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Marketing Brand Strategy Media Planning and Buying

How brands can win the Super Bowl without a $7m ad

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By Kendra Barnett | Senior Reporter

February 8, 2024 | 14 min read

Shrewd marketers are increasingly taking advantage of the hype and engagement that envelops the Super Bowl – without shelling out millions for a gametime spot.

NFL logo, Wilson football and pack of sour Skittles together

Brands are increasingly finding that they don't need to pay for an in-game spot on Super Bowl Sunday to capitalize on the hype / Stefan Maass

In 2013, Oreo broke the internet during Super Bowl XLVII. And it did so without a primetime commercial.

During the third quarter, a power outage brought play to a stop for an entire half-hour, leaving fans antsy with anticipation. In what has since been dubbed one of the best-ever real-time marketing efforts, Oreo shot out a simple tweet with an image of a solitary sandwich cookie in a dark space and the words: ‘You can still dunk in the dark.’

“The success of the tweet was the result of a carefully architected social media strategy that made the brand ready to respond to whatever the Big Game threw its way,” Michelle Deignan, vice-president and general manager of Oreo, tells The Drum. “Our goal with the Oreo brand is to be at the forefront of culture, and that means being ready to jump in on the conversation – and we had a real-time social media command center set up for that very reason.”

In the 11 years that have elapsed, clever Super Bowl-adjacent marketing activations have proliferated – all the more so in light of the staggering price of in-game ad space. This year, 30-second Super Bowl LVIII spots are going for around $7m a pop – compared with around $3.5m in 2013. And while the prices keep rising, viewership continues to wane. In 2022, US viewership numbers dropped 13% from its 2015 peak.

Put off by sticker shock and disappearing eyeballs, brands are finding increasingly creative ways to engage fans in the weeks leading up to the game and during the event itself.

It’s what Lou Paskalis, chief strategy officer at media watchdog Ad Fontes Media and the former head of media investment at Bank of America, calls “the game around the game.”

“It’s the notion that you really need to activate your assets,” he says. “In the old days, that might be point-of-sale material at retail touchpoints that features artifacts – like the NFL logo, the Super Bowl logo or maybe a team logo if you have those rights – so that you get more of an ROI there. Well, that [idea also] works in other places, like events that you might create, which could be local watch parties or bringing some people to the game.”

And of course, social media is among the key channels to make a splash. “Twitter 1.0,” as Paskalis calls X pre-Elon Musk acquisition, was among the most effective platforms for real-time engagement – á la Oreo’s ‘Dunk in the dark’ tweet – in and around big events like the Super Bowl.

Brands on Twitter 1.0 could make a big impact around these events, Paskalis says. “It’s like, ‘We can get this thing out right now and leverage cultural context and create tremendous awareness … by being on the ball. So everybody created these real-time response mechanisms around events like the Super Bowl, where in the same room you would have creatives, legal, AdOps and Twitter people. You’d be looking for opportunities to create content in real-time, leveraging the context of the Big Game, and you know, that was Twitter’s superpower.”

Today, things are different. Musk, who acquired the platform in late 2022 for $44bn, has ostracized advertisers with lax content moderation policies and controversial platform changes – and attempted to silence dissenters (including journalists and media watchdogs) after repeatedly endorsing a view of so-called ‘free speech absolutism.’ Monthly US ad revenue has fallen at least 55% year-over-year each month since Musk’s buyout, according to recent data published by Reuters.

The mercurial billionaire went so far as to tell advertisers who’d soured on the app – including Disney, Paramount, Apple, IBM, and other heavyweights – to “go fuck [themselves]” in a November interview with The New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin.

“That irrevocably created headwinds for sponsorship activation [on X] … I think you won’t see any [big Super Bowl] activations there,” Paskalis says.

So, in 2024, brands looking to capture attention on Super Bowl Sunday and the days leading up to it are more likely to prioritize other social apps. While he sees shortcomings in many platforms, Paskalis says that platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Meta’s Threads may offer brands a viable alternative to X. “The key is,” he says, “who has a real-time ability to activate?”

Brands including Coors Light, Pringles and Bounty, for example, are ditching X for their Super Bowl activations this year, choosing instead to focus on TikTok and Instagram.

State Farm, for its part, has found great success in activating TikTok-led campaigns around the Super Bowl in recent years.

After driving up the equity of its brand character Jake From State Farm in a flashy 2021 Big Game spot with Drake, the insurance provider chose to forgo a primetime spot the following year and instead prioritize Jake’s social media presence.

The brand launched a sweepstakes, encouraging fans to respond to an open casting call from Jake with TikToks showcasing their talents for a chance to star in a commercial with the character. “Anchoring a Super Bowl sweepstakes on that channel was a way for us to say, ‘Hey, you guys didn’t know it, but Jake is on TikTok,’” says Alyson Griffin, the company’s head of marketing. “It was about doing some hubbub around the Big Game in order to drive the business goal of getting attention to a TikTok account.”

