Super Bowl Marketing to Learn From: the Good, the Bad, and the Weird

By Raka October 13, 2023

very year around this time, marketers contort themselves into fun shapes in order to write about the Super Bowl. The desire to capitalize on some of that sweet NFL traffic this time of year can be overwhelming, and hey, more power to you if you can find a creative angle.

The problem is that too many of these articles presume that you can be successful by just capitalizing on the huge wave of interest around the NFL’s biggest spectacle, and too many are laser-focused on the event itself. As it turns out, you can learn lessons that apply to any major event from what marketers and advertisers do during the Super Bowl.

Let me be the first to tell you, as someone who has spent a lot of time covering sports: All the lessons you’re traditionally supposed to be able to learn from Super Bowl marketing aren’t worth learning. This is a massive, insane spectacle featuring companies throwing hundreds of millions of dollars away on thirty-second advertising spots. If you’re going to stand out without funneling that kind of money into your efforts, you’re going to have to be unique, and you’ve got to be willing to look further out than February 6.

Here’s our take on lessons you should learn from the Super Bowl as you try to market your way through it.

1. Don’t be a downer

This piece of advice is inspired by that infamously terrible Nationwide ad that started off looking like any other advertisement featuring kids during the Super Bowl and then veered rapidly into childhood death. Nationwide is trying to do something important and somber here, but the tone is off-putting, and Super Bowl ads are generally lighthearted or inspirational.

The advice here is simple: During large events like the Super Bowl where everyone’s eager to have a good time, you may be tempted to counter with A Sobering Reminder About What Is Really Going On. If you’re going to do so, given the huge audience and the mood of most of your audience, you’ll need to really spend some time nailing both the tone and message. Nationwide would likely agree after the backlash they received for this ad, and you should keep that in mind regardless of when you’re rolling out your marketing campaigns.

Pick your spot, dude.

2. Don’t be too weird for your audience

We all recall the success of Puppy Monkey Baby, one of the weirdest advertisements I have ever seen in my life. Mountain Dew is a company that knows its audience extremely well and knows that their tolerance for really weird stuff is much higher than most. Take a trip down nightmare memory lane with us!

If you’re a creative person, or you work at a creative agency, the temptation to take your marketing to a weird place will be strong. Before you try anything too unique, though, ask yourself what the tolerance level of your audience is. If you’re not absolutely certain they’ll be willing to follow you down to Crazy Town, don’t risk alienating the people who may ultimately give you money.

3. Don’t dump everything into one piece of content or one day

The pressure to come up with the most compelling blog post EVAR can dominate your thinking in the run-up to the Super Bowl. You need the definitive guide to Super Bowl social, or the ultimate infographic that shows just how big the event can be for marketers. If you step back and think about your own interactions with that type of content, I think you realize it’s ultimately a waste of time.

Also, the companies that shell out $5 million for one ad on Super Bowl Sunday are paying to capitalize—via a big bang—on one of the biggest national audiences in the calendar year. Most of these companies can afford the expense and see a return on that investment. Unless you’re Budweiser or Doritos, you probably shouldn’t emulate this strategy. Investing a huge amount of time, effort, and money in one piece of content or one day of marketing will not get you the same return as planning a tactical, multi-tier lead nurturing campaign.

Focus on smaller campaigns that go beyond the basics. Whether it’s offering helpful tips for fellow marketers grappling with the Super Bowl or breaking down what makes a particular brand’s campaign work around the holidays, shoot for value, not shock and awe.

4. Be active and engaging on social media

If anything you do is going to take off on Super Bowl Sunday, it’ll be that stray clever Tweet you blasted out into the ether while sipping on a fine American brew. While the competition will be insane during that game—every brand has exactly the same idea—having one of your savviest and most engaging social media experts on Twitter, in particular, will be a great idea.

What takes off in 2017 won’t be what takes off in 2016, but this set of top brand Tweets from Super Bowl 50 can give you some inspiration.

Remember that often the most successful and widely-seen Tweets are reactions to big moments from the game, or particularly weird ads. When in doubt, use humor.

5. Set modest expectations

One of the hardest things, even for cynical marketers, is setting appropriate expectations. Once you get the ball rolling on a campaign, particularly one that centers on a giant, widely-watched event, it can be difficult to accept the hard truth that you’re unlikely to get more than a small bounce. If that bounce means you got in front of a larger, different audience than you’re used to, it’s still worthwhile.

Don’t let any of this discourage you from putting your best foot forward during the big game, and any subsequent huge events like the Olympics. Just remember to learn from the good, the bad, and the weird that came before you.