Super Bowl, America’s largest advertising event, never fails to showcase the creativity, humor, and heart of brands from a wide range of industries. While this may be an exciting yet unattainable opportunity for many nonprofit organizations with limited marketing budgets, He Gets Us broke that barrier by investing $20 million in two spots during last night’s big show.
So why do brands spend millions of dollars to have their advertisements air during the biggest sporting event of the year? And what can we learn from their efforts to apply to ours? Even if it’s on a smaller scale.
Brands invest millions of dollars in Super Bowl advertisements to reach the 208 million viewers to solidify their reputation, identity, and gut feeling in the minds of their audiences.
Think of branding like a memory: you can plant it, remind people of it over time, and try to correct it when it gets distorted, but you can’t really control it.
A brand, after all, only exists in the minds of the audience, and what a brand says about itself only matters if the audience believes it.
Memory, identity, and gut feeling are words we don’t often associate with direct-response fundraising. Instead, we are measuring ROI, response rate, and attrition. But as one of my colleagues likes to remind me by asking, “what’s the ROI on your mom?” there are some things that are worth investing in that you simply can’t directly measure.
Branding is the key to making a lasting impact in the minds of the audience, just as brand marketing can make the biggest difference when it comes to differentiating a direct-response offer from others. Investing in branding is just as valuable as investing in anything else that cannot be directly measured, and it is essential for nonprofit organizations to ensure people care about their cause and make sure they care more than they do about others.
When you define your brand and live it out consistently, you have a shot at both acquiring new constituents and retaining existing ones better. But if you let the market define your brand for you, you risk being just another Christian organization doing great work that no one knows or cares about. That sounds harsh, but with more and more competition for attention and a Christian demographic that is going through big shifts, it is increasingly true.
So are we talking about He Gets Us yet?
Not yet. First, let’s keep an eye on the other Super Bowl stars and see which ones did the best at brand planting this year.
Here are my top 5 hits and misses (that are safe enough-ish for the Masterworks blog):
SAM ADAMS: “Your Cousin’s Brighter Boston”:
This gets on my top 5 for two reasons. One, I love me a cold Sam Adams. Two, this is great brand positioning. Sam Adams’ tactic (in addition to using the “Your Cousin from Boston” shtick that has been working well for many years, which is a good use of the “reminding” memory category) is leveraging the power of association to put their brand next to a worldview that seems optimistic and wonderful.
But it’s how they are doing it that is so effective. They’ve taken stereotypes of Bostonians and East-Coasters and inverted them. It’s wonderful, it’s charming. And it takes those gut feelings and literally (figuratively) tries to bottle them. If you are an existing Sam Adams customer like myself, you may find yourself looking at their beer and asking, “Is it actually brighter now?” Or if you’re not, you may find yourself thinking about brighter futures when you go to buy your next Costco variety pack.
PRINGLES: “Best of Us”
Pringles is a one-trick pony in the marketing world — the chip that comes in a tube. Weird flavors aside, that’s all they have to play off of. Therefore, their best strategy to increase prominence is to help you remember the chip that comes in a tube. So that’s ultimately what this commercial is all about and why it works so well. It’s just a whimsical, fun, lighthearted way to remind you that Pringles are a thing and that you have large hands — just like everyone else.
BUD LIGHT: “Hold”
I’m not a fan of Bud Light. Will this commercial change my mind? Nope, but that’s because all I have to do is remember what Bud Light tastes like. However, the light beer drinkers of the world may just give it another try.
My wife and I both work in the marketing world, and we can see marketing tactics coming a mile away. Sometimes, even if it’s transparent in its manipulation, it gets us. And we have this saying: when that manipulation works, we say, “Dangit, I’ve just been marketed.”
Going back to branding, if you were to ask me to tell you what Bud Light’s brand is, I’d say it’s associated with cheap beer, sports, spring break, wasuuuuuuup, and so on. And mainly, that’s because most light beer brand strategies are aimed at getting brand loyalty as early as possible in someone’s drinking age (which is sad and awful but true).
But going back to brand marketing, Bud Light is investing in a big change in that association, and it does it first by giving us a pain point we can all relate to (being put on hold) and making us feel something we all want in life — joy, connection, time to smell the roses. This is aimed at middle-aged folks, not young people, who may be looking for calorie-conscious decisions more than a cheap drink.
DORITOS: “Jack’s New Angle”
For Doritos, their brand strategy is about stickiness. All they are doing with this whimsical and absurd ad is getting you to remember them afterward. And it’s not about deploying a new flavor or saying why you should eat Doritos instead of normal potato chips. They are building a story that makes you associate a chip with a triangle shape. And hopefully, when you see triangles, your brain associates the shape with the chip moving forward. It’s great storytelling filled with a wonderful build and twists at the end that make you laugh and give you an endorphin release that also helps your brain index it. Also, whoever came up with “Try Another Angle” needs a raise. That is really good copywriting right there to once again get you thinking triangles = Doritos.
