Breaking Up But Staying Friends: When Brands No Longer Want to Be Exclusive

It makes sense for major advertisers to reevaluate the field

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Recently, Anheuser-Busch gave the marketing world something to sip on: It’s ending a 34-year run as the Super Bowl’s exclusive alcohol advertiser. This comes just a few short weeks after Pepsi revealed the winding down of its decade-long sponsorship of the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

The biggest day in football is, in many ways, as much about the ads and entertainment as it is about the game. Which may beg the question: How can two of the biggest advertisers in the world trim back their spend and walk away from their exclusive placements in the most-watched TV event of the year?

A changing consumer landscape

Super Bowl 2022 had one of the most anticipated and talked-about Halftime Shows in recent history, and the Big Game brought in more than 112 million viewers across linear, streaming and digital platforms. Scale and reach certainly aren’t the issue, nor is popularity.

Both Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch are committed to continuing a relationship with the NFL but have identified a desire to remix their marketing spend. The goal is to acutely focus on where their brands are looking to either grow or more firmly cement their status, whether that’s deeper into music and entertainment (Pepsi) or more present on digital and in the palm of the consumer’s hand (Anheuser-Busch).

While the remix for each brand may differ, the correlation in the rationale is important. It’s not that the spending is misguided or not working; it’s that it may not be as effective, efficient or relevant for the brands as other investments that could reach their audiences in different ways.

A changing consumer landscape and a more robust marketing playbook mean old standbys and assumed beacons of advertising glory, like the Super Bowl, may not carry the same gravity in commanding spend as they once did. Here’s why.

Exclusivity doesn’t mean what it used to. Anheuser-Busch is the perfect example here. Sure, they may have been the only alcohol advertiser in the Super Bowl over the past several decades. But let’s go ahead and assume that consumers are aware of other beers in the marketplace and that no one’s purchase decisions or brand preferences were suddenly cemented because the only beer they saw advertised in a three-hour window was part of the Anheuser-Busch portfolio of beers.

What do you really get for 100% share of voice other than blocking out the competition? Is the cost worth the perceived benefits?

Relevance looks a lot different now. The vast landscape of social media alone, coupled with an acute understanding of where exactly your audience is and where they may be going, means finding the right experience to attach to will require a lot more diligence. It doesn’t mean large-scale ad buys or tentpole sponsorships are off the table—it just means in their current form, they’re not necessarily relevant or meaningful for as many audiences as they once were.

Dollars have always been finite. However, there are now more opportunities than ever to diversify and broaden the scope of your marketing and media mix. Whether it’s investing in creators, Web3 or experiential, or even just doubling down on channels where performance or brand connection is at a high, there are fewer funds to throw at tentpoles like the Super Bowl that command an exorbitant amount of media and production dollars for what ultimately just amounts to an ad.

The Super Bowl, in many ways, is a bellwether for advertising in other big tentpole events, specifically in sports and entertainment. It usually sets the tone for other similarly scoped sponsorships, buys or activations.

It can signal trends to come as we see how brands from every industry approach the opportunity each year and either go the route of tried and true—the ad that makes you laugh, the ad that makes you cry, the ad that makes you question, “Who approved this?”—or reimagine the opportunity altogether and think beyond the confines of thirty seconds of mindshare.

Ringing the bell(wether)

Otherwise stated, what might this mean in the future?

Premiums will be placed on access, relevance and unique experiences, versus the paid logo stamp of a sponsorship or the 100% SOV in a category. It’s not about claiming ownership and blocking out the competition. It’s about investing in the best work that will get customers to not just see your brand but connect with it and drive deeper interest, conversation or affiliation.

Sponsorships will need to be rethought. A “brought to you by” logo and adjacent ad without purposeful and targeted added-value elements won’t be able to compete with other paid opportunities. As brands look more closely at how they innovate and explore new platforms or channels, traditional media and sponsorship are going to be deprioritized to free up dollars to test and learn in other spaces.

Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi are proving that by citing a desire to reallocate funds that better serve their need to meet consumers where they are in a different way. It’s not a zero-sum game, and investments are still being made by each brand with the NFL. But the changing scope and scale-back signals that the Super Bowl and similarly weighted events don’t have the same spending pull they once did.

We’re seeing a rise in experiential, where consumers have hands-on interaction, not merely passive viewing. Fan experiences (looking at you, Stranger Things) are gaining in popularity and evolving rapidly. Bringing consumers into a more dynamic, interactive moment of connection with a brand they love is going to take consumer connection to an entirely new level, well beyond what ads of any kind could ever generate.

Two behemoth brands making these notable shifts, which by every account are household names that have been synonymous with Super Bowl mega-spending, is a signal to other brands that even if something is working, it’s OK to step back and move on to something that might work even better.

No matter the field, tentpole, tactic or channel, ultimately every brand needs to go through the important strategic exercise of grounding itself where their consumer is, what they’re engaging with and how to meet them there by allocating their spending accordingly.