Strategic Thinking: A Personal Reflection on Super Bowl LIV Commercials

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You will probably read a lot of Super Bowl Ad reviews today or will have some small talks with your colleagues about your favorite commercial spots from last night. Or you will be searching for the anti-aging regimes of JLo? Or, going through the memes on Half Time show? Today, there will be a flood of content on Super Bowl commercials, the game, and the half time show. So, I will keep this piece very short and much focused on my personal experience. I haven’t read any reflections on the Super Bowl commercial after the game…yet. Probably I will not cover all the popular ads from every brand, but these are mostly the notes I took while live-tweeting during the event. I will focus on couple of subtitles that summarize the themes across the commercials in the Super Bowl this year.

Live Tweeting & Ambient Sociability. I love social media interactions. I love the ambient intimacy — a feeling of closeness toward certain others developed mainly by sharing the same space by them (McGonial 2011) — of social media bringing to the live media experiences. I really love this sociability layer added to the Super Bowl experience via the Twitter community that you haven’t or barely known before. I find the majority of joy and satisfaction about the #SuperBowlAd watching around the live Twitter activity where I can see the first reactions of audiences and assess the brands’ real-time reactions to the real-time consumer tweets. This year, I had the joy of contributing to the #KelloggBowl hashtag lead by Prof.Tim Calkins and his students at the Northwestern Kellogg Super Bowl Ad review team. I thank all these students for sharing their insights and my academic colleague Spencer M Ross for bouncing back and forth ideas. This annual marketplace ritual comes full-circle when you expand and enrich your social media kin.

Meshed Realities. One of the most important news of the Game Day was Verizon announcing that it would provide the 5G experience in the Hard Rock stadium and that Super Bowl LIV would be the first 5G Super Bowl in history: ‘Through Verizon, there will be an overlay of data onto live plays, real-time VR and AR to give fans a player’s eye view, live in-stadium AR wayfinding and directions, live on-field graphics through AR filters, live-streaming via multiple camera angles, and more.’ This was seminal as the field has been discussing 5G and its possible manifestations across categories. We have been predicting that the broadcasting and sports entertainment will be the frontier industries that will lead change in 5G. And, here it is. Exciting times ahead!

5G is the innovation we have been getting ready for the last 20+ years. 5G will unlock & unleash the true potential of the existing innovations at their embryonic stages (e.g., VR/ARs, autonomous cars, IoT) and create a new ecosystem of reality — what we call “meshed realities” at MINTEL. 5G-enabled consumer experiences will be a layered-mesh of augmented, virtual, and physical storyworlds made up of human and non-human agents. In this new ecosystem, all the contextual information that we want, need, or like to know will be layered on and onto our physical reality.

Streaming Wars. The streaming wars persist through the Super Bowl. Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, and Hulu have run commercials last night. There were even smaller and newer players like Quibi. It is exciting to hear some new and independent “junior” voices in the streaming wars. I, personally, like the “I’ll be there in a Quibi!” line. I will not go into the details of the content of each commercial but approaches of these big players to Super Bowl commercials were very similar: “Let’s flex our content muscle” They mostly highlighted the content excellence approach where they have showed teasers to build excitement around their tent-pole content. Amazon Prime with Al Pacino in Nazi Hunters and Disney Plus with the first looks on the upcoming Marvel shows with Loki, Falcon, Winter Soldier, James Bond, and Black Widow. Recently, producing premium content has become the name of the competitive game in the streaming category. But, winning with content is getting more expensive — and will get more difficult — against these new big players with multi-billion dollar production and marketing budgets. Thus, going forward, content excellence cannot be the only competitive strategy for streaming wars. Please see my blog for a more detailed discussion on the competitive strategies beyond content excellence in streaming wars.

Hulu commercial was probably one of the most viral commercials in the streaming category. Tom Brady and some “ambiguity” built into the pre-game part of the commercial helped facilitate excitement and fostered the social media buzz. But, I am concerned that these tactical executions will fall short in such a heated and dynamic competitive landscape of the streaming category. These viral marketing tactics will not build a brand and will hardly ever contribute to the strategic storytelling to position or differentiate the brand. And, I wish Hulu would have edited this content as a respect for the memory of Kobe. Personally, I didn’t like the “teased’ hook of another athlete’s farewell in the Super Bowl commercials. This weekend, the farewell story should have been only about Kobe and not be used as a teaser by another athlete or brand.

