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First down, goal to go: Super Bowl marketing strategies that can be applied anytime

2.8.24 / By Mark Stone

First and goal. That’s probably the most hopeful phrase in football. A fresh set of downs and the best opportunity to score. It’s the same feeling marketers have heading into the Super Bowl to air a spot: You’ve never been closer to achieving your goal, but it might not be as easy as you think. Whether you’re playing football, creating a Super Bowl commercial or deciding how to build excitement around your brand at any level, “first and goal” for both players and marketers hinges on the same things—a strong plan, some experience and maybe even a little luck.

Go for it

The NFL has been on fire this year in the best way possible. More big games with insane energy in the stadiums. More influence internationally that’s helping build an expanded fanbase. Games on Sunday and Monday and Thursday—and sometimes even on Saturday. More and different ways to watch, including the first-ever playoff game exclusively on a streaming platform. And perhaps a force that has singlehandedly made more than a meaningful impact on the league: Taylor and her legion of Swifties. More. More. More. More. And more.

Why does this matter to a brand making the decision to spend big on the game? The obvious answer is that more means an expanded audience to connect with. That alone will be enough for some brands to commit. But taking a deeper look reveals additional opportunities that increase the chance to drive engagement over a longer timeframe.

I would argue that there has never been a better time for brands to make an impact. Airing a commercial in the game is still a good value. The media buy for a national 30-second spot at $7 million sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But at the same time, you’re guaranteed to get in front of 110+ million people, many of whom are just as interested in the commercials as they are the game. The challenge and biggest risk? Creating an advertisement that stands out and connects with a wide range of viewers. The creative variable is always going to be the major hurdle, and the pressure is real to create something that isn’t quickly forgotten.

Build deeper engagement
So how can you make your spot memorable? Approach the opportunity on a wider scale. We should really be talking about who’s doing the best job building a strategy that surrounds the ad—because these winners will accomplish more and generate PR far beyond a 30-second commercial.

Brands that make more of the moment will enter the Super Bowl thinking about the long game. In the days and weeks before, they’ll build interest and anticipation through messages and conversations on their social channels, and it’s not uncommon to see teaser spots designed to generate conversation beforehand. We’ve seen this approach in the past few years, with brands like Planters killing off its long-time mascot and M&Ms threatening to retire its candy mascots. This year is no different, with several pre-Super Bowl spots making the rounds online and even during the playoff TV broadcasts. If a brand seems like it’s up to something in the weeks before the game, it’s probably setting the stage for a Super Bowl appearance by driving viewers online for more consumer engagement.

Real-time conversations are another way marketers can expand their reach. You’ve probably heard about the 2013 Oreo “dunk in the dark” tweet that pretty much won the night and set the standard for real-time marketing. When the lights went out during Super Bowl XLVII, Oreo’s brand team and agency were ready—and the rest is history. Marketers will work hard throughout the game to add personality and accessibility to their brand as they vie for attention. And we love to see friendly banter between brands on social platforms.

Many have also revealed plans for on-the-ground engagement, and Las Vegas offers several exciting opportunities, including the Sphere—a spectacular and compelling place for a brand to show up. It’s also one of the most unique because of its sheer size and unusual shape. The outer shell, called the exosphere, ultimately creates a canvas for unique and highly creative messages. The NFL is giving its official partners exclusive rights to advertise on the Sphere through a collaboration deal with the venue’s operators—but at a cost. Showing up here will cost a brand $1 million-$2 million for the week, but the ROI should be strong. There will also be countless events, parties and exclusive activations across Las Vegas, bringing brands and consumers closer together throughout Super Bowl week.

Repurposing content far beyond their main commercial is another way brands will look to continue the conversation well into the future. They’ll maximize their investments and remix assets by creating alternative ads with condensed cuts, extended stories and other creative variations. T-Mobile is a good example: They ran recuts of their 2023 Super Bowl ad all year, building on the musical-style spot starring Zach Braff and Donald Faison, and are adding Jason Momoa into the mix for their new spot this year.

For brands at any level or scale—whether rebranding, launching a product or planning a large event—the challenge is similar: You have the ability and, quite honestly, the responsibility, to turn your big moment into more than just a one-time quick splash.

Tap into culture for relevance

News cycles and pop culture set the tone for themes that will influence messages, and this year will be no exception.

