Lessons From a Veteran Super Bowl Marketer

Brands need to leverage the emotional attributes of the Big Game

Intel had a clever, evolutionary approach to Lady Gaga's halftime show. Getty Images

By way of introduction, I’m a crusty old veteran of the sports marketing business—old enough to remember when my dad brought home our first color TV set to watch our beloved Jets win Super Bowl III (little did I know I’d be waiting 38 years and more for the next one). Along the way, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a ton of football’s “world championships.” 

Mike Reisman

You probably don’t care about my Super Bowl life story—I wouldn’t if I were you. But I wanted to provide context about the evolution of Super Bowl marketing in this digital/social/live video era—coming from someone who began watching Super Bowls when analog ruled. For what it’s worth, the most stirring Super Bowl emotion I’ve experienced were the pre-game ceremonies expertly staged by the NFL at the height of the Gulf War in 1991 in Tampa. Whitney Houston sang an absolutely exhilarating version of the National Anthem followed by a bone-rattling flyover by five Air Force fighter jets. The patriotic fervor during Desert Storm was palpable. The game was also pretty damn good—the Giants defeating the Bills when Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field goal attempt went wide right as time expired.

Ultimately, the emotional context of that Super Bowl, and every Super Bowl, is something that makes the game so pervasive in our national conscience. I remember thinking about how I would share the emotional zeal I felt with my friends and families. Words, an occasional photo and in-person storytelling had to do the trick in that pre-digital era.

"The more emotionally-relevant a brand proposition, the more the consumer will be influenced to prefer, buy and share."
Mike Reisman

Today’s Super Bowl environment is so drastically different and it’s one of the reasons marketers flock to the game site for a week of provocative marketing moments. Best practice for today’s Super Bowl marketers is to package those emotions in a manner that puts fans inside their brands. This is perhaps experiential marketing 101, but some sponsors and advertisers do this much better than others. The equation is simple to articulate, but more challenging to achieve—the more emotionally-relevant a brand proposition, the more the consumer will be influenced to prefer, buy and share. Indeed, advertiser Airbnb has embraced this fan first, UGC in all their marketing including their Super Bowl effort.

In addition to leveraging the emotional attributes of the Super Bowl, the other best practice worth noting is when brands use Super Bowl week and game day as an extension or pinnacle of a season-long campaign. Sorry to say, but there are still way too many brands and sponsors that choose one-off activations inconsistent with season-long platforms. Perhaps cool, cutting edge and provocative, but what a waste not to surround the Super Bowl consumer with the same voice throughout the season.

It’s actually amazing to witness the difference between on-the-ground activation versus just 10 years ago. The investment in creative capital allows the NFL to charge admission for consumers to essentially engage with interactive, branded commercials—sometimes with long waiting lines. What?!

Marketers now must pull out all the stops to earn attention—brand as experience for those live, onsite and first-person engagements is powerful stuff. And the more emotional the context, the more those experiences are shared and amplified via various digital and social platforms. FedEx punctuates their season-long Air and Ground platform by facilitating an Air (passing) and Ground (running) live obstacle course for fans at NFLX.  The consumers complete the course with their own touchdown dance – the most telegraphic, emotionally personal statement in the NFL. The victory dances is captured on video and shared by consumers throughout their social graphs.

"Marketers now must pull out all the stops to earn attention."
Mike Reisman

Old Spice provided fans at NFLX the ability to appear in a portion of the newest TV commercial featuring Von Miller and get sacked by the defensive All Pro, virtually. The brand extended the platform by sponsoring the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award at NFL Honors in support of its “Sweat Defense” campaign, and Von Miller walked the red carpet at NFL Honors and talked up Old Spice during livestreamed media interviews.

Of course, the rise of social media has remade the big game as well. From hashtags that prompt in-tweet team logos, to the teams making their own statements, to the star players sharing their moments leading up to the game. (Side note from this Jets fan: Tom Brady is apparently too old to tweet—I had to take a shot at the best quarterback ever to play the game.)

More importantly, the key today is how marketers drive conversations by supplementing their advertising and live activations with contextual social campaigns. All real-time, all super-powerful, proving more and more that conversation equals relevance in a social age, and to that point Super Bowl LI conversations were up 20-30 percent year over year according to multiple sources.

All of this happened in what most pundits called a disappointing year for Super Bowl ads. While on-air creative did not live up to its usual hype, the Pepsi halftime show was perhaps the most technologically advanced, spectacular Super Bowl marketing showcase ever. Never mind whether you are a fan of Lady Gaga or her leaps from tall stadiums with a single bound. If you are a fan of progressive, results-driven marketing you were impressed. By sponsoring the halftime show, Pepsi led not just above the line but also social conversation metrics, while also showcasing Pepsi Zero and its new Lifewater products. It was a magnificent production underpinned by an emotional quality that consumers won’t forget.

Gavin Blawie, who helped me with this article, is MKTG’s head of brand marketing and social innovation. He opined: “Gaga’s halftime show was likely a much better use of Pepsi dollars than expensive, ad-like interruptions that come and go without conversational impact.”

As impressive as Gaga’s performance was, the phenomenally-innovative use of drones by Intel to light up an American flag in the skies behind NRG stadium was quite a feat. It was another example of Intel’s clever, evolutionary approach of being “inside” some of the most emotionally gratifying moments in popular culture (Remember last year’s collaboration with Gaga in her Grammy’s tribute to David Bowie?) And while some might have enjoyed watching Tom Brady brush his teeth in Intel’s 30 second spot (as you might guess, I didn’t), Intel’s enduring legacy will be their “shooting star” drones that revealed innovation leadership to the tech and production communities.

Interestingly, the halftime show wasn’t even televised at that 1991 Super Bowl. Today it might be the most watched, conversational, shared spectacle from America’s cultural landscape.

Mike Reisman is president of the Sports & Entertainment team at MKTG.