How Kellogg MBAs Pick Super Bowl Ad Winners

Derek Rucker speaking to students ahead of the Super Bowl Ad Review

P&Q: Ten years ago, it cost $2.7 million dollars to air a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. That has nearly doubled to $5.25 million dollars. Is that investment still worth it or have we reached the point of diminishing returns? In what contexts are Super Bowl ads still a solid investment?

DR: Keep in mind, this is just the number for the media buy. If you and I were going to do a Super Bowl spot, we would need money for the production, an agency to help with creative, and then we’d do social and digital around it. As you can imagine, a 30-second spot isn’t $5.3 million. All in, when you put all the right machinery in place, you may be at $10 million or above. It is a huge investment.

Then there’s the age-old question: Is it worth it? I think the answer is still historic, “It depends.” Let me be a little more specific on what it depends on.

Think about why the rates can continue to go up. Well, first you have a massive, massive audience. Even though there has been a little slippage in viewership, it still draws over 100 million viewers. That’s a reach strategy. Think about this: how else would I get 100 million people? Not that you couldn’t do that with other forms, but those are going to really add up in cost depending on how you do it.

Another thing that is really unique to the Super Bowl is that people want to watch the ads. They want to talk about them. So you have a much more involved consumer than you do in most any other brand-focused advertising.

On top of that, when done properly, you’re not paying for just the 30 seconds of air time in the Super Bowl. The best brands are actually earning media off of this. After the national broadcast, people talk about the commercials. You’re getting additional exposures from that. It can cost more, but the pay off can be bigger.

How can you pull this off effectively? What the best brands do is that they are launching products or services that appeal to a pretty broad audience. You’re paying for all of these people, so the bigger the target the better. Again, that’s why you want ads, for example, that go across genders and across the population. Those are going to get the most out of their money. The way to win or make it worth your investment is to have a strong message that gets people to talk about your brands and serves as an engine to generate conversations. Then, the overall media you get for that $5.3 million could be quite substantial at 100 million people at 30 seconds.

Kellogg marketing professors Derek Rucker (left) and Tim Calkins at last year’s Super Bowl Advertising Review

Here’s one more point of comparison. What happens to those ads when they’re released? The pre-released ones are on YouTube right now. After the game, people go and re-watch the ads on YouTube. So you’re not just getting the 100 million people. I am getting these other viewers too. Again, brands have to be savvy about it.

Will we see ads that people forget about the next day? Absolutely! I like to listen to family and friends because they’re non-strategists and non-MBAs. They’ll tell me about their favorite Super Bowl spots of all time. Some love the Dalmatian with Budweiser, for example. They still remember that! That’s equity that’s really hard to come across.

The best brands will create strong memorable spots that create a favorable position for the brand that can be the launching point for them to do more marketing efforts.

P&Q: A Super Bowl spot is now the centerpiece of a far larger advertising campaign, which has incorporated social media and viral elements. How do you anticipate this evolving further in the coming year(s)?

PR: If you advertise in the Super Bowl, it is naïve to think that all you should do is just show up. It is a $5.3 million dollar buy. If you don’t do things around it, you’re not taking proper advantage of the platform and its true capacity.

The best ones not only show up, but they are ready to go online with respect to comments about their ads. If consumer response is very favorable, you’re going to want to stir that up very quickly and get as much traction as you can out of it.

A few years ago, we had the blackout during the Super Bowl. Even brands not advertising in the Super Bowl were monitoring what’s going on and using that as a platform to engage with consumers. The two I remember are from that year was how Tide responded on Twitter: “We can’t get your blackout, but we can get your stain out.” They had several hundred thousand people respond to it and retweet it. How Tide came up with that is that they had the “Miracle Stain” ad that year. So they had actually created a game day monitoring team with the brand, agency, and legal department so they could respond in real time if anything happened. So they put themselves in position to capture some free media by being savvy. Oreo, who was tuned in but not advertising in that Super Bowl, said, “You can still dunk in the dark” and showed a picture of an Oreo. That too got a lot of attention.

What it says is that if an advertiser makes a commitment to be on the Super Bowl, they should really think of this: What does my pre-game, actual game, and post-game look like? The Super Bowl is a platform that is best utilized in that capacity. It is not a one-off. It is the nucleus for something bigger. The best brands will have a buzz before, a great ad and good online content during the game, and they will follow that up with additional advertising and content in the following weeks.

