Super Bowl or super waste? Thoughts from a 4-time big game advertiser

Ted Gilvar is the former marketing leader of Vonage.

As Super Bowl season dawns on the marketing world, there’s always lots of debate about the merits of advertising on the Super Bowl. 

With a 30-second spot commanding $5.6 million, twice what it cost in 2008, the decision isn’t a light one.  Are there more efficient ways to drive short-term sales?  Are there better ways to drive conversion? 

Of course there are.  But if you’re a large brand with a dedicated brand budget or a medium sized brand looking to punch above your weight, there is no greater marketing moment to seize.  So what’s the answer to the question of waste?  It depends. It depends on the ability of the advertiser and its extended marketing team to extract the inherent value of a Super Bowl activation well done.

Lessons learned

I had the good fortune to advertise on four Super Bowls - two as an ad agency leader and two as a CMO.  Through my experience, I learned that there are four keys to a successful Super Bowl engagement. 

Practice creative empathy

Of course, the Super Bowl is the ultimate creative sandbox.  So you have to hire great creative partners and let them do their thing.  But the Super Bowl isn’t a typical creative showcase, it’s a beauty contest of breakthrough ideas and recall.  The breakthrough part is the easy part.  If you make the creative really funny or really emotional, it can break through the clutter.  Why? Because many advertisers go on the Super Bowl and actually run pedestrian creative.  Or God forbid, run commercials that people have already seen.  (Note to my peers who want to be on the Super Bowl and play it safe - take your $5.6MM and throw it in the garbage.  You’re wasting your effort, our attention and your company’s money.)

The harder task is recall.  How do you generate recall when you are 30 seconds out of 51 minutes of advertising, most of which prioritizes grabbing attention over any deeper message?  The answer is human insight and empathy.  Likeability is great and is certainly important, but it’s only the start.  If you look at recall over Super Bowl history, the most compelling ads are those that strike a nerve, tap into a human insight and then connect the idea of the ad to the value of their brand.  It’s not rocket science, but it’s rarely achieved in the street-fight for attention.

Keep it simple

Try to attack complicated storylines, create ads that are heavily copy-dependent or as my dad was fond of saying, "put ten pounds of crap in a five pound bag".  Like it or not, the Super Bowl viewing experience is a whipsaw of messages, most often viewed in a loud environment with constant distraction.  That setting requires consummate simplicity to make people process, understand and remember your ad.  Think quick, what’s your favorite Super Bowl commercial ever?  Without knowing your answer, I bet it’s a simple idea.

The ad is just the start: Surround sound is the key

The audience for the game though huge, is finite. 100 Million people watching the same three hour event is unmatched, but that’s not where the game is won and lost anymore.  Social Media changed everything.  Why?  Because now there is an echo chamber for manufacturing impressions, and the before and after have become as important as the during.  To crack the code on maximizing exposure, advertisers need to have the resources and talent to attack the lead up to the game and the post-mortem with equal force via PR and social engagement.  And if done well, surround sound tactics can generate more impressions than the huge audience the game itself delivers.

Don’t waste the brand statement of being a Super Bowl brand

Being a brand worthy of US sports’ biggest annual event and advertising’s biggest stage is tremendously valuable to company employees, customers and fans of your brand.  If you make them all insiders on your plans, and invite them to participate somehow, you can build great advocacy. Employees want to work for a company that celebrates its brand, prospects want to do business with a company they can talk about with their friends, and existing customers want to continue to do business with brands that aren’t afraid to embrace the limelight. 

Good luck to this year’s advertisers.  Don’t waste your opportunity.  We’ll be watching.

Ted Gilvar, a consultant and Ted speaker, is the former marketing leader of Vonage.

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