After another tumultuous few weeks filled with off-field distractions, the NFL is returning to live, regular season action. And advertisers do not seem turned off by the image hit the league has taken. Brands are doing what they always do: Using pro football to sell everything from soda, snacks and beer to yogurt and laundry detergent.
Marketers rolling out new NFL-themed marketing include MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Hyundai, Pepsi and Nationwide. The ads come as the league deals with fallout on everything from "deflategate" to negative publicity from the upcoming release of a film about concussions in the league.
YouGov BrandIndex findings released on Wednesday found that the NFL begins the season with consumer perception levels down 58% from this time a year ago.
Sponsors and other advertisers, however, don't seem to be blinking. If anything, the season brings perhaps even more marketing potential than usual considering the hype expected in advance of the momentous Super Bowl 50. Marketers "are going to see what the fans do," said Jim Andrews, senior VP-content strategy at sponsorship consultancy IEG. If off-field issues don't "cause the fans to really turn away, then the sponsors are going to continue to be there too," he said.
"We are in close contact with our partners. We speak to them daily, weekly," said Renie Anderson, the NFL's senior VP-sponsorship. "Fan interest continues to be at an all-time high," she added. "The partners know that the NFL is the best place to reach a broad audience that covers numerous demographics and a reach to really reach those specific goals they have."
Indeed, poll results released Thursday by market researcher Mintel revealed that half of Americans are professional football fans. That tops college football (35%), pro baseball (32%) and pro basketball (30%).
As marketers roll out season-long campaigns, they are also "doing ancillary marketing, promotions and events that also tie to Super Bowl 50," said NFL VP of Sponsorship Tracie Rodburg. The Big Game "gives us two windows during the season to message and be excited about the season," she added.
Here is a look at what some marketers have planned:
One of the newest sponsors is Hyundai, which earlier this year replaced General Motors as automotive sponsor, ending GM's NFL reign that began in 2001. Hyundai begins executing its deal during tonight's game by airing the first of two NFL-themed ads that are planned. The spot (above) is called "D-Gate" and involves some passionate Arizona Cardinals fans. The marketer is also the "official presenting sponsor of 2015 NFL Kickoff" activities, which include a free concert in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to Super Bowl 50. Hyundai will show off a "Super Bowl 50 gold-wrapped Hyundai Tucson" at the "Hyundai Fan Fest" on San Francisco's Pier 35.
Marketers who are not official sponsors are also looking to get in on the action.
For instance, Ford on Sunday will debut the first three new ads for its all-new F-150 pickup during the "Fox NFL Sunday" pregame show. The spots --which will run throughout the season -- include one ad called "Wake-Up Call" that touts the vehicle's military-grade, aluminum alloy that "helps save up to 700 pounds of weight to improve towing, payload and gas mileage," according to the brand. When asked about the off-the field league issues, Ford F-150 Marketing Manager Eric Peterson said, "It's something that you keep an eye on always." But he added that "live sports are where our truck customers are" and "the best of the live sports to reach them … has been Sunday NFL."
MillerCoors, meanwhile, will run some of its most aggressive football-themed marketing since 2011 when A-B InBev took over as the NFL's beer sponsor, according to MillerCoors VP-Brand Marketing Gannon Jones. The brewer will leverage the separate deals it has in place with multiple teams, while running a national spot featuring Troy Aikman.
In Chicago, the brand has released limited-edition cans featuring Chicago Bears imagery. "We know that football is a key passion of our consumers. It's a key consumption occasion for beer," Mr. Jones said. So the brewer wants to show fans that "that we are into this sport as much as they are into it."
A-B InBev, meanwhile, has already begun airing a TV ad called "Canderful" by VaynerMedia promoting Bud Light's NFL team-specific cans, such as one for the Buffalo Bills that includes the saying, "The perfect beer for shoveling your way to the stadium at least once a year."
Later in the year, Bud Light will air TV ads promoting its "coin toss" campaign that will encourage fans to "put two plans on the table, one for heads and one for tails, and let the coin toss decide, instigating a five-day weekend of spontaneous and memorable experiences," according to the brand. The campaign is likely the last effort by BBDO, which recently lost the Bud Light account to Wieden & Kennedy.
Nationwide -- another NFL sponsor -- is bringing Peyton Manning back in a new ad that continues the jingle-themed spots he starred in last season. Nationwide Chief Marketing Officer Terrance Williams said in a statement that last year's jingle ad was "one of the highest-performing television ads in the history of our brand."
Procter & Gamble, whose NFL sponsorship deal covers multiple brands, hasn't revealed much yet about its football marketing plans. But brands such as Gillette, Tide and Head & Shoulders remain active on the sponsorship front. Tide, for example, continues to sponsor the NFL's history of team colors content , for example, including through a dedicated Twitter account:
Head & Shoulders last month named New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. as the new head of hair behind the NFL's official dandruff shampoo, succeeding retired Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.
"We're involved, including all the happenings at Gillette Stadium, with the season's first game," said Gillette spokesman Kurt Iverson in an e-mail. "You'll see more develop as the season goes on." With the planned launch of an improved line of Fusion razor cartridges early next year, Gillette is also a likely candidate for a Super Bowl ad and related promotion, though Mr. Iverson declined to comment on that.
The cola brand is planning to run NFL-themed national TV ads during the season, including one called "March to 50" that is similar to an ad run a couple years ago called "March to 48."
Pepsi is also running a digital loyalty program called "Unlock the League," in which fans can enter codes on Pepsi packaging to win prizes that include experiences with players such as the chance to go bowling with Sammy Watkins of the Buffalo Bills.
NFL sponsor Marriott International is launching a season-long Super Bowl 50 campaign. The marketer's Courtyard brand will host what it calls the "world's first Super Bowl Suite Stadium Contest sleepover" in Levi's Stadium, which is hosting the game. The winner will be determined by "a series of social media challenges" with the prize being an overnight stay in a stadium suite on Super Bowl eve that will be transformed into a Courtyard guest room, according to the company. Separately, Marriott Rewards is running a sweepstakes on Facebook, giving away a trip to the Super Bowl for a group of 50 friends and family.
A new Courtyard TV campaign will star NFL Network anchor Rich Eisen. "The NFL is the powerhouse of professional sports, and our long-standing sponsorship gives us an opportunity to tap into a passionate group of travelers, bringing the breadth and depth of our brand offerings to fans," Karin Timpone, Global Marketing Officer for Marriott International, said in a statement.
Finally, Dannon -- which started a new NFL sponsorship deal this year -- is collaborating on football marketing with Fuel Up to Play 60, an in-school nutrition and physical activity program launched by National Dairy Council and NFL. A retail promotion encourages parents and kids to search for one of six "golden Danimals Bongo bottles" in stores for the chance to win a field day for their school with NFL players.
Contributing: Jack Neff