The Strategy Behind the Song and Dance - Superbowl Ads 2020

The Strategy Behind the Song and Dance - Superbowl Ads 2020
Written by Rees Calder
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Well, the Superbowl has come and gone, and with it some of the most expensive TV ads to grace our humble screens. Despite the rise of digital, TV still stands firm as the leading advertising choice among big brands. When it comes to marketing and advertising, brands need to split their budgets and efforts between the long (brand building) and the short (sales) in order to be successful over time. And you just can’t beat the millions of eyeballs the Superbowl delivers – eyeballs attached to hungry consumers with money to burn – and as such it has become a key moment in the annual marketing calendar.

While these ads may often just seem like a bit of fun, even *gasp* superfluous, they are typically just the tactical tip if the iceberg, with a presumably robust strategy sitting underneath. As Sun Tzu said way back in the 6th century BC: “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” These ads only work when the strategy that underlies them has been carefully thought out.

In light of that, brands ought to have a rock-solid strategy to base their tactics on before forking over $5 million plus on a Superbowl ad spot – particularly given the level of competition during that time. 

I decided to do a roundup of a few of this year’s Superbowl ads, but rather than just leave it at “ahh look how funny brand X was this year”, I thought I’d try and figure out some of the brand strategy behind these ads – even if at a fairly top level. If a brand manager knows what they’re doing, they’ll have already defined their product target market and positioning, and set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound) goals before briefing agencies on creating their TV spots. They’ll also have decided where in the funnel they want to play, and what part of the user journey (often awareness, consideration, purchase, advocacy – or some variation thereof) they will be trying to address with their tactics – in this case multi-million dollar TV ads. For example, we could see a brand wanting to “increase unaided awareness in the family fun segment by 12% by February 2021”. I won’t get quite that granular – particularly as I don’t have the time or inclination to figure out exactly how these brands have segmented the market, but I’ve tried to at least see at what stage of the funnel these ads are targeting. 

Without further preamble, here are a selection of 2020’s tactics with a highly subjective rationale looking at what the strategy that sits behind them might be. In no particular order:

Rocket Mortgage – Comfortable with Jason Momoa
Agency: Hive



This was a clever little ad featuring Jason Momoa (of Game of Thrones and Aquaman fame) getting comfortable at home by removing his muscly body suit and wig, leaving a balding, emaciated shell of a human behind. Humour here was clearly the driving force and it was executed very well on a tactical level. In terms of strategy though? This came across as more of a brand building effort rather than a direct sales approach. If I had to guess I’d say this would be targeting consumers in the consideration phase. With Rocket Mortgage being a relatively new brand, and competing with older incumbent mortgage providers, it seems here that they are driving people to consider Rocket Mortgage as a viable alternative. There is also certainly a brand building element to this as well, and with this ad Rocket Mortgage is hoping it’ll become a watercooler talking point and keep the brand top of mind among potential consumers. 

Microsoft – “Be the One: Katie Sowers”
Agency: McCann New York

Inspirational? Tick. Emotional? Tick? Forward thinking? Sure, why not. Associated with Microsoft’s offering? Hmmm, maybe not so much. This is clearly a brand building play for Microsoft – as is the NFL sponsorship itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re not even bothering with a funnel focus here, but if they are it’s going to be in the aided or unaided awareness stage. Microsoft wants people to know who they are, and they’re doing it by telling a powerful and inspiring story – things Microsoft certainly wants to be associated with. Good ad, although it’s not going to cause products to fly of the shelves, and even if it did, the tech brand would have a difficult time attributing those sales to this very non-salesy ad – especially with all the other advertising they have running concurrently. Microsoft is making a big play in the brand building area both online ad off and has deep enough pockets for it to work. They’re a household name and they’re making sure it stays that way with these kinds of ads.

Tide – “Superbowl Now, Laundry Later”
Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi New York

It was always going to be tough for Tide to top 2018’s ad offering featuring David Harbour (they interestingly skipped last year’s Superb Owl). This year they’ve enlisted celebrity help once more with Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. They’re again going meta by letting the Tide ad spill over into other brand’s adverts – an approach that worked exceptionally well last time. The ad leverages humour, although it doesn’t quite hit the mark in the same way their last Superbowl outing did. Looking at this ad there is definitely a brand building element to it – especially given the celeb endorsement (if you can call it that), but they’re also focusing in on product benefits. It’s likely that they’re going after that all-important consideration phase by reminding potential customers that Tide can be used at any time. They’re also moving up the consumer benefit ladder by illustrating the convenience – and subsequent emotional benefits – to be gained from being able to wash your clothes on your own terms and on your own time. Clever ad, but nothing ground-breaking. 

Mtn Dew Zero Sugar – “Good as the Original”
Agency: TBWA/Chiat/Day New York

It really seems that humour was the order of the day with this year’s Superbowl ad selection. Mtn Dew gets everyone’s favourite chemistry teacher and bad breaker, Bryan Cranston, involved in a tongue in cheek homage to Kubrick’s The Shining. This ad – which of course will help to build the Mtn Dew brand – appears to be a consideration and conversion drive. They’re clearly focusing in on a very specific product here, and trying to convey why it’s worth buying in lieu of, or as well as, the original. With sugar taxes rising, it makes sense for the brand to push people towards their low sugar alternatives, and this was a pretty clever way to do just that. The ad may have missed the mark if not for the extra pithy bit of “As good as the original” copy. They’ll likely be tracking sales of Zero Sugar vs the original to gauge the success of this campaign with a fairly long payoff window they’ll need to monitor.  It’ll be interesting to see how they adjust their approach going into next year’s Superbowl.

Snickers – “#SnickersFixTheWorld”
Agency: BBDO New York

A musical outing from Snickers this year. The ad is, well, fine I suppose. It does the job, the idea is neat and the payoff is alright. This to me looks like a pretty clear brand building play. They’re not mentioning any new products or delivering a particularly salesy message. They’ve thrown a lot of money at an all singing all dancing ad to keep the Snickers brand top of mind when someone is perusing the confectionary isle. It’ll be tough for Snickers to measure the direct impact of this ad, but it’s the kind of thing they need to just throw out there to keep the Mars owned giant in people’s brains and mouths for years to come.

All in all, another big year for big brands advertising at the big event, there are loads more to get into of course but time is short, and life is shorter. Laughs were had, tears were shed, and the beast that is capitalism has been fed its fill once more.

As consumers rush out to give these brands their hard-earned money, as marketers I feel it’s worth taking the time to try and take a peek behind the curtain and understand the decisions behind the million-dollar decisions that go into these TV spots. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people toil away to deliver 60 seconds of telly into someone’s eyeballs, eyeballs likely also glued to a smartphone while these ads are airing…These decisions are informed by well thought out goals (or at least should if the people behind them know what they’re doing) and these ads are often the end result of years of research and strategy. Trying to puzzle out said strategy is a worthwhile exercise as it’s a way of trying to understand why fellow marketers do what they do. While we may never be spot on with our guesses (brand managers keep their motives close to their chests for good reason) making an attempt is a useful, and hopefully educational exercise.

If you’d like to discuss this further, or just want to tell me I’m way off the mark, drop me an email: rees.calder@thisisthetree.com.

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