The Super Bowl just ended and right now media outlets are asking people to vote on their favorites. Choosing the “best” ads based on entertainment value is a fun thing anyone can do – but for several years now, I’ve been studying and writing about Super Bowl ads from the lens of marketing strategy.
My analysis isn’t based on cuteness or emotional appeal – it is based on how strategic an ad is in delivering a branded message that people are likely to understand and potentially remember or act on at some point in the future.
In other words, I write about the best examples of marketing instead of the best examples of short storytelling.
After watching all the ads and taking lots of notes (yes, watching the Super Bowl with me is definitely not very much fun!) – here are my picks of the winners and losers for best marketing strategy from the 2014 Super Bowl:
- Best Overall Strategy – SquareSpace “A Better Web Awaits”
- Worst Overall Strategy – Chrysler + Bob Dylan
- Best Statement Of Brand Values – Cheerios “Gracie”
- Worst Statement Of Brand Values – Chevrolet “Romance”
- Best Pre-Game Strategy – SodaStream
- Worst Pre-Game Strategy – H&M
- Best Understanding Of Target Audience – Hyundai “Dad’s Sixth Sense”
- Worst Understanding Of Target Audience – Kia “The Truth”
- Best Alignment To Existing Marketing Strategy: Coca-Cola “It’s Beautiful” and “Going All The Way”
- Worst Alignment To Existing Marketing Strategy: Microsoft “Empowering”
- Best Football Related Strategy – Turbo Tax “Love Hurts”
- Best Use Of European Stereotypes – Jaguar “Villains”
- Worst Use Of European Stereotypes – Butterfinger “#cuptherapy”
- Best Innovative Product Launch – TMobile “#nocontract”
- Worst Not-So-Innovative Product Launch – Bud Light “Cool Twist”
- Most Strategically Creative – Volkswagen “Wings”
- Least Strategically Creative – Audi “Doberhuahua”
Best Overall Strategy – SquareSpace
My pick for best strategy for the Super Bowl is a relative newcomer and smaller brand – but one that I believe will benefit the most from the lift of awareness that comes with a Super Bowl spot. I have long suspected that the mass audience that comes with airing a spot at the Super Bowl is most valuable for newer less recognizable brands, or any brand launching a new product or service into the marketplace. In the ad from Squarespace, there is a nice intersection between a cultural trend (information overload) and an important challenge for anyone in the audience thinking of creating a website for anything to build their own corner of the web to make it better. This is the sort of ad that works because it is tangible, specific, unique, and strategic to drive people to their site to do more than just register a domain name.
Worst Overall Strategy – Chrysler
There were so many things wrong with the strategy behind Chrysler’s ad featuring Bob Dylan doing a voice over about the quality of American auto manufacturing that it’s hard to know where to start. The biggest issue with the ad was the mismatch between the first 90 seconds, which are spent celebrating the team spirit and ingenuity of Americans, and the last thirty seconds … which suggest that viewers should “let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We … will build your car.” So, to get the message straight, as Bob states in the ad, Chrysler believes that “when it’s made here, it’s made with the one thing you can’t import from anywhere else. American Pride.” Um, unless of course it’s a beer or a watch or a phone. Then being made in America doesn’t matter, according to Chrysler. The ad had a bad message, bad execution and sadly, was more than a bit un-American.
Best Statement of Brand Values – Cheerios
Last year Cheerios generated a big controversy among the small minded by featuring an interracial family in a TV spot. Despite the micro-uproar from a small but vocal population of ultra-conservative activists, the brand stood by the ad. In their Super Bowl spot, the brand brought back the same family in an even bigger way – firmly cementing the brand in the minds of many families and moms (a key target audience for the brand) as being above any sort of bigotry and willing to ignore the small critics instead of bowing to unreasonable demands as many other large brands might have been willing to do in the face of any sort of negative publicity. Standing for something, and taking the risk that you might anger a small group of people is the best way to demonstrate that your brand has real values behind it … and it’s not just trying desperately to please everyone.
Worst Statement of Brand Values – Chevrolet
Featuring emotional stories of farm animals seems to always be a popular Super Bowl ad theme, perhaps thanks to Budweiser’s long series of ads with Clydesdales. Unlike those ads that typically tell entertaining emotional stories, the Chevrolet ad with a creepy title of “Romance” features a lonely bull that a farmer is taking to “meet” a lot of cows on another farm. The whole ad is like some sort of male fantasy gone wrong, where male farmers high five each other while the deep baritone of the voiceover guy intones “hellooo ladies” as the bull sees dozens of cows he is meant to “romance.” I’m male and even I was turned off by the tone of the ad. The worst part is that it is such a step backward from the much better “Woman and her truck” ad that the brand produced last year.
Best PreGame Strategy – SodaStream
In a world where ads often get censored or banned for overtly sexual references, SodaStream brilliantly submitted an ad featuring celebrity spokesperson Scarlett Johansson taking a direct dig at two of the Super Bowl’s largest advertisers/sponsors – Coca-Cola and Pepsi. For years, the manufactured controversy around the banned Super Bowl ad was the unique domain of Go Daddy. This year, however, Go Daddy’s spots seemed almost mainstream, while Israeli company Sodastream’s uncensored ad” used the final line “sorry, Coke and Pepsi” as fuel to get their ad initially banned … and therefore lots of media attention in the meantime. And ultimately a new version aired during the big game without the reference to competitors.
