re simply hoping to jump on conversations and engage with their audiences.

Console explains that the “task force” at BCW Sports will focus on a few key areas: monitoring social chatter to understand reactions and tonality of the content of ads, monitoring earned and traditional media coverage, issues management and developing real-time reactions on behalf of their clients.

Charles, who was practice lead for social listening at 360i during the Dunk in the Dark moment, notes that the “brands that have the best chance of standing out during the cluttered media moments like the Super Bowl are the ones that have developed a muscle memory for how the brand can react. Planning with strategy tools like social tone of voice — snarky, supportive, informative, playful, etc — are key to hitting it big with quick and effective activations.”

While a particularly clever real-time reaction like Dunk in the Dark is a huge opportunity for virality, the current climate may make the likelihood of a repeat lower than ever. 

“I don’t have any hard evidence of this, but I suspect this year brands will be more cautious to jump into conversations where they may not have permission, regardless of how inane those conversations may be,” says Matt Hantz, EVP of digital at M Booth. 

“This year, war room activity will be more about risk management and creative executions will be more conservative, meaning the odds of brands stepping in it will be less,” he continues. “Someone will do it. There is always someone willing to risk their career for the sake of instant marketing fame, but we will be counseling our clients to follow the first rule of marketing: do no harm.”

Misinformation is another complicating factor that may lead brands to be more cautious and also give their agencies yet another component to monitor and correct for over the course of the game.

Despite the challenges, extensive preparation and virtual nature of this year’s war rooms, many of the tools the teams use will remain the same. Teams may connect on Zoom or Microsoft Teams instead of in person, but they’re still using platforms like TweetDeck and BrandWatch and their own proprietary tools. Golin plans to use its tool Relevance Radar to “mine for real-time opportunities and respond when appropriate,” says Barbour.

Weber/3PM will work closely with its own data intelligence division “to build a tool to quickly collect and organize different earned media sources into one place so we can correlate press and social in real time and use that information to assess how we’re doing, what’s working, and what’s not and to inform our strategies,” Williams says. His team also plans to collaborate directly with representatives from the social platforms to help them analyze conversations and identify trends.

Yet the human factor can’t be underestimated. Charles notes that while platforms are able to provide an overview of macro themes, “the human response and critical thinking is what leads to differentiated success.” 

“If you wait until an opportunity happens, it will likely come too late or be contrived in the eyes of consumers,” she adds. 

This story first appeared on PRWeek US.

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