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Branding on steroids: the alternate branding universe of the Super Bowl

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Imagine for a moment that you are a marketing VP whose only chance to advertise your product and your brand is one 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl. This is your one and only shot to persuade, to build awareness, to establish your brand promise with your target audience.

What would you do?

You might do what Master Lock did many years ago when it elected to place most of its ad budget on one Super Bowl spot per year. For several years, the company ran an ad that geezers like me still remember: A marksman with a high-powered rifle fired a slow motion shot through a Master Lock padlock and it didn't open. Master Lock used a dramatic demonstration to establish its brand as tough and secure. How perfectly persuasive that was. And how quaint it seems now.

That was then, before the Super Bowl had become the Hulk of marketing events it is today, and the battle of the brands had become as interesting to some people as the actual football game. The media now covers the advertising in the lead-up to the game (who's buying ads, how much do they cost, which ads got rejected by the network). Many brands that advertise now go through all manner of gyrations to hype their ad before the game and after.

But what happened to the fundamentals of marketing and branding? Somewhere along the way, Super Bowl advertisers and their agencies seem to have popped a few performance-enhancing substances of their own, judging by the over-the-top concepts that make it onto our televisions. The battle to win a top-10 rating the next day seems to be pushing brands toward selling out for awareness and leaving the brand strategy at home.

How else do you explain the ad that Mercedes is touting for the game this year that shows model Kate Upton urging a group of men in football jerseys to wash a very sharp looking Mercedes CLA? The men, um, are having trouble focusing on the car. Her only line? "You missed a spot." The Parents Television Council has criticized the spot as objectifying women. Their protest, of course, had the additional effect of causing about a million additional people to preview the spot online and see what the fuss is about.

I won't judge the spot other than to say that I wouldn't have expected this from Mercedes. From GoDaddy? Sure. From Doritos, which manages to kick some poor guy in the crotch every year? Why not? But Mercedes? It doesn't fit.

One recent fan favorite was the youngster in the Darth Vader outfit trying to use the power of The Force to affect various objects around the home. When he finally takes a shot at the family car, his father slyly uses the remote start to trick his son into thinking his machinations have worked. It was a sweet, feel-good spot for VW, but it had a tenuous connection to their brand, which is normally focused on German engineering and a high degree of performance for the money.

It's as though the usual rules of branding and return on investment don't apply in this alternate marketing universe called the Super Bowl. This year, dozens of brands will pony up close to $4 million per spot and — undoubtedly — many will throw their normal messaging out the door. The Super Bowl has become more than a marketing opportunity — it's now a marketing contest. Do well and you could double the value of your investment with preshow hype and postgame ratings, replays and watercooler talk. Not to mention the multiplier effect of social media.

Of course, take one step too far with your ad concept and offend a definable group of people, and that social media hype, watercooler talk and media coverage can blow up in your face. Groupon was widely criticized for making light of Tibetan refugees in 2011.

But then again, in the magic world of Super Bowl marketing, there just may be no such thing as bad PR. So enjoy the game, enjoy the ads and think, for a moment, what you would do if your brand were on the Super Bowl. And maybe what you wouldn't.

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via

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