Why Are So Many Brands Back in the Super Bowl After Years of Staying Away?

For Porsche, Cheetos and many others, 2020 is the year of the comeback

Super Bowl ads from SquareSpace, Discover, Porsche and Heinz
SquareSpace, Discover, Porsche and Heinz are among the brands running Super Bowl ads for the first time in a long time.
SquareSpace, Discover, Porsche, Heinz

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When insurance giant New York Life airs its 60-second spot between the first and second quarters of Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, it will talk about its 175th anniversary as a company that, in its own words, “helps people act on their love.” But this big birthday is actually the second notable milestone the insurance titan reached in 2020.

In airing an ad this year, New York Life has ended a hiatus from the game that stretched for three decades. The last time the insurance giant bought Super Bowl time was 1990. A gallon of gas cost $1.15. The Soviet Union still existed. Few people had heard of the internet.

By itself, the decision of one company to reenter the Super Bowl advertising fray might not be news. Except that New York Life is hardly alone. It’s one of several companies whose ads are back in the Big Game after years, even decades, of sitting on the sidelines.

There is also Porsche, returning to the game after 23 years, and Cheetos, which hasn’t had an ad in the Super Bowl for 11. SodaStream, whose last experience in the game was having its ad rejected in 2014, is back for the first time in six years. Meanwhile, Discover has ended a hiatus of five years and Heinz is back after four. All of which leads to one question: Why now?

The Super Bowl churn

It’s worth pointing out that not even blue-chip brands advertise every year without fail. Sitting out the game for a season or two is normal. Even the mighty Coca-Cola took a pass last year. “There is always a churn of advertisers in the Super Bowl, depending upon a variety of conditions and [a brand’s] priorities such as launching a new product or a national campaign,” said Dennis Deninger, a longtime production executive with ESPN who now teaches TV, radio and film at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. Deninger pointed out that there were 14 advertisers in last year’s Super Bowl that had not advertised in the 2018 game.

It’s also true that many brands like to shift their advertising resources to different venues, which means they’re not so much avoiding the Super Bowl as covering other bases. “We’ve never stuck to just one marketing strategy,” said Anthony Casalena, founder and CEO of SquareSpace, which took a two-year break before returning this year.

Even so, there are several dynamics that help explain why so many prodigal brands have identified 2020 as the year of return.

Deb Gabor, founder of Sol Marketing, believes companies are awakening to the fact that expensive Super Bowl ads are better deployed not so much to advertise a product, but to launch a campaign, a new narrative or otherwise attempt to change perceptions about a company.

“Brands that are advertising are using this opportunity to leverage the Super Bowl as a place to tell a great story to millions of people, to suck them in and get them intrigued and, in many cases, keep the story going,” Gabor said.

That explains at least part of why New York Life is back after all this time. While the operative reason the company produced an ad is its anniversary, New York Life’s new campaign is also one that encourages consumers to view the brand not merely as an insurance company, but as a resource for helping people care for loved ones.

“We felt that the Super Bowl was the perfect stage to not only celebrate [our] anniversary, but to launch our new ‘Love Takes Action’ campaign… to make a powerful statement about our brand and our role in people’s lives,” said marketing vp Kari Axberg.

A platform for a new product

The desire to make a powerful new statement is also what seems to have prompted the return of Porsche, whose ads have not been seen in the Big Game since 1997. Porsche will use its time to unveil the 2020 Taycan, which isn’t just a fast, new car, it marks the luxury performance nameplate’s entry into battery-powered vehicles. That’s a major evolutionary step for Porsche, which began building its first gas-powered cars in an Austrian garage in 1948.

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