Worst Pre-Game Strategy – H&M
One of the keys to capitalizing on a great pre-game strategy that is focused on building anticipation is to actually have a strong payoff. The H&M spot featuring David Beckham in his underwear seems like a clear winner. After all, what woman (and some men) don’t want to see that? And the pre-game ads invited watchers to choose to see him #covered or #uncovered. The payoff, unfortunately, was just one of the ads that was already available instead of some sort of extended cut or a different way to build the story. It was a big missed opportunity and proof that building up an ad featuring a celebrity can work … but sometimes you do need to save a little mystery for the actual ad itself instead of giving everything away right up front.
Best Understanding Of Target Audience – Hyundai
It is not often that an amazing emotional ad that also introduces a real product innovation captures the perfect balance between storytelling and product pitching. It is even rarer when it targets the surprisingly underappreciated quality that unites at least half (if not more) of most Super Bowl watchers – they are male and dads. Hyundai’s ad hit that perfect balance by reminding dads and kids of those many moments when disaster is averted by a single quick move. It was the one ad I found myself watching and sharing with the family, and then watching again. Not only was it my personal favorite of the Super Bowl from an emotional level, it was also the overall best at understanding perfectly who it was aimed for and delivering a message that audience would love and share.
Worst Understanding Of Target Audience – Kia
I am as big of a Matrix fan as anyone, but the way that the character of Morpheus was brought back for the line of Kia ads was a combination of silly and just plain sad. The real Morpheus would never burst out into bouts of random opera singing. Meanwhile, the positioning for this new line of luxury Kia cars was just plain confusing. In a departure from their family oriented Super Bowl spot last year, the Matrix tie-in was poorly executed, forced and just didn’t seem to have that much to do with luxury.
Best Alignment To Existing Marketing Strategy – Coca-Cola
It will probably come as no surprise that Coke once again takes the top honor when it comes to using the Super Bowl platform to build an existing campaign. Despite the differences between Coke’s two chosen ads they aired during the Super Bowl, each used the same “Open Happiness” tagline and the familiar five tone Coke chime at the end of each ad.
Worst Alignment To Existing Marketing Strategy – Microsoft
For some reason, brands that spend millions of dollars outside the Super Bowl on building campaigns inexplicably abandon those entire campaigns in favor of trying something new and different just because the stage is bigger. This year, Microsoft was the biggest offender of this tactic. After months of pushing their “honestly” campaign to build sales and demand for their tablet, the new campaign made no mention of any of that and instead offered feel good stories of how technology in general can empower people’s lives. It ended up as exactly the kind of inward looking self congratulatory storytelling people have come to expect from technology companies. Despite trying very hard to humanize the company and all the good it does to empower people, it unfortunately ends up doing the exact opposite.
Best Football Related Strategy – Turbo Tax
It has been a commonly known fact that only a small percentage of football fans watching the Super Bowl will be lucky enough to have had their team make it. Turbo Tax was one of the first brands to speak exactly to this audience, but poking fun at the fact that the Super Bowl is not their day. Likening it to the girl you like going to prom with someone else, the ad uses humor to remind it’s audience that tax season is coming up and even though their team might not have made it to the big game, anyone could still potentially get a large tax refund come April … which would certainly help anyone get over the NFL post season blues.
Best Use of European Stereotypes – Jaguar
You may not have noticed the striking frequency with which the bad guys in Hollywood films seem to have English accents – but Jaguar’s latest spot for the Super Bowl features three of the most recent villians from films: Ben Kingsley from “Iron Man 3,” Mark Strong from “Sherlock Holmes” and Tom Hiddleston from multiple “Thor” films and “The Avengers”). The tone of the ad as well as the actors chosen and gathered made this an easy winner without resorting to cliche.
Worst Use of European Stereotypes – Butterfinger
Introducing a new candy to compete with the Peanut Butter Cups from Reeses can’t be an easy marketing challenge. To introduce their ambitious new competitor to the peanut butter cup, Nestle and Butterfinger launched a series of ads online featuring actors portraying Chocolate and Peanut Butter getting bored and attending “cup therapy.” While there, the Freud-esque psychiatrist sports a stereotypical German accent and looks at them sternly before introducing them to Butterfinger for some sort of a massage/threesome moment while the doctor looks on. Just plain strange.
Best Innovative Product Launch – TMobile
What could you do with no contract from your mobile phone carrier? In the latest attempt to woo more customers away from competitors, Tmobile launched this unexpected new campaign to invite people to switch and have their contracts paid off by Tmobile. It’s a big idea and one that would likely surprise people. The executions of a cut down text only ad to break through the clutter, as well as a smart partnership with fallen NFL star Tim Tebow who didn’t receive an NFL contract in 2013 all helped to make this a great new and innovative product launch for Tmobile.
Worst Not-Innovative Product Launch – Bud Light Cool Twist
Innovating the top of a beer bottle for twist off caps or easy flow pouring is kind of like innovating on the outside of a pizza crust. You can pay for all the marketing in the world, but at the end of the day most consumers know that it’s probably BS. This ad fit the bill perfectly – with hardly any production value and just spinning graphics of a bottle. After watching it, I had the sense this was the one product sales oriented ad that the Budweiser team inserted into it’s slate of Super Bowl creative ads just to placate the top executive that insisted on a 30 second spot being used for something less entertainment focused and more product focused. As anyone who has worked on big advertising campaigns before will tell you, this ad is what happens when creative people have to make executives happy – and promote empty innovations.
Most Strategically Creative – Volkswagen
Creativity has always been a subjective thing to judge, and there were plenty of creative ads this year during the Super Bowl. Strategic creativity, though, is the idea that creativity in advertising needs to be in service of something more than entertainment. When it came to this metric, the Volkswagen ad featuring a Dad talking to this daughter about the milestone of getting to 100,000 miles in his VW achieved that balance. The spot was sentimental, humorous, and spotlighted an aspect of VWs that you don’t often hear about in marketing – their longevity on the road