CROWN ROYAL: “Thank You Canada”
Lest you think that this article is not about me really just trying to drop as much Canada stuff that I can, here is a fun Canada-focused ad, and it totally deserves to be here. Through the use of fun facts about Canada that actually activate the learning side of your brain associated with memory, Crown Royal is planting itself as a brand in your memory, and it’s using the association of things we find valuable/good. By the time we get to the end of the ad, we place that association of things that are valuable/good with Crown Royal. That’s really smart marketing, right?
This is a uniquely effective brand ad because in order to properly get your learning brain activated, you have to learn something. So if this was an ad for fun facts about America, it might not work as well because your chances of learning something go down. Having this be about our beautiful and majestic neighbor to the north increases the odds.
WORKDAY: “Rock Star”
It’s a fun concept — they take a workplace taboo like everyone calling people “rock stars” and say that it’s a very dumb analogy if you think about the things that we reputationally associate with rock stars. So you think that Workday’s campaign is going to make a big deal about how it’s not for “rock stars” but for someone else (I don’t know who because I think they’re also making a bigger deal of something that isn’t a big deal). And then at the end of the ad, they’re telling you to be an HR or financial rock star. So all of the work they did to recast a rock star as someone who trashes environments and has no respect for others is the association they want for finance and HR? That’s a big miss.
BUSCH BEER: “The Busch Guide”
Another Canadian treasure, Sarah McLachlan, drops an Arms of an Angel-sized cameo and parody of her own nostalgic nonprofit TV DR spots in a twist I didn’t see coming. The biggest problem is that it left me reeling from its bizarre poor taste and inappropriate self-awareness that had me completely forget about who the spot was actually for. I had no way to associate feeling good with the brand. If you thought it was funny, you might also start feeling guilty for thinking it’s funny to make fun of those old Arms of an Angel spots. Guilt is not a good emotion to leave with after watching a Super Bowl ad.
POPCORNERS: “Breaking Good”
Personally, I didn’t watch Breaking Bad. I heard it was a good show from folks who did, but as a father to a 2-year-old, the amount of adult shows I get to watch is limited, and this is nowhere near a show I will have on my queue any time soon.
But perhaps my perspective points to the big miss of this ad. When you are going to spend MILLIONS of dollars on an ad, give it the widest reach possible. This ad is filled with show-specific details and inside references that are completely missed by me and anyone else who didn’t watch the show. What happens is you might nail it with the fans, but you may also damage your brand perception with those who didn’t watch the show.
SQUARESPACE: “The Singularity”
This ad works if you are a sci-fi geek who knows what a singularity is. But here’s the problem: Squarespace is supposed to be a platform where “anyone” can make a website.
We know this well in writing here at Masterworks that the average reading comprehension level in the US is about 7th grade. And the sweet spot for writing ads that work is actually to dumb it down even further to a 5th-grade reading level.
Put simply, this singularity ad is going to alienate and damage the brand’s perception of its core customer that wants easy and simple as their solution to a website.
TURBO TAX: “Dance”
I get it. Turbo Tax knows that everyone hates taxes. But doing a commercial about how you don’t have to do taxes is like putting lipstick on a pig because EVERYONE knows that you still have to collect all your paperwork, fill out forms, pay even more, etc., etc., etc. to have someone else do it. There are at least 5 other ways to do an ad that positions yourself as a better choice for a bad situation than saying one thing to an audience who can see right through the ad.
A FEW HONORABLE MENTIONS
- Caddyshack was a smart play to recast the homage with familiar faces who would appeal to a younger demo. This was hard to pull off but had the media buzzing.
- Nostalgia seemed to be big this year: Clueless was used to play off on a material world for a material girl vibe, and fans seemed to love it (me not so much).
- “Binky Dad” resonated well with parents and did a great job at poking at how surface-level a lot of viral news seems to be. It showcased the car but more importantly said that Kia gets parents and their needs.
- If it wasn’t for the absolutely terrible choice of voice-over actors in the “Bradley Cooper and His Mom Attempt A T-Mobile Commercial” spot, this would have made a top selection for me. It acknowledged that cell phone talk is a lot of gobblygook and said “Hey, T-mobile is at least is aware of it,” so that’s a plus.
Let’s talk about the JESUS ad.
So, did you see the He Gets Us spots air? Here’s a quick summary of all the He Gets Us buzz.
