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How brands are navigating the ‘riskiest Super Bowl ever’

Drawing up the right play for this year's Super Bowl can be a daunting challenge

A Super Bowl spot has always been a precarious investment. But given all of the current factors, participating this year could be the riskiest play of all. While some of the biggest brands are sitting out. Others are ready to step up and be the winners.

For the first time ever, the brands sitting out the Super Bowl have been generating more buzz than the gutsy marketers who are putting up the $5.5 million to participate. Inventory, which sold out in November for the previous Super Bowl, is still available as Avocados from Mexico, Coca-Cola, Ford, Hyundai, Pepsi-Cola, Sabra and others have already taken a seat on the sidelines.

Other brands have been slow to announce their plans given a news cycle rife with coronavirus, careening unemployment numbers and Capitol violence. Now as the big game draws near and the US presidential inauguration passes into the rearview, new announcements are on the horizon.

To date, there has been a blend of familiar brand participants (Anheuser-Busch, Frito-Lay, M&M’s, Mountain Dew, Pringles, Toyota and TurboTax) mixed with up-and-comers that have thrived during the pandemic. Fiverr and Vroom will join the line-up for the first time and now TikTok competitor Triller is allegedly in the fray, reports Ad Age (Triller declined comment). Plus, Scotts Miracle-Gro announced its first appearance.

Each brand will be forced to find the right tone during a difficult moment unlike any other, says former New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott. “The Super Bowl is going to require a real gut check for marketers in terms of whether they'll be able to walk the tightrope between striking the right tone and misfiring by alienating people with the wrong approach.”

Elliott says this Super Bowl is the riskiest for marketers. Other trying times included the period after 9/11, the financial crisis and the Gulf War. “You can say people are in a bad mood. They’ll welcome a chance to relax and to have a regular Super Bowl and escape the terrible news. Then you can flip the argument and say that it’s tone deaf to run a Superbowl ad and pretend that that things are normal,” says Elliott. “I can see either side of that stance.”

Then there are other significant factors as at play. Big parties are out of the question and there are serious questions about whether viewership will take a hit. NFL ratings were down 7% for the season marking the first decline in three years. “It’s incredibly complex,” says Robert Passikoff, president of marketing consultancy Brand Keys.

“The Super Bowl was about the parties and getting together. That ain’t happening. Then there’s the fact that they took every sport and crammed them into a short period of time. People are worn out. They’ve binged everything. I suspect the pure return-on-investment isn’t going to be there for many.”

Opportunity strikes for brands that succeeded during lockdown

While many brands struggled during the pandemic, others like Vroom and Fiverr have thrived. The Super Bowl gives them the platform they want to take brand awareness to an entirely new level.

Vroom, for example, sees this as the logical next step after going public in June. The company is dialing up that fact that it offers people the chance to buy and sell used cars via contactless delivery. “We are ramping up our marketing in 2021 to bring mass awareness to our brand and our better way of buying and selling cars online. There’s no bigger stage to do that than the Super Bowl,” Vroom’s chief marketer Peter Scherr told The Drum. “At a time when Americans are looking for value and a way to transact without leaving home, this felt like the perfect moment for us to shine a spotlight on the fact that Vroom makes it, so you never have to go to a dealership again.”

Fiverr is looking to not only build off of its substantial growth, it is “looking to be one of the biggest brands out there,” according to CMO Gali Arnon. The leading marketplace for freelancers has enjoyed 730% growth since its IPO and aspires to keep the momentum going.

However, it isn’t just the rising stars that are taking a shot. Scotts Miracle-Gro is running its first Super Bowl ad during the second quarter. Lawn care and home maintenance has been a sweet spot during the pandemic. Scotts Miracle-Gro is going to encourage America to “Keep growing.” The ad will include celebrity cameos and promote a consumer sweepstakes. John Sass, vice-president of advertising at Scotts Miracle-Gro says: “We’ve always loved our backyards, but this year Americans realized the backyard truly is the best room in the house. With more than 25 million new consumers in lawn and garden, we’ve never been more pumped for a spring season. We want to encourage everyone to keep growing and we’re going to do so with our biggest spring campaign ever, which will kick off with our company’s first Super Bowl spot.”

It’s hard to bet against fun, and snacks

With snack consumption on the rise, the beloved M&M’s characters are back. As is Frito-Lay which has excelled over the years with its Doritos ads. This time around Frito-Lay will stoke up some nostalgia by bringing back ’90s favorite Doritos 3D Crunch with the help of Mindy Kaling and Jimmy Kimmel. It will also reunite “That ‘70s Show stars Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher to promote Cheetos. And, for the first time is launching a campaign touting its entire portfolio culminating in a Super Bowl spot. The ad includes Peyton and Eli Manning, Troy Aikman, Deion Sanders and other NFL legends.

“While this year’s game will look entirely different than ever before, the Super Bowl broadcast is still expected to be the most-watched event of the year, making it a priority moment for Frito-Lay,” Rachel Ferdinando, chief marketer for Frito-Lay North America says.

“It’s also the second-biggest snacking day of the year with 90% of viewers enjoying snacks and beverages at home. And perhaps now more than ever, we know this country is looking for small moments of joy and escape. So, we tried to be authentic to who we are as a collection of fun snacks, and we’ve built our Super Bowl campaigns to bring much-needed smiles to the airwaves this year.”

While Frito-Lay’s sibling company Pepsi-Cola isn’t advertising during the game, it is still sponsoring the Super Bowl halftime show via the now-ubiquitous promo spot starring The Weeknd. It is also set to run an ad for Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew is now the third largest carbonated soda brand behind Coke and Pepsi, according to Beverage Digest. Sales were up 4.2 percent for the first nine months of 2020. Dew made a big splash, last week, by luring NBA all-star LeBron James away from Coca-Cola.

So, will these brands win? Elliott says, despite the challenges making a bet on a Super Bowl ad “makes sense if you're a brand that's been doing well during this terrible time or you have something that you can offer that will resonate with the consumer given the crazy life that everybody is leading now.”

While Passikoff is bullish on hot brands like Fiverr taking a shot, he says any given year it’s an uphill battle. Brand Keys research reveals that, generally, only about 20% of the brands that advertise on the Super Bowl “actually do something to emotionally engages the viewers — meaning it translates to positive behavior towards the brand in the long-term,“ he says. At this point, “if you’re doing ads that just entertain that’s God’s way of telling you that you have too much money in the ad budget.”