Dancing with the Enemy. We have seen several brands interacting with each other on social media during the Super Bowl. I like when brands playfully joust on social media and explore the synergistic effects of rivalry. It is a fun and light hearted competition approach that helps brands ride on each other’s social media buzz. Home Depot winked at Tide, Planters reminded Alexa/Amazon to order the peanuts, Snickers teased with Tide, and Avocados from Mexico poked fun at Doritos. See the playful jousting tweets — and also the very entertaining emojis — below. Although these types of playful rivalries are entertaining for the audience, they don’t have much lasting strategic impacts because the rivalry is mostly played among the brands in different categories. The social media managers pick an interesting or attention grabbing commercial and want to ride on its tails of this brand to increase the social media visibility and buzz of their own brand. Some call this tactic as “brand equity” sharing, but I prefer the term “brand jousting” on social media because “equity sharing” is a more strategic discussion but these jousts are very tactical in nature.

But, these playful interactions can have strategic impacts when they happen with a rival in the same category. That’s why T-Mobile’s tweet by John Legere’s stab at Verizon was different from the above playful jousts between brands. These inter-brand and inter-communal practices among the polarized rivalries, what I call Dancing with the Enemy, provide immense opportunities for brand managers to respond to the competition, influence the rival brand’s customers, and strengthen their own brand’s message. These coordinated and collaborative competitive strategies between polarized rivalries — between Apple-Samsung, DC-Marvel, Coke-Pepsi etc — unlock the synergistic power of rivalries in the category and strengthen brand communities.

Transmedia Storytelling. Transmedia storytelling, an aesthetic & a practice of the contemporary mediascape, is the telling of a story in various media types. The term is used to refer to a practice and aesthetics where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Although the best transmedia projects are the ones that coordinate the dispersion of stories across the platforms and touchpoints from the very start; in practice, we observe the integration of some transmedia ideas of “using every touchpoint to its strength” into the omni-channel campaigns. This year, the advertisers and brands have used some low-level of transmediation by creating different stories for different touchpoints. The TV commercials has been extended to majorly #TikTok this year. Mountain Dew, Hyundai, Chipotle, & Turbotax have leveraged TikTok with curated challenges to attract the younger #GenZ audiences. When the targeting of the younger segments including GenZ has been moved to TikTok & Snapchat, the TV part was majorly targeted to seniors, Baby Boomers, GenX & Millennials. The choice of commercials, songs, references, celebs, and even the #HalftimeShow were relevant and resonant with these audiences.

Transmediation is a lucrative solution with economic efficiencies. This transmediation of various content to different touchpoints — challenges on TikTok, AR filters on Snap chat, behind the screens on Insta stories — for different segments probably helped with the ROI of each content and optimized the marketing budgets for this very expensive marketing & branding fest. It is super expensive to put a TV spot in Super Bowl. And, Millennials, baby boomers, and GenX’ers are the ones who have money to spend. And the GenZ just wants to see some social responsibility and have some playful interaction with brands. So, every segment gets what they want to see in the platform they most engage with. Jlo and Shakira? They are perennials (ageless generation). Bow to the queens!

World-Building & Constructive Disruption. I took a note — in bold letters — of one brand last night: P&G. Their multi-brand approach was a fresh strategic turn for a CPG brand. Several P&G brands including Mr. Clean, Charmin, and Olay made an appearance. Getting inspired from the expanded universes like Marvel, Star Wars, or DC, P&G’s multi-brand campiagn has focused on the world-building (that is, the act of creating compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium). P&G has allowed consumers take active role in co-creating this “P&G universe” by asking them to visit the website WhenWeComeTogether.com where they can direct the actions of Vergara and her guests. The most popular narrative, as chosen by viewers, has aired during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game. Building an expanded universe, migrating consumers across touch points, and allowing for the consumer-generated content as part of world-building are pillars of transmedia storytelling strategy.

Marc Pritchard, P&G’s chief brand officer, calls the strategy as constructive disruption and explains their approach: “We’re trying to merge the ad world with other creative worlds, such as entertainment, sports and technology…It’s coming up with an innovative way to make advertising more superior, more useful and more interesting.”

Tide has run its own commercials — #LaundryLater — and was not involved in P&G universe for this year. This is probably the right move for Tide after the successful “Every Ad is a Tide Ad” last year. Mr. Clean, on the other hand, was the perfect wingman to several other P&G brands and has taken part in several commercials but it didn’t have its own this year. I predict the P&G brand teams will use the expanded universe to build the characters and the brands across different platforms and via layered storytelling. Transmedia is a powerful storytelling technique for building and sustaining brands, yet I am not sure whether it will help with the strategic and competitive challenges P&G will be facing as a house-of-brands in this evolving marketplace.