Then, in 2023, State Farm debated whether or not to buy a spot in Super Bowl LVII. But the game itself was held at State Farm Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona, and Griffin and her team ultimately determined that the exposure the brand would get from this fact would prove equally if not more valuable.

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Another TikTok campaign, however, was a lower-budget, easy way to dial up its exposure. The brand tapped a handful of influencers, including one of TikTok’s most popular creators, Khaby Lame, who posted videos leading up to the big day with interactive content and challenges. Including content from its 13 influencer partners, State Farm was able to reach 245 million viewers – compared with the 115 million viewers of Super Bowl LVII.

Every year, however, requires its own assessment based on the brand’s topline goals, Griffin says. “It’s never an automatic, ‘We’re going to do a spot’ or, ‘We’re not going to do a spot.’ It’s about, ‘What are we trying to achieve, and what do we think is the most economical, strategic venue to reach the target audience we’re trying to reach with the message we’re trying to reach?”

This year, the answer to the question of a gametime spot was ‘yes.’ State Farm will show up on Sunday with a rollicking homage to its famous ‘Like a good neighbor…’ tagline featuring Terminator star and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One brand playing “the game around the game” this year is hair salon chain Great Clips. In a joint effort, the brand has teamed up with vehicle manufacturer Kawasaki, which is making its Super Bowl debut this year with a 45-second ad for its new Ridge side-by-side. In the spot, WWE legend Steve Austin spontaneously grows a mullet when he jumps in the Ridge; the vehicle is likened to the iconic 80s ‘do with the tagline ‘Business in the front, party in the back.’ To extend the reach and hype around the ad, Kawasaki reached out to Great Clips for a playful, mullet-focused collaboration.

“They reached out to us less than a week ago, as they wanted to inspire more PR and attention leading up to the Big Game. They asked us if we would offer free mullets,” says Lisa Hake, vice-president of marketing and communications at Great Clips. “We are the world’s largest hair salon brand, so we have that reach and that legacy of great haircuts.”

The brand quickly agreed to the idea of offering 15,000 free mullet haircuts in partnership with Kawasaki, and began spotlighting the promotion on social media. Great Clips has a rich history of working with sports brands, including the NCAA and the NHL, so the brand felt that it could push the activation beyond football by working with TikTok influencers The Hockey Guys. Great Clips stylists took to the brand’s TikTok account this week to showcase fresh mullet cuts on the creators.

“It’s a great way for us to connect to the Big Game in a way that we wouldn’t have the budget to do on our own,” says Hake. “We knew it’d be a great PR push for Kawasaki … and we thought it was a great connection to our brand as well.”

The activation immediately caught fire. Great Clips launched the initiative Tuesday morning and maxed out its 15,000 coupons for free mullets within seven hours. “The demand and the excitement for this promotion was just amazing,” says Hake. “Engagement is happening in an organic way because of the allure of free haircuts as well as [the appeal of] mullets – it’s a trending haircut right now for both men and women.”

To extend the campaign after maxing out its free offers, Great Clips and Kawasaki will continue to offer a $2 off coupon to anyone who registers on a dedicated microsite.

Many major advertisers see an abundance of opportunities in and around game day that don’t require presence on the big screen.

“The Super Bowl is arguably the biggest event of the year and something that every brand looks to be a part of. People from all different communities come together to watch the Big Game, whether it’s to see every touchdown, commercial or the halftime show,” says Mili Laddha, brand marketing director at Ritz.

“Not only do fans join together to watch live, but they follow commentary through a second screen on apps like X to get even more real-time updates,” she continues. “Activating during this window creates excitement for what your brand has on the horizon for the upcoming year. By creating a campaign that can be of interest to people of all different backgrounds, brands can use the Big Game as a perfect place to host their ideas.”

The cracker brand is running a Super Bowl lead-up campaign with Jaguars’ quarterback Trevor Lawrence. It’s also offering fans the chance to win a “sports cave makeover” for their homes with a sweepstakes running on game day.

Meanwhile, 11 years after its viral ‘Dunk in the dark’ moment, Oreo is still making the most of the Super Bowl. This year, the brand will air a 30-second spot starring Kris Jenner during the second quarter. The ad imagines a world where twisting apart the sides of the cookie has history-altering consequences.

And for adland veteran Paskalis, buying a primetime spot still makes sense for the big brands who can push their dollar to its limit. “You’re buying cultural relevance by advertising in the game,” he says. “And until somebody comes along with something bigger than that, it’s still going to be worthwhile for these advertisers who know how to activate it.”

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