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Why Super Bowl LI was a breakthrough year for B2B brands

Why Super Bowl LI was a breakthrough year for B2B brands

There have been great Super Bowl ads from B2B brands before (who can forget the EDS cat herders?). However, never before have B2B brands taken such a dominant role in the ad breaks during the game – and, just as importantly, the conversations around it.

If there were a contest between B2C and B2B as to who owns the Super Bowl, then this year was B2B’s big moment – the equivalent of the Patriots’ fourth-quarter comeback.

That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of big B2C brands delivering some classic Super Bowl creative – Melissa McCarthy’s slapstick Kia ad, Budweiser’s epic storytelling, the crowd-pleasing, sexy Mr. Clean. I would argue though that the ads really setting the agenda were from B2B brands: the film from 84 Lumber that the broadcaster Fox refused to air in its original form; the Jason Statham ads from Wix.com that became the most mentioned Super Bowl campaign on social media; and John Malkovich’s appearance for Squarespace that took celeb cameos to the next level – and squeezed every last bit of humour out of swearing at a laptop.

The profile generated by these ads is no coincidence. It’s a direct result of the way that the Super Bowl has evolved as a brand opportunity – but it’s also a reflection of the changing nature of B2B marketing.

Is the Big Game a big gamble for B2B?

Last year, Adobe created a Super Bowl-themed ad, which captured why many B2B brands have steered clear of the big game. You get to reach lots of people but if the creative falls flat, or they’ve all gone to the bathroom at the wrong moment, then all of that investment is suddenly gone. You can lose a lot – and lose it quickly.

The irony, of course, is that the Super Bowl as an advertising opportunity has become about far more than just the TV audience ad (112 million this time around). It’s about finding a way to be a part of the conversation – a conversation that starts weeks before, and extends weeks after the game itself. This change means it’s easier for B2B brands to tailor a media strategy that suits their particular objectives – and work on de-risking the investment.

Nobody understands that better than Adobe – which never actually bought a Super Bowl slot but ran its campaign in the run-up to the game and delivered it to target audiences via social platforms and professional networks. The B2B brands advertising at the Super Bowl this year understood just as well that the game itself is just an expensive starting point for their strategy to recoup ROI.

Taking Super Bowl investment beyond the game itself

The controversy generated by 84 Lumber’s reference to a Mexico border wall ensured plenty of news coverage in the week leading up to the Super Bowl – and immense momentum online. The brand’s YouTube channel received close to 1 million views in the 24 hours after the game. Its campaign microsite reportedly crashed due to the number of visitors. It didn’t really matter that the full ad never actually aired. The brand created a shorter, less political version for its TV ad slot, to satisfy the broadcaster’s concerns – and ensure it was part of the conversation.

Releasing its two ads online ahead of the game helped Wix.com rack up the highest social engagement of any Super Bowl campaign this year – and primed audiences to look out for the action-comedy slots starring Jason Statham and Gal Gardot, rather than rushing to the kitchen to reload on nachos.

Squarespace didn’t just use a foul-mouthed John Malkovich for shock value during the game. Dramatising the actor’s frustrations at finding his domain taken was the starting point for demonstrating how Squarespace helped him launch his own clothing range online. And with 4 million views on YouTube in just 24 hours, it secured incredible reach for what is basically a very funny SMB case study.

The changing formula for B2B marketers

When Volvo Trucks won the Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix at Cannes for its famous ‘Epic Split’ YouTube ad, it demonstrated how mass reach can add up for B2B brands. After all, the more people see your ad, the greater the chance of someone in your target audience seeing it.

The more we understand the extended ‘buying committees’ involved in purchase decisions, the greater the value of making sure that everyone influencing a purchase has at least heard of your brand. If those deals are worth tens of thousands of dollars each, then the value in a $5.5 million Super Bowl slot might just add up.

The changing nature of B2B also means that more and more brands have economies of scale that make the Super Bowl a more financially viable opportunity. Wix.com and Squarespace with their huge potential audiences of small businesses and entrepreneurs, show how the digital economy makes the numbers add up for B2B every bit as much as B2C. Especially when your content is distributed in a more targeted way through channels like the LinkedIn feed (where the campaigns for both Squarespace and Wix.com can be found at the moment) where audiences are in the right mindset. They epitomise the lower barriers of entry to starting a business. Awareness can easily translate into action.

B2B marketers increasingly see the value of building brands for other audiences besides potential customers. The ad for 84 Lumber reaffirmed the company’s commitment to migrant labour, a hugely significant part of its workforce. This is an important investment in building its talent brand – the campaign microsite was also a careers website.

These three B2B brands showed the value of humour, of shock, and of heart-tugging emotion in a Super Bowl strategy that has a clear sense of how it will secure ROI. A commitment to storytelling has become the real defining characteristic of Super Bowl ads. This year shows B2B brands getting smarter and smarter about how they can extract value from such an approach.

Henry Clifford-Jones is director at LinkedIn Marketing Solutions - UK, DE and ES at LinkedIn

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Henry Clifford-Jones

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