Groupon’s Super Bowl Gamble

Groupon isn’t scared of going big. The Chicago-based daily deals juggernaut spurned Google’s $6 billion acquisition offer last month and closed nearly $1 billion in funding. Now it’s kicking off its most ambitious marketing blitz yet in the biggest way possible: at the Super Bowl.

The ad push comes at a critical time. Groupon has a raft of would-be competitors with distribution powers that could rival its 50-million subscriber base. Just last week Google and Facebook made their first moves to enter the daily deals space, and it must fend off a strong challenge from No. 2 player LivingSocial.

Rather than pour money into a big branding campaign, LivingSocial two weeks ago made an offer almost too good to refuse: It sold $20 Amazon gift cards for $10. Over 1.4 million people got in on the deal, swelling membership ranks. According to Experian Hitwise, 10 times more people visited Groupon than LivingSocial in December. By last week, LivingSocial had cut that gap to 2-1.

“It was definitely brilliant and an attention getter,” said Taylor Valentine, vp of social media at Horizon Media.

For now Groupon has been keeping its cards close to its vest about the ad, which will likely be quirky. Groupon is known for its lighthearted, sometimes obtuse descriptions of the businesses it partners with, and CEO Andrew Mason has his own oddball streak: He recently tweeted a photo of himself with a monkey dressed in a holiday outfit.

Mason pushed for agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky because he liked its “Whopper Sacrifice” Facebook campaign. Yet Groupon resisted Crispin’s digital ideas, said sources, wanting to make a splash in TV. Groupon will pay $2.3 million for a pre-game placement.

“Traditional media still captures a lion’s share of a consumer’s attention,“ said Sean Finnegan, CEO of Geomentum, the local-marketing agency. “It’s smart for companies like Groupon that straddle the digital and physical.”