5 Branding Lessons from the Most-Talked-About 2020 Super Bowl Commercials

Eva Maria Schmidt
February 4, 2020

Super Bowl Sunday was once again the night when everyone gets a pass (football pun intended!) to inhale way too many snacks and chug that extra beer they probably don’t need. It’s also when everyone looks forward to the latest and greatest Super Bowl commercials.

Asked what they look forward to about the Super Bowl, 20 percent of respondents in a recent survey said it’s the commercials. That’s second only to watching the actual game (34 percent)! To feed such a hungry audience, brands are digging deep into their wallets. In the NFL Super Bowl LIV, a 30-second ad cost $5 million, according to CNN Business. But throwing money by the handfuls does not equal marketing success. Post-game, every spectator will have an opinion on which were the most surprising, the funniest, and who had the biggest flops. Here’s my post-game analysis that highlights the biggest marketing and branding lessons from this year’s top Super Bowl commercials.

Lesson #1: Don’t try to be something you’re not

Major news this year included Coke’s return to Super Bowl commercials – after sitting out the 2019 game – to introduce its new Coke Energy drink. The Coca-Cola Company is launching an energy drink and entering a market already cornered by the trifecta of Red Bull, Rockstar, and Monster Energy. Interestingly, they’ve hired Martin Scorsese to endorse it. Competing brands count sports legends like Shaun White and Tony Hawk as spokespeople, so Coke’s choice is a bit of a head-scratcher.

Jaideep Kibe, VP of Coca-Cola, tells AdWeek, “Coca-Cola tries to show up in places that are surprising.” Sure, but are we really supposed to believe Scorsese was dancing at a strangely-themed costume party (which is definitely NOT a Super Bowl party… but also probably not a Halloween party… I’m quite confused on this one, but let’s move on). If they wanted to stick with this idea, it probably would have made more sense to switch Hill and Scorsese’s roles.

Maybe there is an alternate reality in which all this makes sense. Maybe there’s a level of intended irony with choosing a 77-year-old serious-Hollywood type. Either way, it seemingly falls flat. At first glance, it looks downright thirsty (as the kids say these days) – like someone trying very hard to be something they’re clearly not.

Instead, marketers are better advised to guide their brand image by knowing their audience. Better yet, know who actually buys your stuff (the two are not always the same). Trust intelligence from consumer profiles and databases to deliver long-term engagement, not just a quick caffeine buzz.

Lesson #2: Let customers get in on the fun

The beverage marketplace is cooling on domestic beers, mostly because millennials have become obsessed with hard seltzers. Budweiser is throwing its hat in the ring with Bud Light Seltzer, a new beverage endorsed by millennials’ other big obsession: rapper Post Malone.

Post Malone is a safe bet when it comes to brand ambassadors – he’s long been linked to Bud Light, even doing a dive bar concert tour sponsored by the brand. Taking his relationship with Bud Light to the next level, Post Malone filmed two different versions of his 60-second Super Bowl commercial for the new drink. Next, it was up to customers to vote which one should air during the big game. Millions of comments later they had a winner (and a viral sensation on their hands).

Both commercials are hilarious – the face tattoo detail alone knocked this out of the park; both, deserving of the spot. Bud Light’s play here was rooted in choice and customer empowerment. Post Malone’s Instagram post garnered over 2M views and 81K+ comments in a matter of days. Marketers can score major points by letting customers control their marketing content – and by empowering them with privacy and data-sharing choices, while using preference data to deliver email, website and mobile personalization.

Lesson #3: Stunts can backfire

It’s an old rule in marketing that special effects can create, well, special effects. Just ask roasted nut purveyors Planters. Their Mr. Peanut death commercial ahead of Super Bowl Sunday announced the fictional passing of their brand mascot in a car crash, which would have probably worked as a clever marketing stunt (much like IHOP’s rebranding as ‘International House of Burgers’, only to be reborn as IHOP).

But then hard, cold reality stepped in with the tragic passing of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash one week before the game. In the resulting climate of genuine grief, Planters dialed back its social campaign around the fake tragedy. And on Super Bowl Sunday, they revealed the glorious resurrection of Mr. Peanut as #BabyNut. If that sounds, well, nuts, then you also need to see the Snickers Fixes the World commercial.

The Mr. Peanut campaign could have easily been another PR stunt gone bad, much like Chick-fil-A’s promo for National Sandwich Day, which just so happened to fall on a Sunday (when Chick-fil-A is closed). Instead of mining for attention and stunting on a big date, brands can be more intelligent and long-term oriented with their marketing; for instance by using AI and machine-learning and incorporating cross-channel and omnichannel marketing into their strategy.

Lesson #4: Don’t complicate your message

And this year’s What-The-Heck-Did-We-Just-Watch-Award goes to: Audi! The German car maker’s 2020 Super Bowl ad depicts actress Masie Williams of Game of Thrones fame stalled in rush hour traffic, surrounded by frustrated drivers in fume-emitting vehicles. Next, for reasons unknown, the theme song from Frozen kicks in and Williams decides to ditch traffic and ‘Let it Go’ by putting the pedal to the medal in her electric vehicle.

As I watched Masie Williams drive into the sunset, concluding a pro-environment commercial by an automobile manufacturer, I was left a bit baffled. But the video description on Audi’s YouTube only offered:

Join Maisie Williams singing Disney’s ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen, and Audi as we drive to a more sustainable tomorrow in an all-new Audi e-tron Sportback. The only thing you might not be able to let go of, is the song.

What I can’t let go of is the question “what was the point?” Arya Stark deserves better, as does the audience.

Customer confusion can take many forms, with one of the biggest missteps being sending the wrong brand messages, like welcome emails to long-time rewards members or cart reminders long after an item was purchased. Instead, use smart automation and analysis to deliver a consistent CX. Otherwise you might as well just let it (and by ‘it,’ I mean your customers) go…

Lesson #5: Remember, it’s just advertising

Sure, Super Bowl ads are major productions with massive budgets. But do we really need trailers to tease them ahead of game day? This year, stunts like Budweiser’s 46-second trailer for their commercial or Doritos’ 1-minute teaser for their ad featuring Sam Elliott alongside Lil Nas X received considerable pushback from media outlets, including VICE.

The world doesn’t need commercials about commercials. Even during the biggest sports event of the year. Although it’s tempting to reach the largest possible audience for the newest energy drink or hard seltzer, marketers may see better results by serving the right message to prospective customers, at the exact time when they’re ready to buy.

With that said, marketers don’t need a Super Bowl-sized budget to achieve super results. Our omnichannel marketing platform empowers marketers with a blend of cutting-edge digital marketing technology and best practices for in-person customer engagement. Every day of the year, not just on super Bowl Sunday!

Want to learn how to make the most of your budget and maximize every moment in your digital marketing? Now is a good time to book a demo with Selligent!

Adapted from an article originally published on ClickZ, February 7, 2020.