How Kellogg MBAs Pick Super Bowl Ad Winners

Kellogg Super Bowl Ad Review in session

P&Q: Kellogg’s program is renowned for being very team-based and hands-on in nature? How does the Super Bowl Ad Review amplify what students are already learning in class?

DR: At the individual student level, it amplifies their training because it reinforces concepts that they’ve learned. For example, we have a large number of students who have already taken the Advertising Strategy course with me or one of our other instructors. They’ve seen ADPLAN, but they’ve seen it in a very structured environment in the sense that I’ve brought ads that they’ve discussed and critiqued. Now, they get to take that into a real-time, high stakes environment. You get to take what you learned in one context and apply it in this real world, right now live context.

For me, the beauty of that is that it helps students recognize that what we teach in the classroom at the level of frameworks and critical thinking can be immediately used in other contexts. That’s a powerful way to help students understand how they can apply that knowledge into other areas.

The way we run it is also a collaborative effort. We don’t sit in bleacher-style seating where we’re all watching the screen and on laptops. We sit in a round table format.  What’s great about this is after the ads are critiqued by individuals and given their scores, they can talk to the students around them. Often, you’ll see students going, “Hey, what did you think of the ad at a strategic level. They can start talking about it and determine if they really should’ve run this ad. One of the big questions that come up is, ‘What do we test and when?’ Students are encouraged to have these conversations during the game after the ads. At the individual level, you are applying the concepts from your classes, but also reinforcing them with your peers. I think that really makes it a magical event.

P&Q: Kellogg is regarded as the world’s top marketing program. However, some students who participate in the Ad Review aren’t specializing in marketing. How does this exercise benefit a student who is focused on an area like finance, operations, management, or entrepreneurship?

DR: At a very general level, what ADPLAN does is – like a lot of the curriculum at Kellogg – is that it hones critical thinking. It moves you from like or dislike to asking critical questions. I think critical thinking and strategic thinking are value-added assets in any industry. It makes people better, sharper thinkers. We already have an amazing talent pool coming in. If we make them better, that’s an asset no matter what organization they go to.

2017 Super Bowl Ad Review at the Kellogg School of Management

What’s also striking is when I interview students for my course on advertising strategy as part of the enrollment process. I will ask them, “Tell me a bit about your background and what you want to do?” As you can imagine, there are quite a few who say, “I want to go into brand management. I need to know about advertising.” But you’ll have other students from finance, for example. When I ask why they’re taking the course, they’ll say, “Even though I may not be in advertising or marketing, I want to understand if what is being done is sensible. When I see it on the backend or when I get promoted in the company, I want to know the money is not being wasted.”

Again, these frameworks provide a way for them to ask critical questions of those who are more involved in that function. So there is a value-add at a very general level. At a specific level, in terms of a toolkit, they actually create that because they may have to interface with one of those functions. Or, even if their boss says, ‘Hey, I know you’re not in advertising, but check out this commercial. What do you think?” In those cases, they want to be in a position to answer that question better – and we put them in that position.

P&Q: What are the most common mistakes that you see Super Bowl advertisers make when your students evaluate their creative against ADPLAN?

DR: I’ll compliment the students. They really get comfortable with the entire framework. That said, I think you’re asking, ‘Where does the biggest tragedy happen?’ The single biggest tragedy that happens to a brand involves Amplification: What consumers take away from the message? Do they take away good things or bad things? That’s the one that gets advertisers into the most trouble. If they don’t remember you or don’t see a strong position, you basically have no impact. That’s not a good proposition, especially for a $5 million dollar media buy. If they walk away with what we call negative amplification, you may have just spent money to distance the consumer, to put them off from using your brand.

That’s the classic error to watch out for. You’ll see this once every two years. For example, when Groupon came along and made fun of Tibet, people were like, ‘I don’t want to use Groupon.’ Nationwide had the kid who died and people were so shocked by it that they didn’t want to use Nationwide. You don’t want that kind of negativity halo around you.