The long and short of it is, if you just show up and not do anything online or digital, that’s a missed opportunity.

P&Q: What are your predictions for this year’s winners? Why do you feel these ads will have broad appeal, be memorable, or generate action?

DR: There are some advertisers that will do well. Like you. I’ve seen a few, but I try not to inundate myself with the ads beforehand. I enjoy the experience of seeing them live in the moment.

Here are a few brands to keep an eye on that I think will do well – and if they don’t do well that will be a surprise. Anheuser Busch is a mainstay in the Super Bowl. They’ve created ads over the years that are often very powerful. This year, they are bringing back the Dalmatian with the Clydesdales in the wind power ad. As a company, I believe they have purchased eight spots in total. I want to see what they do across that portfolio. Those are a lot of advertising dollars. For them, it’s not, ‘There’s one that works, that’s great!’ They need to nail all of them to make each individual buy worth it. Historically, they are a very strong player.

Kellogg students reacting to an ad during the Super Bowl Ad Review.

Another one is P&G. They are doing an ad for Olay. That’s a brand to keep an eye on because P&G typically doesn’t come to the Super Bowl unless they have an ad that is Super Bowl worthy. P&G is the one who’ve done all the Tide executions over the years, including the “It’s a Tide Ad” campaign last year that was an amazing way to dominate the Super Bowl. They also did the Mr. Clean ads. That’s a brand where, when they show up, they usually bring top shelf stuff. If P&G doesn’t have a top five ad, then you have to wonder what happened there because the expectations for them are very high.

Another one I’m very interested in is Burger King. They haven’t been in a Super Bowl since something like 2006. That’s a pretty long hiatus. They’ve done some teasers and what they’ve shown is their Creepy King mascot. Why this is fascinating goes back to the issue of men and women. You have both groups watching the Super Bowl. When I’ve shown Creepy King ads in class, there is a group that likes it and there is another group that doesn’t like the execution or the character. What I’m interested in is, when this character shows up, do they do it in a way that speaks to a broad audience or be more niche in who responds to it. When you’re very niche in your response, that’s where I get concerns about, ‘Should you be advertising in the Super Bowl given that cost?’ It’ll be fascinating to see how they navigate it.

P&Q: What has you so excited about this year’s Super Bowl Ad Review?

DR: At a broad level, when you put this in perspective, these are not ads that were just created overnight. There is a lot of time, effort, and thought that went behind them. It is interesting to see, given all this, who asked the right questions to put something in front of the consumers that really resonates and conveys a brand position. And who – despite doing all the work –misses the mark. That’s the fascinating element. There has never been a year where you sit back and go, ‘Yep, all of these are A’s. Everyone did a great job.’ It never happens. It’s not from a lack of effort. That suggests something else is missing. I would suggest that there were strategic gaps that were somehow introduced into the mix that led to some bad decisions.

I’ll do an analogy to the football game itself. Another thing that I personally have fun with to, I love to think of brands in terms of whether they are veterans or rookies. You have brands that are veterans, they have been here before. It is like Budweiser or P&G, you know the sport of Super Bowl ads really well. Avocados from Mexico are in their fifth year and their last two spots did a great job of communicating a benefit, which is ‘Avocados – you can use them for a lot more than guacamole.’ It is a classic increase usage strategy! I have expectations of how these veterans will perform. Then there are others like WeatherTech, which has never done a spot that broke through or stood out, or Squarespace, which has never done anything that really merited a lot of applause. Will they figure it out?

But there are also the rookies. They have never done this before…what will they do? For example, this year one rookie to watch is Kraft Heinz. They are one of the more edgier brands in the portfolio and are marketing TV dinners for men. They have a 60-second uncensored spot out. It is very racy and is comparing their food to pornography. It is very intentional on their part with how men are addicted to it. So you wonder, what will the rookie do in the 30-second spot, which is 100 million people. What are they going to do that is exciting and interesting and not over-the-top so that it doesn’t offend people?’ That’s a really interesting rookie to look at.

Then there’s Expensify – they are an application for managing your receipts. I use them for business travel. They are not only doing their first Super Bowl ad but their first television commercial. It’s like wow, how will that play out as a first-timer? There are some rookies that just smash it. You might remember Google’s very first spot was what I call “Parisian Love,” which shows the Google platform used to plan a trip to France. It was a blockbuster ad at the time. Sometimes, those rookies absolutely surprise you out of the gate.

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