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On Super Bowl Sunday, everybody’s going to want a helmet — including advertisers. Experts predict commercials for everything from Greek yogurt to luxury cars will tackle rival brands head-on. Viewers who tune in just for the commercials will see as much aggressive competition as fans following the action on the field.
"All of this speaks to the fact that brands are fighting harder than ever to protect and grow their market share," said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
While competitive Super Bowl ads aren’t really new, they’re “newly acknowledged,” leading to a more bare-knuckled style, said University of Detroit Mercy marketing professor Michael Bernacchi.
Another reason the competitive hits will be quicker and sharper this year is that more brands are gearing up for real-time feuds on social media channels. Last year’s spontaneous Oreo Tweet after a power outage struck the Superdome in New Orleans was a big wake-up call for marketers about the power of acting — and, more importantly, reacting — in real time.
“We’ll see a huge spike in the number of brands that have command centers ... all ready to pull together content in real time,” said Mitch Germann, senior vice president at public relations and marketing firm FleishmanHillard. "Some of the brands that are participating have plans to take a jab at their competitors, probably already have their creative juices flowing and are ready to respond in real time," he said.
Carmakers have “always had a pretty big voice, especially as how they try to own the day in social,” said Jamie Tedford, founder and CEO of Brand Networks, a social marketing company. “Typically, they have a very vocal fan base on social (sites),” he said.
With cars in general and luxury vehicles in particular, the stakes are higher and the penchant for aggressive advertising greater. “The category demands that head-to-head competition and taking your rivals on,” said marketing professor Bernacchi. "That’s why I think the automakers have become aggressive and have to keep being aggressive."
Jaguar is a newcomer this year, which the brand can use to its advantage, Bernacchi said. “They have the garage to themselves, so to speak … this is their rookie year." The British automaker — which has rolled out early teasers with British actor Ben Kingsley — will be joined by luxury-auto Super Bowl veteran Audi, which has made a habit of calling out rivals in advertising.
“I think we’re going to have some brand name calling out,” Bernacchi said, especially because millennials respond well to these aggressive ads.
Automakers aren't the only ones slugging it out for market share.
“The yogurt wars will be fascinating to watch because this year we have both Dannon and Chobani,” Calkins said. Chobani is a first-time Super Bowl advertiser. Dannon, which ran an ad for its Greek yogurt brand Oikos in 2012 and sat out last year, is once again tapping actor John Stamos — this time joined by former “Full House” co-stars Bob Saget and Dave Coulier.
Although Dannon is the established player and Chobani a relative newcomer, Calkins predicted Oikos might be the brand to go on the offensive, based on its 2012 Super Bowl ad, in which Stamos was head-butted and knocked off a chair. Although it didn't mention Chobani by name, "It was really a very symbolic piece of communication," he said.
Another battle marketers see heating up is the cola wars. "Pepsi has taken great joy in poking Coca-Cola in the last several super bowls,” Symonds said, but this year Pepsi’s status as antagonist has been co-opted by SodaStream, a make-it-yourself soda machine that made its Super Bowl debut last year.
In 2013, SodaStream followed the script practically patented by domain registrar GoDaddy (which is expected to show a more female-friendly face in its commercial slot this year) by creating an ad that gets banned by the network, taking it online, and getting buzz for both. In the original ad last year, SodaStream featured both Coke and Pepsi’s logos, which were changed to more generic labels in the commercial that ran during the game.
"Coke and Pepsi have an interesting question: Do you worry more about your primary competitor in soda or do you worry more about new beverages and SodaStream?" Calkins said. “I suspect in the Super Bowl, you won’t see Coke and Pepsi try to attack each other, but you will see them kind of attack SodaStream,” he predicted.
And marketers expect an upstart in the candy aisle to get fiesty. "It will be interesting to watch Butterfinger,” Calkins said. The Nestle-owned brand is using its Super Bowl spot as a springboard to launch its new peanut butter cups.
"The challenge is you’ve got this behemoth in Reese’s," he said. "If Butterfinger's going to succeed, they have to do something to break out of the clutter, so it would make perfect sense for Butterfinger to attack Reese’s."
Overall, marketing experts say this year’s commercials will hit as hard as the football players. “It’s going to be a classic competitive battle. This will be as interesting as the football game for anybody who’s in advertising," Calkins said.