The He Gets Us campaign is a massive, multi-year effort aimed at improving the reputation of Jesus in the US. The campaign seeks to address the issue of Christians’ divisive behavior, which is hindering their ability to demonstrate the love of Jesus and the transformative power of the Gospel.
Props to my home-boys LERMA/ (love you guys) for working on these spots and to HAVEN Agency, the mastermind behind He Gets Us, whichis also like 10 minutes from my house #westmichiganpride.
Here’s the thing that He Gets Us understands about brand marketing: your ability to do good in the world means that you’re doing good in the world (the one filled with all sorts of opinions on the nature of the work you do). And if you want to do more good, you need to open as many doors as possible — including what the world thinks of the cause you’re behind.
So here’s the brand strategy for He Gets Us, as I can tell:
- Get the conversation started with compelling content.
- Note: these people allegedly spend over $1 million on doing the research before coming out with this strategy, which shows.
- You see, when I watch the Super Bowl ad and other spots, it definitely feels like it’s calling out Christians for their unchristlike behavior, which honestly is probably the right move. 1: you’re not going to make Jesus relevant to a non-Christian without calling out the inconsistencies people are feeling with His people. 2: if you want to be effective at changing the reputation of Jesus, you need to start with His ambassadors. This campaign is as much about convicting Christians as it is about Jesus.
- Get the biggest reach you can afford with a captive audience — in this case, the Super Bowl.
- The important thing about Super Bowl reach is that it isn’t just as much about getting press attention as it is about getting user attention.
- You have to be ready to capitalize on both the favor and the criticism this play is going to receive.
- Capitalize on your momentum
- If you’re a for-profit company, you better believe your Super Bowl message is going to follow everyone everywhere, and the same is the case for He Gets Us.
- They have paid ads that key off of Super Bowl searches that play on good and bad associations but own the narrative either way. They have a TON of content ready and waiting to answer so many questions the ad raises, like “What’s the agenda?” “Who paid for it?” and even “Is this campaign trying to get me to go to church?”
- Know what your goal is
- Just because brand marketing typically doesn’t have a direct ROI doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a goal to be measured.
- For He Gets Us? Their first step is to get Christians to start loving more. And they’ve got a clever mechanism to track that: repping the movement by “paying” for swag with acts of love. After all, you are what you wear/do. (That’s a saying, right?)
The actual ads were great. One that’s safer, and one that’s bolder. They are both intended to make you feel convicted regardless of what side of the fence you see yourself on. It uses black and white photography to trigger memory like an old photo album or something you’d see in a history textbook — one we try to not bring out at family reunions or try banning from schools. It shows all our ugly and is pretty clear that this is NOT what Jesus is all about.
So, the big question is: Was the $20 million price tag worth it? They made a bold move and have a bold plan to keep the momentum going. Only time will tell, but my gut is telling me the answer is yes.
So what can I do if I don’t have $20 million to spend on brand marketing?
Rather than dismiss this piece as something out of reach for you and your brand, here are a few things I’d encourage you to think about…
Consider reevaluating and reinvesting in your brand, even if you don’t have millions to spend on marketing. Remember: branding and marketing should never cross over into your fundraising budget, as these are two separate efforts. The minute you take $$ out of your fundraising budget and stick it into brand marketing is the minute someone on your board is going to ask for a short-term ROI, which will ruin what the brand marketing needs to be and is going to get it cut real quick.
Positioning your brand and investing in your brand is investing in ministry. It’s about making what you do relevant to an increasingly competitive and distracted world and making it resonate with people so that it forms memories and alters worldviews.
If any of these questions/statements resonate with you, it may be worth taking a look at your brand and how you can invest your ministry dollars to reclaim your relevance and resonance.
- Are there other sectors/causes like homelessness, human trafficking, or the pro-life flight that should take a cue from He Gets Us and pool their collective resources together to make a big splash happen?
- Are there other areas where Christians in general need a bit of convicting that have to do with your cause?
- Do you feel a tension between talking about what your ministry actually does versus what seems to raise the most $$?
- Do you feel a tension between wanting to be something that appeals to a younger demographic of Christians and losing older donors who see the world differently?
- Do you feel like you’re hitting a plateau in the direct-response world and the optimization game isn’t working?
- Are you facing criticism or baggage from a past that doesn’t represent your present or future?
- Does who you say you are match up with who outsiders say you are or not?
- Are you unsure of what people think of your brand so you don’t know if you’re nailing it or failing it?
Ultimately, investing in your brand is an investment in your ministry, so take the time to assess and invest in your brand in meaningful ways.
Do you agree or disagree with my take on the Super Bowl ad world? Do you have other favorites or complete misses that didn’t get on this list? Am I totally wrong about He Gets Us? (LERMA/ or Haven, did I get it right?)
Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to chat.