Streaming Services Mostly Focus on Brand Building in Super Bowl Ads

Amazon Studios was the only one to spotlight a single show in its ad

Quibi, Hulu, Amazon Studios and Disney+ each ran Super Bowl ads to tout their respective streaming services. Quibi, Hulu, Amazon, Disney+
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

On Sunday night, Amazon Studios returned to the Super Bowl for a third year to show off its upcoming drama series Hunters. The 60-second spot, which aired in the third quarter and highlighted the premise of the Nazi-hunting thriller, wasn’t particularly unusual—except for the fact that with that spot, Amazon Studios became the only streaming service this year to spotlight just one show during its Big Game buy.

Unlike Amazon, the other streaming services that ran ads during the Super Bowl eschewed the more traditional programming-specific commercial. Quibi and Hulu, which aired spots during the first half of the game, centered their messages on general brand-building for their services, while Disney+, which ran a surprise fourth-quarter ad during the game, used its 30 seconds to highlight a trio of upcoming Marvel original TV shows coming to its platform.

Andy Donkin, the global head of marketing for Prime Video and originals, said Amazon Studios was interested in using the Super Bowl stage to highlight a tentpole program that the service hopes will have global appeal, instead of touting the offering’s overall merits.

“We are all looking for content we love to watch, and that content is what drives us to particular platforms,” Donkin said. “Hunters is a story we think a lot of people will love, and we led with this in the Super Bowl because we think it’s a great proxy for the kind of great shows and great talent we have on Prime Video.”

Over the course of the night, rival streaming services’ ads indicated they had taken a different approach to their Super Bowl marketing. Instead of highlighting upcoming originals, Hulu dedicated its 30-second Super Bowl spot mostly to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who had been rumored to be considering retiring from the game. In a somber black-and-white advertisement, Brady acknowledged those rumors before shilling for Hulu’s service—and then confirming that he was, in fact, “not going anywhere.” (A Hulu spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about the thinking behind the ad.)

Upcoming short-form streaming service Quibi didn’t employ any celebrities for its ad, but like Hulu it similarly centered more generally on its service’s offerings. Quibi’s spot, which aired in the second ad pod of the game, showed a heist gone wrong as the robbers got distracted by Quibi shows while making their getaway. The ad didn’t reveal much about any of its content offerings, other than a brief clip of a Punk’d revival series hosted by Chance the Rapper; instead, it centered on the short-form nature of the shows that will populate the service.

Branding and marketing experts told Adweek they expected to see more streaming services to follow the lead of Hulu and Quibi, spotlighting the overall brand instead of specific shows. “We will see a pendulum swing back to the idea that these are brands, and they want to focus on the brand,” Paul Hardart, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, predicted prior to kickoff.

There’s a trade-off with focusing on general brand-building, though: As you focus on general brand-building, you might increase awareness about the service overall but give up the chance to break through with a programming hook that can easily be discussed and digested.

“If you’re at the movies and you see a preview, and you see the content come up, you lean into the person next to you and say, ‘Yay or nay?’ I want to see that, or I don’t,” said Jenna Isken, associate director of experience at the brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale. “Very rarely do we go, ‘Isn’t that great what Pixar or Paramount just came out with?’”

While Super Bowl LIV did show signs that the pendulum was moving, Disney+ advertised in the fourth quarter with a surprising commercial that touched on both strategies. The streaming service, whose first original series The Mandalorian was a resounding cultural success, advertised for three upcoming original series in its wide-ranging Marvel franchise. “The universe is expanding,” the ad read, before showing scenes from WandaVision, Loki, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, all of which center on established Marvel heroes.

The ad for the shows didn’t go deep on any one of them or their plots, instead trading on the overall popularity of the Marvel franchise to build excitement for the upcoming series. Marvel and Disney+ executives have repeatedly said they aim to make its Disney+ Marvel originals crucial for understanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which they expect will drive subscription rates. (A Disney+ spokesperson didn’t return a request for additional information.)

While the Super Bowl broadcast was a major one for several streamers, other streaming services decided to sit the game out. Netflix, which in 2019 spent more than $2.6 billion on advertising, opted not to run a Super Bowl ad this year and instead aired a spot for its upcoming fantasy horror series Locke & Key during the pre-game show. While Netflix declined to make an executive available to talk about its strategy, the move likely saved the streaming service a chunk of change: A 30-second spot in the game was selling for as much as $5.6 million, while pre-game slots were going for considerably less.

“If you’re interested in highlighting content, why not do a pre-game ad and then spend the money you saved advertising during an awards show, where the audience has self-selected to be interested in what you’re offering?” Hardart said. “It really becomes a question of what’s the most efficient use of marketing spend.”

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.