Super Bowl LV ad lineup reflects economy’s fractured recovery

Brands advertising this year’s Super Bowl offer a snapshot of the companies thriving in our COVID-19 reality.

COVID-19 has created an economy of the haves and the have-nots.

The haves, regardless of the category, are tech-first and experience-driven brands. The have-nots have an analogue business model, an offering that requires gathering in person, or both.

That harsh reality is reflected in this year’s Super Bowl advertising line-up, which is shaping up to be a mixed bag of mainstays and newcomers riding the coattails of our digital-first lifestyle, accelerated by the pandemic. 

CBS has reportedly sold out of its Super Bowl ad inventory as of Wednesday, to the tune of $5.5 million for a 30-second spot. That’s in line with last year’s rates, but still a hefty chunk of change. 

So it’s no surprise to see brands such as DoorDash, Fiverr, Mercari and Triller making their debut on the world’s biggest branding stage. DoorDash is fresh off a $60 billion IPO, Triller is riding the short-form mobile video wave, Mercari is on both the e-commerce and sustainability bandwagons, and virtual freelance platform Fiverr is more relevant than ever as job losses continue to devastate the country.

“Fiverr has been around for a while, but the relevancy of their offering has never been higher,” said Christa Carone, president at CSM Sport & Entertainment. “They still need to deploy their marketing for the year, and the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of appointment viewing.”

Then there’s TurboTax, E-Trade and Vroom, all Super Bowl LV advertisers that embody the digital disruption of analog verticals: financial services and auto.

While not all new Super Bowl advertisers this year are technology or digital-first brands, they are making technology central to their offering.

Take Chipotle, which is making its Super Bowl debut this year after defying the in-person dining downturn by investing its app and mobile ordering experience. The burrito chain more than doubled subscribers to its loyalty program in 2020, which hit 19 million people, sending Q3 revenues up 14% to $1.6 billion.

Then there’s Scotts Miracle-Gro, which is also joining the Super Bowl fray after revenues from its consumer gardening business shot up 24% last year. Scotts not only filled a void while people were home tending to their gardens, but also provided easy access to e-commerce ordering and delivery through its brands’ own websites.

“A lot of advertisers have started to find their footing,” Carone said. “We're no longer in a state of pause.”

Not all of this year’s Super Bowl advertisers owe their return to being digital-first, as CPGs including M&Ms and Pringles return to the game.

Still, a number of CPG mainstays have opted out, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Budweiser and Olay, reflecting the impact on retailer and venue-driven business models. PepsiCo will only advertise some brands, including Mtn Dew, Cheetos and Doritos, while focusing on a campaign for its halftime show. And Budweiser will advertise Bud Light Seltzer while donating funds to its master brand campaign to support vaccine awareness

Coca-Cola, for its part, will sit out the Super Bowl all together, while it undergoes a massive agency review as it pares back its portfolio of brands — not necessarily the time for a big branding moment.

Autos, typically strong during the Super Bowl, are going through similar struggles as car sales slumped during the pandemic, thanks to an analog shopping experience, a big-ticket price tag and a business model heavily reliant on logistics. Toyota and General Motors have committed to returning this year, but Hyundai, Ford and Audi, are sitting on the bench.

Investment in the Super Bowl goes way beyond ad time during the game, and can create a brand halo that sustains for months — or even years. That’s why it’s a stage reserved for the world’s biggest, most resilient advertisers.

It’s no wonder the line-up looks different this year.

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