With So Many Break-Out Super Bowl Ads, Pepsi Has Some Valuable Lessons to Impart

Aim to connect with audiences with such a tremendous opportunity

Cardi B holding up a can of Pepsi; a still image from a Super Bowl commercial
Pepsi's Super Bowl spots are popular for a variety of reasons, and the celebrities they recruit is one of those reasons. PepsiCo
Headshot of Todd Kaplan

There truly is nothing quite like the Super Bowl. It’s an anomaly in today’s fragmented media landscape, as nothing else can bring together over 115 million viewers into a single live TV moment where they look forward to watching the advertisements as part of the entertainment. Yet a number of marketers regularly avoid participating in the Super Bowl, citing the cost needed to secure a 30-second spot and how it isn’t as efficient as other alternatives in reaching the same amount of (more targeted) eyeballs.

So then what is it that compels brands like Pepsi to consistently advertise on the Super Bowl year after year? After all, Pepsi has been a brand that has regularly leaned into the tremendous opportunity the Super Bowl brings. And no matter what the Super Bowl matchup is each year or the latest Pepsi campaign or initiative to highlight, Pepsi has become a regular on the Super Bowl stage.

To that point, Pepsi has long been a brand that has realized the tremendous opportunity the Super Bowl brings and has been able to harness the power of storytelling opportunities for decades with iconic moments in time. Whether it was with Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears or Beyoncé, these stories have been carefully woven together to reinforce our brand attitude and our role in consumers’ lives.

Brands shouldn’t look at the Super Bowl as an opportunity to merely put a brand message in front of a large audience. Rather, buying a Super Bowl spot is the equivalent of purchasing an invitation to contribute to the cultural conversation. And to be clear, this invite will only get your foot in the door. It is what your brand does with the opportunity that will ultimately determine where you will net out in the cultural zeitgeist.

As such, at Pepsi there is a great responsibility that comes with buying a Super Bowl spot. It includes a commitment to drive significant earned and social media chatter before, during and after the event. And this is a task that is clearly much easier said than done, as many marketers stack up their commercials with celebrities, set up social media war rooms and ramp up major PR campaigns only to find themselves fall short of their goals.

Buying a Super Bowl spot is the equivalent of purchasing an invitation to contribute to the cultural conversation.

While there is certainly no formula for success, here are a few thoughts that your brands should consider when evaluating how to best take a shot at the Super Bowl cultural conversation.

Rally around a cultural truth

So many brands start the creative development process by thinking about their business objective and what they want to say about their brand first and foremost. But the reality is that there is a greater potential to resonate with culture if you begin the process by identifying the real cultural insight that your creative point of view is based upon. Putting in the time to extract this key consumer insight will not only help sharpen your creative but will also ensure that the work doesn’t come across as brand-speak and can resonate broadly within the Super Bowl cultural moment.

Don’t compromise your creative

There is so much marketing clutter at the Super Bowl every year that it’s hard for brands to cut through. Yet given the significant amount of stakeholders and pressure that each brand faces throughout their Super Bowl journey, marketers are often put in situations where they are trying to please everyone with a vested interest in the spot’s success: agencies, executives and cross-functional partners alike. Once you have identified a breakthrough creative idea with your agency, you need to protect that idea as you navigate your internal and external stakeholders and the development process. Too many times brands end up executing an idea that has morphed into something very different throughout the process versus staying true to what is truly going to cut through creatively.

Build a comprehensive story

Many brands miss the mark by looking at their work as a TV campaign then adding on a bunch of add-on 360-degree ideas after the fact. But since the Super Bowl has a unique opportunity to tell a holistic narrative in earned and social media before, during and after the game, all touchpoints should be uniquely explored as you vet out talent and build a broader narrative.

One area where Pepsi has effectively played in recent years is by bringing in additional elements of the marketing mix to the table, such as engaging on-the-ground experiences and locally relevant market-specific executions. As you think about your brand narrative for Super Bowl, sometimes what appears to be the smallest activations can strike a major chord in culture, which can help propel your brand into the cultural conversation.

Stay consistent to key brand values

This can’t be stressed enough. Too often brands look for “Super Bowl worthy” moments and stunts in attempt to win over consumers or cut through the clutter. And while often entertaining, if the creative ultimately doesn’t reflect the brand’s core values and beliefs, consumers will not remember who was telling the story or attribute the moment to your brand. It is paramount to always keep this as a true north throughout the process, as the best ideas can only be told by the brand that is telling the story and can’t be replaced with another.

If you are going to spend the money to put your brand on the Super Bowl, you should set your sights on something higher than reaching a big audience. Rather, you should seek to connect with that audience in the cultural moment of the Super Bowl, tapping into the behavioral nuances with a well thought out holistic plan. If you are able to accomplish this, then there will be multiple winners during the Big Game.

Todd Kaplan is vp of marketing at PepsiCo.