Like most Americans, I spent Sunday night watching the Super Bowl. And, like many Americans, I found the ads as interesting as the game (in fact, for about three quarters, the ads were far more interesting). Lots of sites and people have ranked and graded them, so I will skip that, but I wanted to share a few thoughts on themes I saw and what it means for how brands are approaching 2017.
The most political messages may have started with a brief that was exactly the opposite
Obviously one of the biggest stories of the Super Bowl was about how political the commercials seemed to be. While that’s certainly true for a few (Airbnb and Lumber), I think brands that seemed political like Budweiser and Coca-Cola actually likely had a different desired effect.
Most of these brands started planning their campaigns early-to-mid 2016. If I had to guess, I would say their brief was to try to be a unifier for a divided country: The one thing every American can agree with. Last Summer Budweiser famously rebranded itself “America” and its Super Bowl commercial telling the story of its founding was a nice bookend to that campaign. My assumption (I have no inside information here) is that when they started working on the ad it wasn’t with the express intent of being political, but of course current events intervened and made things seem far more political than the brand originally intended (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). As they explained to people who asked on Twitter, “It’s about our founder’s ambitious journey to America and his dream to brew the King of Beers.”
Moments like this are a perfect explanation of why it’s so critical for brands to think about unified stories across channels. A television commercial is a moment in time. The story continues in social, PR, print and any number of other outlets that a brand can utilize.
Most brands are global brands
Brands are all global now, meaning they must appeal to global consumers. Even if the Super Bowl isn’t a global event, we know that media no longer has boundaries and brands must be careful to send an inclusive message to anyone that might pick it up on the internet. Although the US is the biggest single market for most of these brands, the rest of the world represents more than 50% of their sales.
When I’m talking to global marketers, one of the things I frequently say is that digital wasn’t the impetus for off-brand work (as many believe), but rather it was the first time the channels they were using were global. In the old days, the CEO never saw that crappy TV commercial in the far-away market, but today every off-brand message gets forwarded inside the organization.
Brands are better at politics than politicians
I saw a funny comment Monday morning suggesting that as brands get political they’ll start to hire political consultants. I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve often argued that what fascinates me about brands is how incredibly effective they are at creating a unified perception. When I built Brand Tags (a project that asked people to type in the first thing that popped into their head when they saw a logo and turned the results into a tag cloud), I used to say that the main takeaway was that everyone had a different opinion of what a brand was. Somewhere along the way someone corrected me and said the project would never have worked if that was true: On the contrary, for a tag cloud to work and some words to be massively larger than others it must mean that the majority of people think the same thing about the brand. Politicians are rarely able to create a unified and positive impression, brands do it every day.
This isn’t to say brands should avoid anything controversial — on the contrary controversy can be a big driver of attention. With that said, it’s critical that marketers always remember that their marketing must align with the business strategy, be creative enough to grab a consumer’s attention, and tie back to the brand so that the $5 million check you wrote to Fox doesn’t end up helping one of your competitors. Obviously the Super Bowl is a high-stakes test of these marketing laws, but the best marketers need to make sure they’re being followed in every channel, with every campaign.
Revival of distinct brand assets
This year’s Super Bowl also saw the re-appearance of two timeworn brand icons: Bud Light’s Spuds Mackenzie and P&G’s Mr. Clean. Mr. Clean’s revival as “Cleaner of Your Dreams” had P&G as the third-most talked-about ad according to AdAge and real-time TV ad measurement company iSpot.tv’s digital share of voice ranking.
Budweiser’s Spuds, who made his first appearance in 1972 —and faced some backlash from critics who were worried he encouraged underage drinking — has no doubt created a distinctive avatar for one of Anheuser’s “younger” beverage brands. He has been described as “the booster rocket to the brand’s success” by a former Bud Light marketing director.
By bringing back these unique and tested brand assets, ABI and P&G affirmed their status as legacy brands that intend on keeping their leadership positions. When your brand already has memory structures built around it, it can be just as powerful to refresh existing assets as it is to try and recreate new ones.