There was a time when getting even the faintest whiff of a marketer’s Super Bowl plans before game day was as feasible as getting water from a stone. The level of secrecy shrouding Super Bowl ads matched the grandiose spectacle of America’s biggest game. But all that’s changed. Social media has ushered in a new reality for marketers looking to play in the big game, and it’s allowing brands to create deeper narratives, engage fans earlier on and create greater buzz by releasing teasers and assets online before the event. It’s also sparked a debate over the merits of releasing bits of creative in advance: is this the future of Super Bowl advertising or a tactic that ruins the surprise element of TV’s (and adland’s) biggest night?
The discussion around whether or not marketers should release bits of their creative in advance was first sparked when Volkswagen successfully released a teaser spot for VW "The Force", the crowd-pleasing ad featuring a pint-sized Darth Vader. The clip created a frenzy and the resulting spot was 2011’s most popular Super Bowl ad. Two years on, teasers and pre-release campaigns are becoming the norm—as is the handwringing.
But where is it written that for Super Bowl advertising there was a non-negotiable surprise to be ruined? Is this move toward more effectively using the build-up to the big day not simply a natural evolution of how media is rapidly changing to meet consumer demand? To many marketers stepping onto the Super Bowl field, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
"We don’t feel as if there are any drawbacks," says Mike Sheldon, CEO of Deustch, the agency behind "The Force", its Super Bowl follow-up "The Bark Side" and this year’s early-buzz favorite "Grandpa Goes Wild" for Taco Bell. "Even if you blow up YouTube with 20 million views, you still have another 95 million people who haven’t seen it," he says articulating why he feels there’s very little risk in stealing your own thunder with a pre-game strategy.
This is not to say all must be revealed in advance. Brilliant plays like Chrysler’s "Halftime in America"—with a concept tied contextually to the game, a culturally relevant message, and an unexpected celeb appearance by Clint Eastwood—showed the power of a wait-and-see strategy. It’s just that it’s no longer the only strategy.
With an unprecedented number of brands adding a pre-game chapter to their Super Bowl playbook, it looks like this year’s event is set to paint a clearer picture of the blockbuster event’s future. After consulting a number of those advertisers ready to change the game, here are four really good reasons why a longer rollout strategy is the right play for getting the biggest bang for your four million bucks.
Suzie Reider, Head of Industry Development at YouTube says that since "The Force" marketers have started to wake to "the fact that the online audience has eclipsed the TV audience", noting that last year, 34 campaigns were released in some form or another on YouTube before the game. "Marketers saw the amount of buzz and views they were able to generate before the game even started, and realized that they can get much more out of their Super Bowl investment if they build a digital strategy around it," she says.
"We don’t view the Super Bowl period as just what happens on Sunday, but the period of time leading up to the game as well," says VW VP of Marketing, Kevin Mayer. "We have evolved our strategy to not just release the spot early, but focus on capitalizing on the Social and PR channels in this time period."
Jason Sperling, SVP, Group Creative Director at agency RPA is familiar with the power of teasing snippets of content in advance to build buzz. Last year, RPA revived two pop cultural juggernauts—Ferris Bueller for Honda and Jerry Seinfeld for Acura—and gave fans a tiny taste of what was to come in advance. His view is that it’s best to give the audience what they want.
"This is the one time of the year when people want to hear from a marketer. And they’ve made it abundantly clear they want it sooner," he says. "Why wait for a USA Today poll to tell you you’ve won when tens of millions of YouTube viewers, bloggers, tweeters, journalists and dear aunties on Facebook can say it for you—days before kickoff?"
For the Honda and Acura Super Bowl spots last year, "sharing the commercials online before the game was very important to build buzz prior to the big game spots," adds Mike Accavitti, Vice President of National Marketing Operations, Honda. "By releasing the teaser and then the long form commercial online, we were able to build buzz a week before the game both online and in the national news media. For an entire week last year, we had morning and late night talk shows talking about the spots. Then on game day, people looked out for the ads and were already talking about them. It generated conversation not only before game day, but during and after."
Matthew McCarthy, Senior Director of Brand Development of first-time Super Bowl advertiser Axe, calls this spreading out of the ta-da moment the "spill". Currently, the brand is testing the limits of how far a moment can spill with its Axe Apollo campaign that will send everyday people to… wait for it… space. The hype around the effort has included several events, one including Buzz Aldrin, two pre-released spots, and a space academy pre-registration page that by a week before the game had recruited over 150,000 would-be astronauts. And a spot will air on the Super Bowl. "I think there’s plenty of opportunity for brands to keep their hands close to the vest before the game and still have a ta-da moment. On Axe, our ta-da moment is usually preceded with some activity beforehand that builds engagement and conversation so we can generate as much excitement as possible before the launch." Though in Axe’s case, launch takes on a whole new meaning.
