Tide’s Spotless Super Bowl Campaign, as Seen From Inside the Brand’s War Room

A rising Tide lifts all tweets


“We’re trending!”

High above the New York skyline, on the 36th floor of the World Trade Center, a team of roughly 40 brand marketers, agency executives, public relations folks and lawyers huddled around one big-screen television to watch their work get beamed to 100 million people. A second monitor showed TweetDeck, with tweets going by in real time like a torrent of water gushing from a broken pipe.

At 7:30 p.m., about an hour after kickoff, Tide’s Super Bowl campaign and the subsequent #TideAd hashtag were trending on Twitter. The spigot of tweets involved months of careful, calculated prep work, $15 million worth of TV ads and a room full of people ready to flip the switch on social media. The planning, and most importantly, the execution, was paying off.

Yet, Tide’s so-called war room—as well as every other brand’s war room—had a massive challenge: How do you cajole an audience to positively talk about your brand during the year’s biggest cultural moment?

The brand enlisted Stranger Things star David Harbour to pitch the wild idea that every ad TV viewers saw was secretly an ad for the detergent brand. To do so, Tide purchased 90 seconds of air time with four ads, one for each quarter. Over the course of the campaign, viewers were led to believe that every commercial they saw—for beer, cars, mattresses and more—was a pitch for Tide. The social conversation “is this a Tide ad?” played out all night online and in real life.

According to Talkwalker, an analytics firm, Tide seems to have won over the internet. There were 163,800 mentions of Tide during the Super Bowl. And fortunately for the brand, only 11,000 of those mentions featured the #TidePodChallenge. Another analytics firm, 4C, measured Tide’s social engagement five minutes after the detergent’s first ad aired and found it went up 74 times. The average for all of its ads was a twenty-sixfold spike in engagement.

This was the second year Tide zigged when other brands zagged. Last year’s campaign with football commentator Terry Bradshaw nudged a fake stain into a fake live broadcast, leaving viewers uncertain if what they just saw was a commercial. This year, Tide wanted to be so engrained in the commercials that viewers couldn’t forget about the brand after the game ended. And if the goal of the TV ads is to keep viewers intrigued throughout the entire game, then the pressure to deliver a similar succinct but entertaining message on social media for roughly four hours is even more important.

Tide and its agencies—Hearts & Science (Tide’s media agency), Saatchi & Saatchi (its creative agency) and Taylor Strategy (its public relations agency)—were watching the game from the brand’s war room inside Hearts & Science’s New York office to make sure the elaborately concocted ploy to take over the Super Bowl went off without a hitch. Or at least with as few hitches as possible.

“It’s 90 percent preparation and 10 percent luck,” said someone in the room who was keeping track of both branded tweets and broader Super Bowl trends.

There were six tables, each one its own fiefdom—a Tide table, a Saatchi & Saatchi table, etc.—that operated as a control panel for various areas. For example, the Hearts and Science team sat next to a table with two Twitter reps. The media agency had $167,000 to buy promoted tweets. After 3 hours, a Twitter sales rep told the media buyer, “You’ve gone through $67,000; You have $100,000 left.”

(Adweek reached out to P&G to confirm the Twitter budget, and a rep declined to comment on the exact amount.)

After months of preparation and meetings, the collective work of this group debuted on the advertising world’s biggest stage, so it’s only fitting that there was a little vibe of nervous energy. “I woke up thinking, ‘Oh God, a million people are going to see this today,’” a creative executive said about the spots. More like 110 million. But who’s counting?

Lauren Johnson

Game time

While some folks were watching the TV—for the game, for the ads—others were tracking a large screen at the front of the room that pulled in a TweetDeck dashboard with keywords and five hashtags, including #SuperBowl52, #SuperBowlLII and #TideAd. Also being monitored: mentions of Persil, Tide’s competitor that also ran a spot in the game.

Tide’s first 45-second ad with Harbour aired during the first quarter with the premise that surely confused at least a few viewers: Is every ad a Tide ad? Maybe.

Within minutes, the first tweet had 120 retweets and 270 likes. A Twitter rep told the room that sentiment around the word “Tide” had increased eight points from neutral to positive. By Monday at noon, the tweet had more than 5,000 retweets and 18,000 likes.