Separate from that, another error that I often see are brands that create a really funny and entertaining spot, but people don’t remember much about the brand. This often happens because so much attention and time is put onto making it interesting, but they forget to weave in the brand well.

So Amplification is a big watch out: That’s the thing you don’t want to get wrong. You don’t want to spend money to hurt yourself. Often, people make ads where the attention is not drawn to the brand – so therefore you remember the advertisement and not the brand. That’s not a winning proposition, either.

My favorite example of the latter was AmeriQuest Mortgage – they ran the same shtick three years in a row. These were ads that were really funny and entertaining, but the attention was never directed to the brand. One of the classic ones starts with the premise of a man cooking dinner. You have a series of unfortunate events happen which ends with a woman walking in the door and the man is holding a cat with spaghetti sauce and a knife. The message for the brand is, “Don’t judge too quickly. We won’t either.” In other words, we as a mortgage company aren’t going to judge you. The problem is, what was so funny about those ads had little to do with the brand itself. This is one, I remember, where someone gave it an online award for being ‘The brand whose ad I loved the most but whose name I forgot the fastest.’

Another one that has done this routine before is Squarespace. They would run these ads – a few years ago it was Jeff Bridges and last year it was Keanu Reeves – where they focus on these celebrities. In the end, people are left asking, “What is Step 4?” That’s a situation where you’re missing an opportunity as a brand because if your Linkage was strong, they’re not asking that question. They’re saying, “I could sure use this.” Here, they’re not even getting to the “Should I use this” because they’re not even getting to the “What is this for?’

Kellogg students watch commercials during the Super Bowl at the Allen Center Atrium in Evanston, Illinois, February 4, 2018.
Photo by Jim Young for Kellogg

P&Q: This year, one Super Bowl ad trend is to employ humor and avoid politics. Another is to feature women more prominently. Talk about these trends along with other advertising trends that you see either emerging or taking center stage on Sunday?

DR: I remember a decade ago, I knew people – not students – who’d say, “I like this ad, but I’m not sure why they showed it because it was more of a feminine target. I’d think, ‘You do realize that the Super Bowl is split 50/50 between men and women as viewers.’ So it is not surprising to me that we are moving more to messaging that targets both genders when you have equal representation. I also think it shows a cultural sensitivity to changes in the ether that are important to recognize. That’s not a surprising development to me that brands have a pulse of things. It is surprising that it took us as long to get here. It has always been the case, going back a decade, where you had women heavily invested in Super Bowl commercials. One interesting thing to look at is this: As brands recognize that you have men and women watching the game, which brands can successfully pull off communication that speaks to both, bridging the gender divide altogether? Why focus everything on one audience when you have to hit everyone? I think that the best brands can certainly have gender as a focus, but will figure out a way to appeal to both.

With politics, I think it ties right back to that ADPLAN and Amplification, where we say, “Hey, consumer thoughts matter. A key reason to avoid politics in the Super Bowl is that unless you have a really savvy spot, you want to avoid going there because you have 100 million people across many different partisan lines watching. It is going to be a lot more difficult to go political without offending someone. Unless you already have strong political views and only want Democrats or Republicans using your brand, you’re basically wasting a huge portion of your audience seeing it. When the political climate becomes more charged, brands need to be all the more careful in how they weigh in there.

If they’re not going to get serious, now brands will try to stand out with humor. One of the trends that I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of brands that are pre-releasing, a sign that they want to be sure that you know about them. They don’t want to leave it to chance that you will know them solely for the Super Bowl. I’ve also seen a lot of celebrity focus. They are in the Super Bowl every year and they are a classic means to grab attention. It seems like brands are really pushing and promoting celebrities for the event.

The one other thing that I’m looking at is how many brands move to a social cause type messaging. Why should brands support social causes? At some point, consumers become functionally familiar with what you do as a brand. Now, the way to differentiate yourself is to – going back to ADPLAN and positioning – have a higher order benefit that you give to them. Not only do I like what the product does, but I like what the brand stands for. For example, Anheuser-Busch has done a pre-release of one of its executions, which is on wind power, an environmental cause. So that’s something else to look at: How many other brands go in this direction?