Op-Ed: To Excel at Super Bowl Advertising, Watch ‘Game of Thrones’

By Kiran Aditham 

The closer we get to Super Bowl XLVII this Sunday, the more frequent the agency output it seems. Our latest entry comes from Camilo La Cruz (@akaJuanSmith on the Twitter), a six-year RAPP vet who currently serves as EVP, director of experience & innovation design at the agency. As his headline tells us, Cruz cites a certain fantasy novel series-turned-hit HBO show as one that could provide the ideal inspiration for those choosing to advertise during the Big Game. Take it away, sir.

The Super Bowl continues to prove its value to marketers who understand how to make the most of a rich digital landscape. The most sophisticated advertisers know that they are dealing with a changed television environment where increasingly complex narratives are extended by several layers of interactive and social experiences.

Take Game of Thrones, the HBO series with a cult following and one of the most effective digital ecosystems on television. The show offers the typical multi-layered narrative that is signature of 21st century TV. It also offers fans a few important apertures that are relevant to marketers seeking the highest return for their Super Bowl dollars.

Today’s successful TV shows offer a great benchmark for Super Bowl marketers and an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the proper digital ecosystem alongside the potential cost of opportunity of business as usual. In this sense, to craft a powerful Super Bowl experience, consider the following paths:

#1 – Plot Your Engagement Bell Curve

Consider the Super Bowl as the highest point in an experience that begins and ends weeks, if not months, prior and after the big day. To drive maximum viewership between seasons HBO has been releasing and improving platforms like HBO Connect where fans of shows like Game of Thrones come together around anything from an unstructured social conversation to orchestrated live discussions with cast and creators of the show.

One example of this line of thinking is Coke’s social gaming experience created for this year’s Super Bowl. At the center of the experience is a spot called “Mirage” that has multiple possible endings. Coke fans can decide which ending appears on the big game by voting and engaging on a series of activities that will be progressively unlocked as the event nears. This last part being a key point of differentiation versus other brands who have typically relied on contests, voting, and other submission-driven experiences with no link to a bigger narrative.

#2 – Create a Shared Experience

Perhaps one of the most powerful traits of Game of Thrones and the marketing ecosystem created by HBO is in how the different components (the show’s narrative, HBO Connect, interactive features on HBO Go, etc.) create a context where viewers can have a shared experience. In this context, the value of the experience increases as more people join and participate.

This year, Lincoln’s #steerthescript is setting a new standard by cleverly combining the power of the crowd with the talent of Jimmy Fallon. The components for a shared experience are all there by giving people the opportunity to: A) contribute and therefore have a tangible stake in the brand, B) look forward to the Super Bowl as the peak of their shared experience with expected and unexpected outcomes and C) share, and bring others along as the participation increases the value of everybody’s experience.

#3 – Think in Two Screens

There are few interactive experiences more satisfying for a fan or new viewer than Game of Thrones’ interactive features on HBO Go. There is simultaneous watch/explore features that extend the story line while you are watching the show, there are useful character descriptions that pop up when new characters appear on screen, the mythology of the show is enriched and deepen at every step with maps and character-centric features, and many more.

Second-screen behaviors are a reality that we can’t ignore. Multiple studies show that upwards of 80 percent of Americans use smartphones and TV simultaneously. With tablet ownership on the rise (at about 44.8 million today) we can only expect that people in their homes continue to show people in agencies how to watch TV in 2013.

Last year, Coke made some noise with Polar Bears and a second screen experience that resulted in a significant increase in their twitter following (north of 30 percent according to the brand). This year, Paramount Pictures announced at CES (together with Qualcomm) an app that will unlock content from the upcoming Star Trek: Into Darkness. The app works by allowing fans to scan content from a TV ad scheduled to appear during the game’s second quarter.

While we live in the post-formula era of commercial creativity and hence the three paths above can’t be taken, as must haves in every Super Bowl campaign, we know enough about the challenges and opportunities of a changed media landscape. The main lesson is perhaps that the people we seek to engage keep moving faster than the brands we help manage and the best way to earn their attention and subsequent business is to acknowledge the ways in which they choose to use media and design experiences that, like the best TV shows today, are rich, complex, social, and fun.