The Super Bowl Playbook for B2B Brand Marketing

Smart B2B marketers will have found plenty of strategic inspiration in the big game’s ad breaks

February 17, 2019

The Super Bowl playbook for B2B brand marketing

Editor's Note: A version of this post originally appeard on the LinkedIn Marketing EMEA Blog.

As a B2B marketer, it’s tempting to spend the week after Super Bowl Sunday tut-tutting about consumer brands frittering away $5 million a pop on 30-second TV ads. We can smugly observe that they’ll never be able to tie all that spend back to impact on the bottom line and a sensible ROI. The media coverage helps. Catering to the public’s annual surge in interest, newspapers and ad industry experts race to declare Super Bowl advertising winners and losers. Who scored a touchdown? Who fumbled? Who’s got to explain to the CFO what’s happened to their investment? It’s fun – but it tends to miss the point.

The Super Bowl itself may have only one winner, but that’s not the case when it comes to Super Bowl advertising. This is no longer just a one-shot TV advertising opportunity. It’s a multi-channel, brand-building opportunity – the biggest and most upper-funnel focused opportunity on the planet. Not only do entire families gather around a TV screen, actually discussing ads; they also watch those ads on digital channels and share them on social in the weeks leading up to the game – and keep sharing and discussing them in the hours and days afterwards. Brands rarely have a better opportunity to talk to people interested in what they have to say. The Super Bowl doesn’t deliver a captive audience – it creates an audience that voluntarily hands itself in.

On this one particular occasion, the net effect of a lot of brands competing for attention isn’t to fragment that attention, but to multiply it. That creates a lot of space and opportunity for marketers to plan different routes to delivering the results they want. Super Bowl LIII advertising made full use of that space in a way that previous years haven’t. The most striking thing about it wasn’t the relative dearth of celebrities (something we heard a lot about in the run-up to the game). It was the sheer diversity of the advertising strategies on display. It brings home just how broad the options for marketers looking to build a brand now are. They stretch across social, PR, online video, content marketing and more.

Why B2B marketers should watch Super Bowl ads

Smart B2B marketers know the value of upper-funnel brand campaigns. A growing focus on revenue-based metrics has seen to that. We need higher quality leads that convert at a faster and higher rate, and deliver loyal customers when they do. We need a platform for speaking not just to B2B decision-makers but to the broader buying committees operating within our target accounts. There’s no better foundation for these things than a strong brand.

That’s why Super Bowl LIII couldn’t have come at a better time. It presents us with a hugely varied playbook of potential brand strategies, which are as applicable to B2B brands operating on digital channels as they are to big consumer brands buying very expensive TV ads. Here are seven that stood out – a fascinating cross-section of what brand-building can involve today:

The exclusive branded content play
Called by: Skittles

Arguably the most interesting Super Bowl brand strategy of all didn’t involve a Super Bowl TV ad. For that matter, it didn’t involve a TV ad of any kind. Skittles took a slice of the budget it could have spent on a 30-second ad and spent it instead on writing and producing a 30-minute Broadway show, running on Super Bowl Sunday only, for an audience of fewer than 1,500 people. It starred Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame, it cost between $30 and $205 a ticket, with proceeds going to the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It satirized the advertising industry in its script and musical numbers – and it was, by all accounts, hilarious.

This is a fascinating play on several levels. Skittles put its faith in owned content and an owned media experience rather than buying part of someone else’s media opportunity. It traded the mass reach that only the Super Bowl can provide for a tiny audience and the intrigue and fascination that comes through limiting availability. It calculated that exclusive content can produce a far bigger brand effect than the reach of the content itself, especially if you spin-off video clips of the cast singing the best bits of the soundtrack. There’s inspiration in there for any marketer looking to build credibility through content on a limited budget.

The brand partnership play
Called by: Bud Light, Game of Thrones

We don’t tend to think of brand partnerships as creative opportunities. They’re the behind-the-scenes deals that make commercial and strategic sense, but don’t send audiences heading for the water-cooler the next morning with a “wow” look on their face.