The people from Tide’s brand team were glued to TweetDeck, watching as social mentions ticked into the #TideAd feed. Apparently someone tweeted, “Did Tide just change the marketing game?” which riled the group.

When the TV feed suddenly went black during NBC’s telecast, Tide’s team whipped up a joke to join the conversation. After all, everything is a Tide ad.

Managing challenges

Tide’s team is acutely aware of the negative chatter about people eating Tide Pods, and one of the TweetDeck columns was solely about mentions of them. In fact, a small group of three or four people had only one job for the night: find any mentions of Tide Pods and flag negative ones. A tweet from on-air radio and entertainment personality Bobby Brown was flagged for joking about halftime performer Justin Timberlake arriving for his performance on a Tide Pod, for example.

“We’ve been watching but were hopeful that the creative would speak for itself, which it has,” said Matt Wormington, a representative for Tide.

A spreadsheet of all the six to 10 preplanned tweets for each quarter was printed out and taped to the wall as a guide for the team to follow. The sheet served as a blueprint for Tide’s strategy and was the result of weeks of meetings where Tide’s team planned a minute-by-minute rundown of how it wanted its four Super Bowl commercials to roll out. Before kickoff, the team had a “run of show” where they went over all of the tweets.

“We knew we had enough spots for people to notice—we just want to capitalize on it in the right way,” Wormington said. “When we were on set, it’s sort of like, ‘That’s going to be a funny GIF.’”

Some of the planned creative was better received by the brand than others. The P&G team tweaked copy on the spot to make sure everything sounded on-brand. A tweet showing Harbour jumping on a bed was intended to run alongside copy that read, “Good morning.” But the brand team called an audible and wanted to tweet “Sweet dreams” as the last piece of content Tide posted for the night. “Clients are being creatives now,” joked a Tide employee.

One tweet that everyone in the room agreed on: promoting the brand’s final fourth-quarter pharma-themed ad. The team posted, “Clean clothes are an indication of a Tide ad. If you experience a stain, please find some Tide.”

The brand’s clips were prepped and ready to post on Facebook and YouTube as soon as the TV ads rolled out, but the bulk of Tide’s real-time messaging took place on Twitter. Plus, all of the other Super Bowl advertisers were on Twitter, too, and were the playful targets of Tide’s efforts.

Roping in brands and celebs

Tide’s spots call out a handful of famous ads from brands like Old Spice and Mr. Clean (which are also owned by Procter & Gamble) and Budweiser. The social goal during the game: Get all of those brands and more in on the fun through tweets.

According to a rep, Old Spice, Mr. Clean and Budweiser knew about the campaign ahead of time, and Tide also coordinated some posts with Old Spice spokesman Isaiah Mustafa and celebrities including Betty White, Danica Patrick, Antonio Brown and Drew Brees.

Another planned post makes fun of car ads that tout big claims like “Best in class” and “No. 1 in driver satisfaction.”

The moment happens during a regional commercial for Mercedes after 8:30 p.m. “That’s it. Let’s do it,” a Tide rep tells the social team. And just like that, Tide pulls the trigger on a post that reads, “Rugged, sleek, dependable, #1 in initial customer satisfaction.”

One brand off limits: Bud Light and its popular “Dilly Dilly” spot. Tide didn’t get “permission” from the brand ahead of time but the creatives wanted to riff off of the spot.

“Can we still do Bud Light if we took out the Dilly Dilly?” someone asked. “That doesn’t make any sense,” a Tide rep responded. Alas, “Tidy Tidy” didn’t make the cut.

Much like Tide’s TV spots, the goal was to hijack Twitter for a lot less than a $5 million 30-second spot by stirring up conversation organically.

Now that months of prep and millions of dollars have been spent, what happens next for Tide? Nothing yet, which is kind of the point.

“This is a departure for us so we’ll see—usually we have stains in our ads, so we’ll see how we move from here,” Wormington said.

It may seem like a coy answer, but it also speaks to the lightning-in-a-bottle moment that brands hope to achieve in war rooms. Once the game is done, the magic becomes less noticeable until it’s on to the next campaign.

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