Super Bowl Advertisers Hope to Entertain & Inspire Purpose at the Big Game

Purpose will be on full display at the Super Bowl this year, as brands look to strike the right tone and give back to their communities at a time when the world is struggling. This approach has been guiding brands’ sports marketing throughout the year. Executives from Pepsi, AB InBev, Visa, NFL, P&G and more talked about this strategy at Brand Innovators Sports Upfronts on Thursday.

Brands and advertisers are gearing up for the biggest advertising event of the 2021, in a year of pandemic protocols and social justice movements. 

An estimated 100 million viewers are expected to tune in to tune in to the big spectacle to watch the game, check out the ads, and enjoy the entertainment. Brand Innovators Sports Upfront livecast event is exploring what brands are planning around game day. 

This year, Pepsi is skipping a TV ad and instead is focusing its energy on the halftime show starring The Weeknd. After a year without in-person concerts, this event has the potential to connect more deeply with audiences. Pepsi has a history of working with Michael Jackon, Beyonce, and CardiB among others. The company has built its brand around partnering with timely relevant musicians.

“If you think about how we have to try to differentiate our brand,” said Adam Harter, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Media, Sports & Entertainment, PepsiCo said on Day 1 of the livecast. “We have got a strong competitor and they are about tradition and nostalgia, and they are timeless. Pepsi has to be timely. Music is one of those ways that we can always remain timely, constantly keeping our brand on the pulse of music culture. And when you think about those two passion points –sports and music – where do they collide in the biggest way possible? It’s the Super Bowl Halftime Show. It just doesn't really get any bigger than that.”

Pepsi is also working on local activations to support small businesses and local restaurants in Tampa, Florida, where the game is being played, and throughout the state. Like Pepsi, AB InBev brand Budweiser is sitting out the Super Bowl TV spot for the first time in 37 years. While the company’s other portfolio of products will be running TV ads, the company decided its flagship product could sit the game out in favor of spending the money on a platform to help promote vaccine distribution. 

“For everything that Budweister represents, we thought it would make a real statement to redirect our advertising dollars to COVID vaccine awareness and speak to our consumers as people,” said Paolo Provinciali, Vice President, Media & Data, US, Anheuser-Busch InBev. “It’s just a matter of understanding what this moment represents for the entire country, for sport’s teams and their communities. You have to determine what role your brand can play in that space and create a connection with the culture to really take advantage of being a part of this great event.” 

Purpose will be on full display at the Super Bowl this year, as brands look to strike the right tone and give back to their communities at a time when the world is struggling. This approach has been guiding brands’ sports marketing throughout the year. 

Brand values have become critical for Gillette when it comes to partnering with athletes. It is no longer just about teaming up with the best players for sponsorships, it is also about choosing athletes that share the brand’s values.

“These athletes have to stand for something,” said Greg Via, Vice President, Global Sports & Esports Marketing, Procter & Gamble. “They really need to be part of the community, they really need to be giving back. They really need to be taking a stand on things and we’re very supportive of that and in the past, we may not have been. I don’t think it was thought about as much and now we are a lot more socially conscious about what is going on and those athletes have to meet that as well as our other influencers.”

Visa has been working with their NFL athlete partners to help support the economy and local businesses this year, and this platform will carry into Super Bowl. The brand pivoted when the 

NFL Draft happened during lockdown. The brand decided to focus on recovery efforts in communities and supporting small businesses. So for the draft, they had three of their NFL partner athletes pick a small business in their community to support and made video content to promote this agenda.

“If there is anything positive coming out of this, it is moving more toward purpose,” said Mary Ann Reilly, Senior Vice President, North American Marketing. “Now it is more important than ever. We were clear about our purpose, which was, as a brand, to be the trusted engine of commerce, to be uplifting everyone everywhere including communities, individuals, businesses. Athletes have become activists on their own and they were all very passionate about it. Seachem Barclay who was in our NFL ad, two of his siblings have their own small businesses, so he supported them as part of the ad. It comes across as very authentic and it is something that I think will continue.”

Nationwide is also helping to raise awareness around NFL player activism and the communities that they support. “We want to authentically connect our brand to the Walter Payton Award and give the players the visibility that they deserve,” said Jim McCoy, Associate Vice President, Sports Marketing, Nationwide. “Especially in a year like this, these guys are still getting up on their days off to support their communities and help those in need. The more that we can do to tell their stories in a positive way is the reason why we continue to invest and partner with the NFL.” 

Kieran Foley, Head of Partnerships, Brand, and Strategy, Danone, also spoke about the importance of values for Danone at the event. “I think that if you are not authentic in terms of who you are partnering with and why, and you don’t have a position in society, you can’t be involved in the conversation at the consumer level,” said Foley. “The critical step for a brand, it seems obvious, but it’s to ask, ‘How are you authentic?’ You need to start at the grassroots level before you can collaborate with other partners. You need to take a position and mean it.”

Verizon is also using Super Bowl Sunday to talk about its purpose, said Rob McQueen, Head of Strategic Sponsorships, Verizon. “Today, especially with younger consumers, it’s as important as ever to make sure you are a purpose-driven brand,” said McQueen. “As everybody knows, we are all about 5G and 5G built right; This is the next revolutionary technology. But, when you watch our activations this weekend, you will see small businesses play a big part in it. When COVID first started, we did ‘Pay It Forward: Live,’ a series of gaming and music events which raised awareness for small businesses. We are doing it again this weekend with a post-game concert. It’s more important than ever for us to go out there and help people with our resources.” 

Brands will be looking to reach younger audiences that are tuning in on Sunday. The NFL has been focused on cultivating this audience through data-driven storytelling efforts that help connect fans to their favorite players in authentic ways.

“After joining the NFL two years ago, my mission was to strengthen and future-proof the NFL brand,” said Tim Ellis, Chief Marketing Officer, National Football League (NFL). “Although the NFL is the biggest linear presence in the industry, we could see that the engagement with younger generations was continuing to decline. So, we put a strong focus on engaging Gen Z by using emotional and youthful approaches. In that strategy, we wanted to rejuvenate the NFL brand.” 

The NFL is now partnering with teams and explaining why it is important to connect with Gen Z in order to drive fandoms and revenue across the whole NFL business. They work individually with these clubs to bolster their marketing, focusing on unlocking growth in younger demographics and building a long-term growth marketing strategy which will really connect with audiences.  

Even as the brands are taking on a new tone and approach this year, the big game is still proving to be a grand stage to drive massive awareness about brand values and important issues.

“In terms of pure reach, frequency, efficiency and efficacy, there is nothing like the Super Bowl where people actually want to watch, engage and consume with advertising,” said Pat LaCroix, Head of Brand & Marketing Activation, Bose Corporation. “It doesn't really happen at any other point in time, period. So the bar is extremely high in terms of the level of creativity, entertainment and inspiration expected from brands in their advertisements.” 

And after the year we have all had, the Super Bowl has the potential to bring people together, even if that connection is experienced remotely.

“Shared experiences are something we crave and need as a society, which is even more true given the world we’re currently living in,” said Dave Bolger, Vice President, Consumer Media, National Football League (NFL). “In the world of media, there aren’t many places left where audiences can have a shared experience and the NFL is a place where we do that on a weekly basis, the culmination of that being the Super Bowl. These moments are still critically important, even just from a society perspective.”

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