The Super Bowl's Armchair Marketing Quarterbacks

The Super Bowl advertisement by Hyundai Motor Group's Kia and it's "Space babies" ad for the 2014 Sorento crossover Photograph by Hyundai via AP Photo

Editor’s Note: The Super Bowl ad that came out on top in the Kellogg analysis was Tide’s “Miracle Stain” spot, which beat out M&M’s, Best Buy, Axe, Wonderful Pistachios, and Jeep, which were all ranked highly, according to the Daily Northwestern. The Lincoln and Blackberry ads received low ratings, the newspaper said. The Tide spot, which featured a “miracle stain” in the shape of retired San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana that’s washed away with detergent, “really broke through the clutter with a very engaging spot,” Kellogg marketing professor Tim Calkins told the newspaper.

While most everyone is focused on the actual game during the Super Bowl, many MBA students and faculty will be zoning in on which brands score with their much-anticipated game-day commercials. Even though some companies release their commercials ahead of the big game, Derek Rucker, associate professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management won’t be watching them before Sunday night. “The magical moment of surprise is gone,” he says. “I like to see the commercials live during the game.”

Besides blogging on Super Bowl ads, Rucker, along with professor Tim Calkins, will lead participants at the ninth annual Kellogg School Super Bowl Advertising Review on Feb. 3, when marketing faculty and students watch the game and rate the advertisers. What makes Kellogg’s review different from the others, says Rucker, is that it goes beyond popularity. To judge the winners and losers, this group uses analytical tools that allow them to hone in on how well or poorly the ads grab viewers’ attention, position the product, and amplify the brand. “We assess ads on overall strategy and use core branding constructs,” says Rucker. “We ask questions, such as, ‘Is this a strategic message that resonates with the brand?’”

The group’s grades are published on its website, and a recap is posted to YouTube. In the weeks following the big game, the teachable moment continues in the classroom, where brand managers for the companies that ran the ads are invited to speak about the process of developing the ad strategy, Rucker said.  Marketing and nonmarketing students are invited to participate.

The point is to determine whether spending more than $3 million on a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl will have long-term returns for the company doing the advertising. M&Ms, with the “It’s That Kind of Party” spot introducing Ms. Brown, took the top prize during the 2012 Super Bowl. What made it work, says Rucker, is that there was clear brand messaging wrapped in an engaging and entertaining package. The ad delivered the news that Ms. Brown was a new symbol of M&Ms while making an emotional connection with the public, he adds. Contenders for the top spot this year include veterans, such as Anheuser-Busch and and rookies, such as Gildan Activewear, Oreo, and Axe.

Although Rucker won’t predict which brand will be top dog, he says there are ways to increase the chances of success. The top priority of advertisers should be to link the ad to the brand in a way that is memorable for all the right reasons. Examples of winners include Apple’s “1984″ commercial, which established the company as a brand, and the Betty White Snickers football ad, which no one can forget and has become synonymous with the chocolate bar.

Ads that are heavy on the laughs and light on information usually turn out to be duds. Sometimes, the panel does not even remember what was being advertised, Rucker says. Recently, Thales S. Teixeira, an assistant professor in the marketing department at Harvard Business School, conducted research that shows that some brands hurt themselves by focusing too much on entertaining viewers and not enough on informing them about a brand or product.

Striking a balance between being witty and revealing is the key to being memorable, say experts. On the other hand, some advertisers have left the Super Bowl wishing viewers would forget their ads all together. For instance, says Rucker, the ad by online coupon discounter Groupon that used dark humor by poking fun at serious issues, such as threats to Tibetan culture, received the wrong kind of attention.

“If you can’t remember the ad, then it’s a bad one,” says Rucker. “The bad ones you do remember can actually harm the brand.”

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