How do brands tell if a Super Bowl ad was successful? It’s complicated

There are many ways marketers try to prove the hefty price tag was worth it.
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Mountain Dew

· 6 min read

Congrats! You’ve just spent $6.5 million of your marketing budget on a 30-second commercial that ran while most of the country was filling up on bean dip and wings. Was it worth it?

That’s a question marketers and media buyers ask themselves every year after the Super Bowl. Sure, tens of millions of people watch the game each year, which could be enough justification for marketers to deem the investment a worthy one. Still, brands have all kinds of mechanisms in place to try and make sure they get the most bang for their $$.

A bit of a dirty secret: Many advertisers are banking on months and months of testing and surveys that predict how successful a Super Bowl campaign will ultimately be.

This process can start before the media buy is even purchased. Brand health surveys are sometimes administered to measure a company’s equity among a certain audience. For instance, how does Burger King match up to Wendy’s? Chipotle? Where are people most likely to spend their dollars?

  • Then, subsequent surveys and testing can be done at the briefing stage (would this type of ad sell you a cheeseburger?), the conceptual stage (literal storyboards and rough cuts of an advertisement), and, finally, as the creative reaches postproduction.
  • Of course, many campaigns, not just Super Bowl ones, are tested. But the Super Bowl is the biggest stage with the highest stakes, so brands really go all in.

“Every ad that you see on the Super Bowl, especially the big brands, has been tested to death by the time it airs,” said Kerry Benson, content analytics practice lead for Kantar, a company that runs audience insight surveys and tests for advertisers.

But testing can only get you so far. It’s artificial and delivered without the context of the mass spectacle that is the game (or the previously mentioned bean dip).

“It’s not how people actually watch the Super Bowl,” said Amy Ferguson, executive creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day NY, who worked on Mountain Dew’s two most recent Super Bowl spots and another for E-Trade. “It’s imperfect, but I also understand the stakes are so high with that amount of money,” she told us, explaining that brands have to have something to point to ahead of the game that says, “This is why we’re going to do this, this is why it made sense.”

These results are used to help cobble together post-game benchmarks. José Aniceto, SVP and head of behavioral sciences at MullenLowe US, who’s worked on Super Bowl commercials for E-Trade, Burger King, and Bank of America, told Marketing Brew that marketers rely on several metrics, most of them pretty obvious, to determine if their ad went over well.

Such as:

  • Brand awareness, affinity, and perception
  • Earned and owned impressions
  • Sales, sales, sales

“Those are core brand metrics...You outline that early on and then you set benchmarks against that,” he told Marketing Brew. “And if you’re a brand that can afford to even be in the Super Bowl, you probably have a framework you can measure against.”

See it

Sometimes, it’s easy to track what “success” looks like, especially if a brand has a specific ask for viewers. Like Bank of America’s 2014 spot , where the brand asked viewers to contribute to RED (the HIV/AIDS nonprofit cofounded by Bono) amid a reputation redux. Each time a viewer downloaded U2’s single “Invisible” for free, the bank made a $1 donation. Bank of America ended up donating more than $3 million total.

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“It was really like a double-pronged approach that benefited the charity and benefited the bank as well, because they were putting their brand out there in this positive campaign,” said Aniceto. “It’s a very specific action that you’re asking the viewer to take immediately.”

When Mountain Dew launched its Major Melon flavor this year, the brand wanted to “own Twitter,” said Ferguson. “That was the single thing they wanted to do—that’s how we concepted.”

  • So, Mountain Dew offered $1 million to the first person who counted (and tweeted) the correct number of bottles of soda in the ad (243, btw), essentially guaranteeing social traction.
  • Because it was social, the agency could see nearly 560 guesses come in per second after it aired.
  • Sales-wise, the brand hit its yearly sales goal in the first 12 weeks of launching.

Conversely: Some marketers might not really have a clear idea in mind of what success looks like. Though he declined to name the brand, Aniceto once had a client tell him that they wanted to “win the Super Bowl” without much guidelines as to what that kind of ✌win✌ would mean.

“You need to put that into context. We might not be able to win the Super Bowl because we’re going in with a brand that isn’t well-known to begin with, or isn’t in a sexy category,” said Aniceto.

Shilling sandwiches

This year, Jimmy John’s used its first-ever Super Bowl spot to introduce a new campaign and character for the brand. The commercial is a Goodfellas spoof featuring actor Brad Garrett as a rival sandwich slinger. The production, shot in early January, wasn’t originally intended for the Super Bowl, but when the opportunity presented itself, the brand’s CMO Darin Dugan took it.

To measure success, Jimmy John’s ran an online customer survey before the Super Bowl with basic questions to determine how familiar audiences were with the brand and its marketing strategy. Then it followed it up 30 days later, gauging reactions following the game.

Though Darin declined to provide any figures, he said the brand saw an increase in awareness—on YouTube, the spot has nearly 2.4 million views and the character has been brought back for more spots that ran over the summer. And the brand’s bottom line has improved, though again, Darin didn’t provide figures.

But can you tie a Super Bowl’s investment to sandwich sales?

“I can’t say to you that I attribute all of our sales and sequential improvement to a Super Bowl ad. But, I can tell you that it put us on the map,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be speaking out of school if I said that Jimmy John’s is having the best year that they have had in a very, very, very long time.”

So, plans for 2022? “I can’t say if we’re considering a Super Bowl ad,” said Darin. “Not at the moment.”

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