No Super Bowl Ads? No Problem: How Every Brand Can Win the Big Game

February 3, 2017 Jonathan Crowl


The Super Bowl is the world’s biggest televised event, and the biggest advertising day of the year. But the cost of admission is high: companies pony up millions of dollars for 30-second ad spots—this year’s segments are going for $5 million each—and pin their hopes on producing an ad that is well received by the viewing audience.

So while major brands like Budweiser and Coca-Cola are happy to splurge on the global exposure offered by Super Bowl ads, most brands are forced to sit this one out.

So, imagine you’re the VP of Marketing at a mid-level enterprise, and your boss walks into your office to ask you to drum up some Super Bowl campaign ideas.

First, you think it’s a joke.

Then, you start to panic. There’s no budget for advertising during the Super Bowl, and your boss surely knows that. So what does he want? What are you supposed to do?

The answer: you get creative. While no amount of engineering can wrangle you space to air a commercial during the big game, digital channels and the growing multiscreen approach to TV viewing are opening up new opportunities for brands to use the Super Bowl for a little promotional boost, and without breaking the bank to do so. While this isn’t necessarily a new story, it bears repeating at this time of year as a reminder of how brands can overcome resource limitations to capitalize on the most high-exposure events and experiences.

Run Your Campaigns Before the Game Begins

More than a single four-hour event, the Super Bowl is actually the centerpiece of a larger advertising cycle that begins in earnest about a week before the big game, and carries on for several days after. If you wait until game day to launch your campaigns, you’re probably going to be disappointed with the results, because it’s hard to cut through all the noise taking place during the game—even for the companies that do open their wallets for paid TV time.

Pizza Hut

Instead, savvy brands should consider online marketing campaigns that take advantage of the entire cycle—including the lead-up to the Super Bowl itself. Content with a Super Bowl angle should be published during this time period, and relevant social media, display advertising, and other distribution efforts should be used as well. If your company stands to generate revenue from the game itself, such as a pizza company or other food brand, it’s critical to do your advertising ahead of time. As NBC pointed out, Pizza Hut ran a very aggressive Super Bowl marketing campaign last year, but didn’t spend a dime on advertising during the game itself. Instead, the company leaned on a content strategy that sought to drive sales during the Super Bowl, positioning Pizza Hut as a way to keep fans fed and happy during the game.

Not every brand will have such a natural argument for advertising ahead of the game, but this larger window of opportunity is far less competitive on cost, and it gives you more time to generate returns and roll out different content as you see fit.

Publish Your TV Ad Online

Remember what I said about most advertising coming before the game itself? It’s especially true for buzz generated by Super Bowl ads. Companies tease these ads in advance to generate fan hype, and to extend the lifespan of this very expensive content. If Dorito’s offers you a teaser of an ad spot that will come during the Super Bowl, you’ll be prepared to look for it, and maybe even be talking about it before you see the ad in full.

Even if the ad disappoints, it has still managed to drive considerable ad exposure. But for brands that can’t afford the ad spot, there’s an ingenious twist they can put on this strategy, as Newcastle showed in 2014. The beer brand decided it would make a Super Bowl ad that acknowledged the brand couldn’t afford to advertise during the Super Bowl. It hired actress Anna Kendrick, who jokes in the video that she isn’t “beer-commercial hot.”

The ad is both hilarious and subversive, and the company published it on YouTube ahead of the Super Bowl to reach an audience. Reception was incredible: The ad has generated nearly 800,000 views on YouTube, as well as views on other platforms, and the company received massive free publicity through media coverage of its innovative ad. Newcastle’s content strategy has become a template other brands can follow to piggyback on the success of the Super Bowl through digital video channels.

Stay Nimble on Social Media

Social media hosts an ongoing conversation during the Super Bowl, covering every aspect of the event: The game, the commercials, the halftime show, everything. Brands can win the lottery if they stay ready to jump on a timely branding opportunity. The most famous example of this came in 2013, when a power outage during the game prompted Oreo to publish this winning tweet:


Replicating that success is tough because opportunity has to strike at the right time, and brands have to be ready to take action fast—not to mention the creative demands of publishing that kind of high-engagement social content. But this isn’t the only way to use social media to one’s advantage. In 2016, a common theme during the Super Bowl was a trend of brands responding to other brands’ Super Bowl ads with their own social posts. After Schick ran a commercial about its Hydro Robot, competitor Gillette was quick to strike back:


In either example, the key to effective brand advertising was timeliness. Audience attention moves fast. Your company needs to have a system in place to fast-track branded social posts so that they can go from development to publishing within minutes—before their shelf lives expire. Social agility will make or break many brands that try to play this game.

It’s challenging to build a winning Super Bowl content strategy without bottomless advertising dollars, but it can be done. Brands just need to have a game plan in place, a blueprint for how they will be flexible and opportunistic, and great creative minds to ensure this content can rise above the rest of the noise.

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