The Big Dawgs — Google vs Amazon. The Twitter was split between these two commercials. Google? Or Amazon? Which one did you like? Personally, I loved Google’s one. And, to be honest, I was very skeptical when I first read about the storyline before I saw the actual commercial. I thought: ‘Again? The same story line?” But, Google has done an amazing job with last night’s commercial on two fronts. First, it has addressed the anxieties about and around a problem — Alzheimer — that impacts a growing number of people and their loved ones. With the growing segment of the seniors, this problem will have an increasing and persisting importance. Second, Google has done a superb job in showcasing the co-existence trend that the digital civilization will be a mesh of human & non-human agents interacting with each other and working together. Many brands try to humanize the technology; but in Google’s emotional story, the tech was a trusted partner that augments the humans overcome their biological, physical, or emotional limitations. Last year, I have discussed the major impacts of this co-existence on the future of senior living in our Mintel Little Conversation podcast.

I also liked Amazon Alexa one, but I found the story line a little flat. It really didn’t deepen the story to explain what type of a presence Alexa has among us and the details why our lives are better because Alexa is in it. Also, Amazon is a little inconsistent with its tone of tech stories. This year’s Alexa was a major divergence from last year’s “Not everything Makes the Cut” where the failings of Alexa was shown (e.g., ordering dog food with bark, the accidents as a result of Alexa’s misunderstanding). Last year’s commercial was still an effort to humanize the tech through failures by making it imperfect but this year, amazon’s narrative has a more celebratory tone that emphasizes the treasured presence of Alexa in our lives.

Myth Markets. We tell stories about the future. Tales about the future tell how the future will look and of the effects that the new technologies will have. These stories are ways of imagining the future. The fate of these technologies often rest on these myths. Through myths, future is felt, imagined & considered. Myths summon the future into the present. Advertising works through myths. And, some myths lend themselves more to the Zeitgeist.

Tech against human or human against tech is a prominent contemporary myth market. We have to evaluate the Google, Amazon Alexa, and SodaStream ads in the context of this myth market. In this myth market, one of the popular myths is about making the “other” familiar. The humanization of the tech and adorning the tech with familiar attributes, human personalities, and human skills like empathy, will, and intent are all examples of this familiarization process. These stories seek to ease out the anxieties about the increasing use and capabilities of robots & help us navigate the co-existence with less anxiety. Brands take an important role in this space. Last year, we have seen more empathetic robots with emotions in TurboTax, Michelob Ultra, & Alexa commercials in the last Super Bowl emphasizing the similarity of robots with humans. This year, we are seeing more “trusted partner” and “co-worker” stories taking shape.

The Space as the Brand Ethos. Another important myth market is “The Space.” Last year, Taco Bell’s used the space ethos for its Nacho Fries. This year, the same ethos was used by the Soda Stream as they tell the story of finding water on Mars. In a very polarized national and global landscape, the space stories try to unify the human race around the commonalities — needs and struggles — of the human race. This commercial also integrates several other important discussions about water scarcity and sustainability.

Cultural Branding. The ‘purpose-driven branding’ has taken the field by storm. Unfortunately, most brands pick these “purposes” randomly or with very little or direct relevance to the category. Every brand cannot tell every story. To be authentic, advertisers and brands have to be careful about the political and cultural authority of the brand and what it allows. “When a brand creates a story that people find valuable, it earns the authority to tell similar kinds of stories (cultural authority) to address the identity desires of a similar constituency (political authority) in the future.”

From a cultural branding perspective, Olay’s #MakeSpaceForWomen is a good idea but it was risk averse. Culturally relevant brands address the timely anxieties and conflicts in the society and act as cultural, historical, and political agents. Olay’s story — space & women — was a good and relevant story but was not performed well. Recently, brands are so fearful of the negative reactions from audiences and social media bashing, they tame the creatives to such a nominal and generic form. They want to be liked by everyone. If you are creating a story for everyone to like, nobody will LOVE it. I talk more about this curse of the mainstream appeal in my blog here. Second, does Olay have enough political and cultural authority to tell that women empowerment story? I don’t think so. A good analysis into how Dove has built the authority to tell the “women empowerment” story — starting with a 2004 New York Times interactive billboard ad — will illustrate why Olay cannot tell that story…Yet!

Another heartache for me was about Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew used to be a stellar example of cultural branding with its focus on culturally & historically relevant mythmaking around alternative and evolving masculinity. This new #AsGoodAstheOriginal campaign is not fair to the rich cultural and political authority of the brand built via various successful campaigns like “Hillbilly”, “Doin’ It Country Cool” and “Do the Dew”.

Some other cultural branding notes: [I will tell more about cultural branding in my next blog]

the original version of this story was published on Mintel blog on February 3rd, 2020.

#SuperBowl #SuperBowlLIV #kelloggbowl #SuperBowl2020 #ads #commercial #Google #amazon

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