NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- E-Trade's snarky baby became a national phenomenon behind its high-profile Super Bowl buy, and last year 19 million people surged on its website to see outtakes. So it would seem a forgone conclusion that E-Trade Financial Corp. -- which has been in the past three Super Bowls -- would automatically sign on for next month's matchup. In reality, though, the marketer didn't commit to an ad in the Big Game until, well, pretty late in the game: October.
"This is a very serious business decision that we agonize over each year," said Nick Utton, the company's chief marketing officer. "The way we look at it, every year is a new year."
Indeed, automatically placing ads in the Super Bowl year after year isn't the case, which may come as a surprise to anyone who has come to expect a game filled with commercial messages from Pepsi, FedEx and General Motors. FedEx had advertised in the Super Bowl 19 times since 1989, and General Motors in 11 of the 12 Super Bowls prior to 2009's, but both dropped out last year, citing the economy. This year, PepsiCo pulled a stunner, saying it would not advertise any of its beverages since its new campaign hinges less on in-your-face ad techniques.
The public dithering suggests there is growing debate about the overall value of the game to advertisers. Sure, new entrants in recent Bowls have included blue-chip marketers such as Coca-Cola, Kraft and Unilever, but also a host of lesser-knowns: Cash4Gold.com (2009), Diamond Foods' Pop Secret popcorn (2010) and Garmin (2008).
The decision, like most things in advertising these days, comes down to return on investment for the outlay, which can run up to $3 million per 30-second spot. "What happened if we didn't make money on it?" asked CEO Bob Parsons at GoDaddy, a five-time Super Bowl advertiser. "We wouldn't do it again. But we're so far from that."
250 TV ads combined
So what's the ROI on a Super Bowl ad? Everyone seems to have its own metric for the game, which reaches an average of 98.7 million people. But according to brand-strategy firm Millward Brown Optimor, investing in the game results in an immediate sales increase; consumer package goods brands can see an average sales lift of more than 11% in the month following the Super Bowl and one Super Bowl ad can be as effective as 250 more regular TV commercials.
In E-Trade's case, in addition to the 19 million looking at outtakes from the ads, it saw a 19% increase in online applications in the week after last year's game aired compared with the average number of online applications in the first three weeks of the year. And the company saw an 86% increase in unique prospective visitors to its site in the week following the game.
So-called soft metrics are also taken into consideration, he said: how the ads performed in various consumer ad polls and how many times they were viewed on YouTube. Even then, Mr. Utton said, the company wanted to see how its business proceeded after the first quarter, when the game was still fresh in consumers' minds. Careerbuilder is slated to make its sixth consecutive Super Bowl appearance this year, but it also makes its decision "year by year," said Cynthia McIntyre, senior director-advertising. "What we've seen to date is pretty outstanding," she said. "There's a real list of reasons why we come back." One important factor: Over the past five years, Careerbuilder has seen its sales increase an average of 40% each year in the three months following the Super Bowl broadcast, she said.
GoDaddy.com also doesn't seem to wring its hands over whether to return to the Super Bowl again and again. The web-domain registrar best known for its raunchy commercials, and the carefully planned resulting publicity, has seen its market share increase steadily since it began advertising in the Super Bowl in 2005 to over 48% worldwide from around 16%, Mr. Parsons said.
Executives at Teleflora, entering its second year as a Super Bowl advertiser, and Audi, entering its third, both say the decision to advertise in the Super Bowl doesn't come without a serious assessment of performance of the commercials during and after the prior event. "It's not a foregone conclusion," said Scott Keough, chief marketing officer, Audi of America.
Last year, Teleflora's Super Bowl ad aimed at getting consumers to buy flowers for Valentine's Day. Traffic to the company's website increased 100% during the Sunday night the game was aired and 75% the day after, said Lynda Resnick, co-chair of Roll International, parent of the flower-delivery service. The company also monitored chatter among florists to see if customer were talking about the Super Bowl ad when they made orders. In the end, February sales were up 5% in a tough market, while the average value of a Valentine's Day order was up 8%, she said.
In 2009, E-Trade's Super Bowl ad ...
Audi tracks such measures as brand awareness, consideration and opinion; traffic to audiusa.com and Google searches for the product being advertised immediately following the game. Following the 2008 Super Bowl, for instance, brand awareness increased 11% between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008, and rose 3% after the 2009 contest between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009. "We generally run the analysis immediately to see immediate lift and then the related metrics come in after the first quarter," in mid-April, Mr. Keough said.
Returning advertisers indicate the value is still there in a Super Bowl buy, even if some observers believe the novelty isn't. "Some of the excitement about Super Bowl ads has worn because it has been about 20 years since the Super Bowl ads became a significant event in and of themselves," said Raymond Taylor, professor-marketing at Villanova School of Business.