Tune in to the Super Bowl Sunday and you can be certain of seeing the usual quota of slick and humorous ads from mainstays of the game including Budweiser, Pepsi-Cola, Subway and Frito-Lay.
But you might be surprised by little-known newcomers who hope to make a big first impression, including makers of snack nuts, contact lenses and kitchen countertops.
Countertops at the Super Bowl? It’s a natural fit, said Gina Covell, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Cosentino USA, a distributor of quartz countertops that ranks among this year’s crop of lesser-known Super Bowl sponsors.
“Home remodeling has been the rage for the past few years, and kitchens are probably the No. 1 room that is remodeled in the house,” said Covell. “What bigger way to break out than in the Super Bowl?”
With about $1 billion in revenue last year, Cosentino is no startup, but the Super Bowl plunge still represents a big risk. The company, which has never produced a television ad before, is paying top dollar for its debut: $2.4 million for 30 seconds of air time, plus $1 million in production costs for a spot featuring sports celebrities Dennis Rodman and Mike Ditka. The one-day spending spree is more than double last year’s entire advertising budget, which mainly was spent on print spots in publications like Better Homes and Gardens, Covell said.
Cosentino might strike paydirt with its humorous ad, which portrays macho athletes arguing over who is “Diana Pearl,” one of the company’s whimsically named countertop colors. But inexperienced advertisers need to make the Super Bowl part of a complete marketing campaign or risk fading quickly into obscurity as so many one-timers have done, experts say.
Just think back to the “dot-com bowl” of 2000, which featured 17 dot-com advertisers, many of them obscure names that quickly disappeared from view, like OurBeginning.com, LifeMinders.com and Epidemic.com.
“You really need to have a strong company, have a strong product and be a really good marketer before you consider the Super Bowl,” said Chuck Tomkovick, a professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire.
What were they thinking?
Stories are legion of one-time wonders who botched their only Super Bowl appearance and never returned. One memorable failure was a 1999 Just For Feet spot that was so bad that the now-defunct shoe store chain actually sued its ad agency. The ad depicted a squad of white militiamen tracking down a barefoot black African runner, knocking him out with a drug-laced beverage and forcing him into Nikes.
Even well-established companies have fumbled their only Super Bowl appearance. A series of 2001 spots from Accenture, a business consulting company, was widely panned as incomprehensible.
“It was absolutely horrible,” said John Antil, a business professor at the University of Delaware who studies Super Bowl advertising.
Of course some companies have hidden motives for wanting to be part of the advertising industry’s biggest event of the year, even if they don’t fit the typical Super Bowl mold of food, drink and entertainment.
In Accenture’s case, Antil said, the company formerly known as Andersen Consulting was desperate to gets its new name in front of a large audience that included CEOs and other high-ranking executives.
Advertisers frequently have a secondary target beyond the estimated 130 million U.S. consumers who tune in for at least part of the game.
For example MasterLock, which famously has blown much of its annual advertising budget on past Super Bowl commercials, uses the big game appearance as leverage to entertain buyers and distributors who are crucial to its fortunes. Similarly, car company commercials in the Super Bowl are rarely memorable but may go a long way toward boosting manufacturer relations with key dealers.
130 million armchair reviewers
Super Bowl commercials offer some unique fringe benefit, including a few tickets to the game that advertisers can use to entertain clients or partners. A Super Bowl also stokes employee morale, and advertisers generate an unusual amount of free media attention, like this article.
But by far the biggest attraction for advertisers is that Super Bowl Sunday is just about the only day of the year when the advertising commands as much attention as the programming. At a typical Super Bowl party, everyone becomes an armchair ad reviewer, and a substantial minority say the ads are the main reason they tune in.
“There are very few venues where the advertisements are as much of an ingrained experience as the content of the event itself,” said Richard Castellini, vice president, consumer marketing at CareerBuilder.com, a job postings Web site that is rolling out a major national ad push with two Super Bowl spots.
Castellini took great pains to distance his company from the dot-com failures of a few years back, as did Bob Parsons, founder and president of GoDaddy.com, which will kick off a $19 million national marketing campaign in the first quarter of Sunday’s game.
“It’s not a gamble,” said Parsons, who is the sole stockholder in GoDaddy, an Internet domain registrar.
“We have been the leader in our market for three years,” he said. “If this year’s marketing budget does not produce one dollar in additional sales, we’ll still throw off $14 million in cash. I’ll still be supersizing it at McDonald’s.”
Ingredients for success
Conventional wisdom – and some market research – holds that Super Bowl advertisers need humor, animals, celebrities or some combination to be well-liked and effective. Categories that fit in well with the day’s partying mood do well, experts say. Sober subjects like financial services and pharmaceuticals typically get the thumbs-down.
So CIBA Vision will be bucking the odds when it makes its Super Bowl debut -- an atmospheric spot promoting the benefits of its new O2 contact lenses.
Karen Gough, CIBA Vision’s president for the Americas, makes no apologies for the straightforward approach. The ad is chiefly targeted at women, who constitute about half the Super Bowl audience but two-thirds of contact lens wearers, she said.
“I think it’s important to note that we didn’t develop the campaign with the Super Bowl in mind,” Gough said. “We developed the campaign to communicate to our core audience. We just picked the Super Bowl as a way to get that campaign across to a broad range of viewers.”
While the Super Bowl is a great place to reach a lot of eyeballs, including those that need corrective lenses, it only works in the context of an integrated marketing campaign, she and others agreed.
“If you’re going to spend the money, you need to leverage it beyond the 30 seconds,” said Sandy McBride, marketing vice president of Emerald Nuts, another first-timer.
The snack-nut maker, a new brand developed by a 93-year-old walnut farmers' cooperative, will promote its Super Bowl spot with a full-page newspaper ad before the game. And viewers will be encouraged to log on to a clever Web site after the game to continue the story begun in its commercial, which features Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and a unicorn.
With humor, mythical animals, a mythical celebrity and snack food, the ad has all the ingredients of a potential Super Bowl classic.
GoDaddy.com, on the other hand, is courting controversy with an ad that appears to portray an attractive young woman losing her blouse at a hearing on broadcast censorship. Parsons, the GoDaddy founder, promised that the spot would be “in extremely good taste.”
“It’s fun and it's not tawdry,” he said.
And how will we know whether the ad succeeded?
“Watch the 2006 Super Bowl,” he said. “If I’m back in it, it worked.”