At least, that was the case prior to the Bud Light / Game of Thrones brand mash-up. It saw the beer brand’s established Bud Knight brand mascot brutally dispatched by the Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane from the HBO show, before a passing dragon laid waste to pretty much the entire cast. It was shocking, unexpected and arguably the most talked-about ad of the entire broadcast. B2B brand partnerships might not have the same shock value – but there’s definitely value in bringing complementary content expertise together. It sheds new light on your brand and drives impact and consideration where it might not have existed before.

The brand purpose play
Called by: Microsoft, Verizon, Washington Post

Brand purpose can divide marketing opinion when it stretches too far from an audience’s actual experience or comes across as a distraction from what a business actually does. However, nobody complains when it aligns authentically and powerfully with the difference that a company makes to people’s lives – and nobody was complaining about the three stand-out brand purpose plays in this year’s Super Bowl.

The Tom Hanks-narrated Washington Post ad won plaudits for celebrating the immense importance of journalism to freedom and democracy, not just of its own reporting, and for honouring the sacrifices made by all journalists, not just those writing for its pages. Verizon’s simple but extremely moving film linked the NFL to the work of emergency response teams with an appropriately humble reference to its own role. It judged exactly where to put the spotlight.

Microsoft’s brand purpose play took a different approach. It focused not on an overarching mission, but on a product. By spotlighting the impact that its adaptive controller has on the lives of those with disabilities, it sent a powerful signal about where and why the business invests in technology. That authenticity shone through in the performance of the young, disabled gamers in the film – and it’s why this ad created such a powerful emotive impact before and after the game. The purpose message was deliberately understated – and all the more powerful as a result.

The gender diversity play
Called by: Bumble, Verizon,

Apparently, fewer Super Bowl LIII ads featured women than during last year’s game. However, it didn’t feel that way. The empowering message that Serena Williams expressed for the dating app Bumble, the role model that put forward (Karlie Kloss appearing as a tech entrepreneur rather than a supermodel), the line-up of first responders in the Verizon film. The treatment of women in these ads showed that brands have a greater impact when they avoid lazy assumptions about who an audience is – and how they want to be addressed. In today’s data-driven brand building environment, there’s no excuse for only appealing to half your available audience.

The sponsorship activation play
Called by: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz had more skin in the game than most Super Bowl advertisers – for the simple reason that it sponsors the stadium where it was being played. Combining this with a fast-moving, witty ad that cleverly drew attention to its logo multiplied the impact.

The celebrity signaling play
Called by: Amazon, Bubly, Stella Artois, Hyundai

The impact of brand advertising doesn’t just come from what you say – but where and how you say it. Any Super Bowl ad is an exercise in brand signaling. In demonstrating that you can afford to pay $5 million for a 30-second ad, you show that you are a serious player in your category, who’s going to be around for a while (to recoup the investment from that ad) and is therefore credible and trustworthy. However, within the context of the Super Bowl itself, there’s another form of brand signaling that goes on. The bigger celebrities you can afford to feature, the bigger the brand you are.

Amazon’s latest Alexa ad featuring Harrison Ford arguing with his dog and Forest Whittaker trying to listen to his toothbrush didn’t just work because it was funny. It worked because it had the biggest celebrities in it. Michael Bublé did a superb job of signaling that Pepsico’s new Bubly sparkling water is already a major player in soft drinks. Jeff Bridges and Sarah Jessica Parker did the job for Stella Artois. Jason Bateman nailed it for Hyundai. Celebrities may not be essential for effectiveness in every area of branding – but paying attention to the unconscious signals you send certainly is.

The audio branding play
Called by: Michelob Ultra

Aside from Skittles, Michelob Ultra’s creative strategy was arguably the most innovative of the entire game. That’s because it deliberately focused on a different sense to most. People don’t just watch NFL games and the ads that accompany them. They also listen to them. Michelob Ultra’s ad featuring the actress Zoe Kravitz, in a calm jungle setting, pouring a glass of beer while accentuating every sound, was apparently designed to product a calming autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). As such, it was an exercise in audio branding – owning a relaxing experience, delivered through the ears, that is perfectly aligned with your brand and the moments when it’s consumed. Were Michelob Ultra to follow through on this, it could be a savvy brand investment for an era of virtual digital assistants and voice search, when audiences speak to the internet rather than just watching and reading it.