At DS+CO, we’re big believers in inclusivity, so it’s great to see brands highlighting their commitment to it through their commercials. Google will air a spot demonstrating its Pixel 8 technology to tell the story of a blind man falling in love. They’ve found a way to highlight accessibility and harness AI in a transformational product and put both front and center in a highly emotional way that will very likely cause positive brand sentiment.

Speaking of AI, it has undoubtedly exploded in the past the year. We were talking about AI platforms, especially ChatGPT, this time last year, but AI was nowhere near as prevalent as it is now.

While AI isn’t ready to take over and actually write a great Super Bowl commercial, almost every ad will have AI tools incorporated into the behind-the-scenes process. Creative teams are using it to generate themes and discover places to focus their energy to further develop an idea. It has great value in helping sell concepts to clients by streamlining the process and bringing ideas alive in a compelling way. AI will be used to create briefs, analyze data and help build strategy. And in production, it can help with intensive image generation, editing, sound design and other aspects of building a video.

This year, AI will likely be much more outward-facing and prevalent on social media. We’re already hearing about brands using Midjourney, an image-generating platform, to create social media assets. There’s no doubt this technology will enable brands to create content at scale, where there’s a premium on making creative faster and more efficiently. But they’ll need to proceed carefully. Minimally, they could come off as tone-deaf—and far riskier are the potential legal ramifications we’re just beginning to understand. At DS+CO, our AI policy helps us set guidelines and keeps us using the technology productively. Beyond the Super Bowl, brands at all levels are creating guardrails around AI that will likely need to be adjusted as the technology evolves.

Time will tell how advanced AI will become and whether it will ever be ready to write a Super Bowl ad, but for now, we need humans to harness the technology and give it more meaning, relevance and emotion.

Midway through the NFL season, something unexpected also happened: Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift brought in an entirely new fan base, and many of them had never paid much attention to football. Her star power will make Super Bowl LVIII even bigger.

If Taylor attends the game, as she’s expected to, it will pull in additional demographics and open up opportunities for brands looking to make a targeted connection on such a big stage. e.l.f. cosmetics, NYX makeup and Dove will all be running ads hoping to do just that. Social media teams also will be strategizing about how they can join the conversation as the game unfolds—likely with several cutaways to her in the stadium providing the perfect chance.

Tried and true

All signs point to Super Bowl LVIII commercials that will lean on the methods that have worked for decades: heavy use of celebrities, animals and humor to lighten the mood, and over-the-top productions to help create a high level of polish. The winners will stay focused on a simple, tight message and find a way to make an ad that will appeal to a large, diverse audience.

Creators can learn some great lessons from winning Super Bowl strategies, and they can be applied to marketing at just about any time or budget:

  • Create a plan that gives legs to your big moment, whatever it might be. Tease your event. Build excitement around your rebrand. Approach your new product or service launch with the long game in mind. Maximize your investment.
  • Pay attention to the world around you. The themes and stories in culture and news are opportunities to illustrate deeper relevance, make a stronger connection with a specific demographic, associate with an important cause and generally show that you’re a modern, in-touch brand.
  • Use technology wisely, but don’t be afraid to use it—it can be a game-changer if harnessed correctly. You can do this starting right now with little to no cost of entry.
  • Keep it simple. A good idea works regardless of the situation. The Super Bowl stage is bigger, the budgets are larger and the pressure is higher. But a great idea at any budget can propel a brand and a marketing team to a higher level of growth and business success.
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Mark Stone

Mark’s creativity and energy inspire his DS+CO team to bring big ideas. And that when talent is nurtured well, it’s time to get out of the way and watch it grow. With 25+ years in an industry that never stands still, Mark knows that mixing innovative ideas, strong copy, eye-catching design and the right technology results in creative that connects with consumers in meaningful ways. He’s worked with local and national brands, including Wegmans, Ford, Xerox and ESL, and has led teams to more than 100 major creative awards, including the D&AD Pencil, multiple ADDY Best of Shows, and district, regional and national ADDYS, as well as work that's been published in Ad Age, Print, PDN, Graphis, HOW Design and Communication Arts. Mark lends his time to Causewave Community Partners, an organization that helps nonprofits tackle issues throughout our community, and is a member of Causewave's WB Potter Society.