As people have shifted to spending more time online, particularly on social media, one of the biggest things brands have had to grapple with is the question, "What’s a ‘Like’ worth?" Big bucks have been thrown at building online communities in recent years, but all too often, once those communities are assembled, brands don’t know quite what to do with them. A tip: Let them in on the action.
"Social media has made every consumer a publisher," says Deutsch’s Sheldon. "They garner street cred by sharing compelling content, so we use social media to fuel that phenomenon. You want to get the credit as the one who’s so plugged into culture you found it first."
For its Super Bowl effort, Taco Bell put its teaser in the hands of its 150,000 team members and over 9 million social media followers to share online. That the video features a badass octogenarian blazing up a football field to the strains of House of Pain likely helped its shareability.
"By engaging with and rewarding them first, we’re providing [fans] with the chance to build their social currency by being in the know and sharing the teaser and ad with their friends," says Taco Bell’s Chief Marketing & Innovation Officer, Brian Niccol. "Prereleasing only amplifies what we are doing."
As YouTube’s Reider puts it, "Part of the appeal is the feeling of being included in on a joke. If you watch all of the pre-game teasers, you’re already in on the storyline with the brand. Now, rather than spoiling the big reveal, brands are being really smart about creating content for YouTube that enhances the game-day experience. So showing up on game day without watching the teasers would be like going to see the last movie in a trilogy without seeing the first two instalments."
At roughly $133,000 a second, every single frame committed to screen in a Super Bowl ad matters. Yet there might be more to the story that begs to be shared. This is where a companion strategy allows brand communicators to tell a deeper story, often in different ways.
As part of its Get Happy campaign, VW is focusing heavily on digital. "It allows us to go beyond the :30 or :60 spot," says Kevin Mayer. "Our teaser spot this year is a little over 90 seconds and features a new track sung by Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. Showing this video in the television space can be prohibitive, but utilizing the digital and social space to get this video out, we see this as an opportunity to take advantage of this timeframe."
Honda’s Mike Accavitti says that its extended rollout campaign had a "positive impact on the creative." The teaser film helped build momentum and the one-minute in-game spot delivered on the promise of more Bueller. Then, people could get the full story in 2:10 spot online. "By not constraining the creative to set times we were actually able to yield more creative spots to post online and use later. We could make a 1:06 or 2:07 spot online for example and not feel forced to cut something out to meet a set time."
Extending the story can reach far beyond lengths of spots, however. Coca-Cola is looking to engage its fans before the Super Bowl with its Coke Chase effort. Created by Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, the content of the spot that will air on Super Bowl Sunday is left up to the fans. Coke has already aired "Mirage" a spot that sets up a race between three groups in search of thirst quench: showgirls, cowboys and badlanders. In the weeks leading up to the big game, fans can choose which group they’d like to win. And in a further gamified twist, they can also sabotage rival groups. The winning team will be revealed during the game.
"The Super Bowl has changed. Before it was all super-secret and it was really revolving around what was happening in the broadcast," acknowledges Jennifer Healan, group director-integrated marketing content at Coca-Cola. "But consumer behavior has shifted. Last year about 60% of consumers who watched it on TV also watched it on the second screen." To capitalize on this, the Coke Chase campaign will allow people to sabotage and vote for their team even during the game’s broadcast. Healan says the Super Bowl work will also serve as a springboard for Coca-Cola’s future branding campaign. "That this is happening pre-, during- and post-game is even an evolution for us as a company. We’ve created more content for the super bowl than we ever have before."
And that, says Deutsch’s Sheldon, is the real opportunity for marketers when it comes to storytelling. "We used to have to just think about storytelling within a 30-second cinema. Now we create a story arc that carries through all aspects of the pre-release, the release, and the post-release."
For a high-stakes, high-value branding stage like the Super Bowl, an advertiser’s main goal is to be noticed and be liked enough (or shock enough) to have people share their spot. The selling bit comes later—after the beer stops flowing and the antacids have taken care of the chili-induced heartburn. So if the rich TV spots are measured in ratings numbers (over 111 million tuned into 2012’s game), online the key metrics are views and shares. So the question becomes, online, how do brands with pre-release strategies fare against those with more traditional game plans?
A recent whitepaper from online video tracking company Unruly Media titled Unruly’s Social Video Advertising Playbook suggests that taking advantage of the lead-up to the big game yield big results. The report found that for Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, 75% of the top 20 most shared ads were launched before Super Bowl Sunday, and the year’s top four most shared ads were all preceded by teasers.
YouTube’s Reider echoes those findings with her own insights. She says that in 2012, Super Bowl campaigns that released videos before game-day generated over 9.1 million views on YouTube on average, while campaigns that waited until game day or after to launch videos online averaged only 1.3 million views. "That’s a 600% difference. What we learned from last year is that having a pre-release strategy works."
Or as Mike Sheldon of Deutsch says: "Content is the wood, media in all of its forms is the gasoline. Launching early is the match."