The Pop-Tarts Bowl Showed Brands Don't Need a Super Bowl Ad to Make an Impact in Culture

Companies like Kellanova and AT&T take ownership of college sporting events without $7 million ads.

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Brands still flock to Super Bowl 58 for its massive reach and potential rewards, but Pop-Tarts and AT&T have worked to make less crowded college bowl matchups into Big Games of their own.

On Dec. 28—a Thursday night—in Orlando, Pop-Tarts parent company Kellanova and its creative partners at Weber Shandwick introduced fans to their Frosted Strawberry mascot… and sentenced it to death. It was lowered into a giant toaster and consumed on the field by the victorious Kansas State Wildcats.

The game didn’t draw anywhere near the 115 million viewers who tuned into last year’s Super Bowl on Fox, nor did it produce the roughly $600 million in ad revenue Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch claimed Super Bowl 57 did. But the 4.31 million people who watched on ESPN were a larger audience than any college bowl had produced in the first two weeks of bowl games and bigger than the audiences of the following Saturday’s Arizona Bowl (1.1 million on The CW) and Music City Bowl (2.63 million on ABC) combined.

Ads that ran during the Pop-Tarts Bowl outperformed the primetime average by 33% (compared to 307% for the Super Bowl), according to EDO, while Pop-Tarts ads that ran during the game outdid their primetime counterparts by more than 1,800%. Search intelligence provider Captify, meanwhile, said searches for the Pop-Tarts brand are 10.53 times greater than they were before the bowl game.

“Fan experience is a core focus for building brand love,” said Julie Bowerman, Kellanova’s CMO for North America. “From unveiling a mascot you can actually eat to getting a Cheez-It cracker buzzed into your hair at an on-field barbershop, the ability for fans to physically connect with our brands in unexpected ways is key to creating conversation and building brand equity.”

College football doesn’t command the Super Bowl’s nearly $7 million per 30-second ad, but college bowl games—and collegiate sports marketing in general—often involve significant commitment of a brand’s time and resources to pay off.

AT&T, for example, has served as the presenting sponsor of college football’s championship game for a decade and has been a top-tier Corporate Champion sponsor of all NCAA sports since 2002. To reap the rewards of the college football championship and other collegiate sports championships like March Madness, AT&T’s work and those of other brands often starts months in advance—and needs to be deeply ingrained in the sports’ culture to succeed.

Fan experience is a core focus for building brand love.

Julie Bowerman, CMO for North America, Kellanova

Joe Favorito—a sports media, marketing and branding consultant who’s worked with the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and United States Tennis Association—points to USAA’s full-season commitment to the Army-Navy Game that now crosses all college sports, Werner ladders’ March Madness sponsorship that extended to conference and division championships, and Duke’s Mayo Bowl sponsorship and product placement as examples of the dedication required to successfully take ownership of a marquee event.

“If you’re going to be a bowl sponsor, you start in August with the conference media days and you do something every week in some city within those two [bowl] conferences, and you have arguably 24 different schools you can activate against that are relevant to that marketplace,” Favorito said. “That keeps tying back to whatever the bowl is during the year.”

Filling the bowl

Before Kellogg’s split into the Kellanova snack company and the WK Kellogg Co. cereal brand last year, it made significant investments in college football across multiple brands. In 2019, it began dumping Frosted Flakes on winning players while sponsoring the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

As Kellanova’s Bowerman points out, the company’s desire to “show up in places where fans would like to see us, even if they don’t expect to” has made its Cheez-It brand an official sponsor of the College Football Playoffs for five years. Leading up to the postseason, Cheez-It partnered with ESPN to create branded content with ESPN anchors and former professional athletes. It contributed to the CFP Foundation’s Extra Yard for Teachers name, image and likeness (NIL) deals that allow college players to donate to teachers and schools.

Cheez-It has spent six years as sponsors in the bowl game world, first as the title sponsor of the Cheez-It Bowl where it introduced the world to the its Prince Cheddward character, then pivoting to become the title sponsor of the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl in 2022 where it introduced its now-famous Ched-Z character. The Citrus Bowl’s organizers at Orlando’s Florida Citrus Sports also worked with Kellanova on the inaugural Pop-Tarts Bowl, giving the company and Weber Shandwick a rare shot at bowl-season synergy when they had new character Ched-Z emerge from a giant box of Cheez-Its with a “NON-EDIBLE MASCOT” sign after the Pop-Tart’s grisly demise.

“The Cheez-It Citrus Bowl sponsorship provides Cheez-It with an opportunity not only to capitalize on that snacking occasion … but also reach a national audience of fans tuning in across different generations, cultures and cities/towns,” Bowerman said. “The Pop-Tarts brand has always been focused on celebrating fandoms, [but] this year we were excited to tap into an even bigger fanbase—college football fans.”

Did it work? To an extent. 

The 6.8 million people who watched the Citrus Bowl on ABC was the seventh-largest audience out of 43 bowl games and the largest New Year’s bowl viewership not linked to the national championship. EDO found that ads during the Citrus Bowl outperformed the average primetime ad by 52%, and the average bowl game ad by 16%. Cheez-It ads during the game outperformed the average Cheez-It ad during primetime by 256%.

But Captify noted that searches for Cheez-it declined 28.7% after the game, dropping more acutely among foodies (60%) and family shoppers (50%). Isaac Gerber, Captify’s global director of insight and analytics, noted that Frosted Strawberry—and not its cheesy colleague—lingered in most people’s memories days to weeks later.

“There’s going to be a winner, and there’s gonna be a loser in the context of those kinds of campaigns,” Gerber said. “In the very crowded space that we have in our heads to remember … people are going to kind of naturally gravitate toward one brand.”

The bigger picture

College football’s national championship between Michigan and Washington drew more than 25 million viewers across ESPN networks—still a fraction of the Super Bowl’s audience and roughly half for what the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills attracted to CBS for the NFL’s divisional playoffs. 

However, EDO noted that viewers were 101% percent more likely to engage with ads during the college title game that average primetime ads—and 18% more open to those ads than they were a year ago. 

That makes the game an ideal spot to show off AT&T 5G technology like its helmet for deaf and hard-of-hearing players, as well as the Ref Cam, Pylon Cam, Goal Post Cam, First Down Cam, Countdown Cams and other behind-the-scenes coverage. But according to GWI, there are 64 million college sports fans in the United States, and the football championship is just part of its strategy to speak to them all.

Sabina Ahmed, AT&T’s assistant vp of sponsorships and experiential marketing, noted the spiking interest in women’s volleyball, softball and March Madness in both women’s and men’s basketball—among other collegiate sports—has made AT&T consider not only how the brand shows up on signage and coaches’ headsets, but at fan events and panel discussions around game day.

“It’s not just about advertising; it’s about becoming a part of the sports culture and lifestyle that our consumers are passionate about,” Ahmed said. “This sponsorship has reinforced the idea that being present at key moments in the sports calendar allows us to engage with fans in a meaningful way, fostering brand loyalty and recognition.”

For the latest Super Bowl 58 advertising news—who’s in, who’s out, teasers, full ads and more—check out Adweek’s Super Bowl 2024 Ad Tracker and the rest of our stories here. And join us on the evening of Feb. 11 for the best in-game coverage of the commercials.

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