NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When millions of people tune into Super Bowl XLIV in February, one ad sure to spark memories is one featuring Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo reprising their roles as the Griswolds from the popular 1983 comedy "National Lampoon's Vacation." The ambitious play is not from a veteran Super Bowl marketer, however, but a newcomer.
An ad that taps into nostalgia and humor in the Super Bowl? What could be simpler? Behind the scenes, however, the advertiser -- Austin, Texas-based HomeAway -- is spending several months working through any number of complexities (think licensing issues and server capacity) to make certain its first appearance in the Super Bowl goes off without a hitch.
Founded in 2005, HomeAway has built up what it believes is a substantial business: listing vacation homes and villas that are available for rent. After relying almost entirely on search-based advertising and other web promotions, the company now has a "marketing budget to do something beyond just the internet," said Brian Sharples, the company's CEO.
At the same time, there's still wariness about the idea. "The road is littered with dot-com companies, back in '99 and 2000, who advertised in the Super Bowl and are no longer here," he said. Choosing to buy a Super Bowl ad "wasn't a very easy decision to make," and required a lot of analysis of results of recent first-time Super Bowl sponsors.
HomeAway noted that dot-com marketers have fared better in recent years, with Cash4Gold.com, GoDaddy.com and CareerBuilder not only joining the ranks of supporters of the gridiron classic but returning for at least one more round after making a debut.
Each year, the Super Bowl draws a handful of newbies, marketers who have never entered the game's ad arena. It's not a place for the foolhardy or lazy. After all, a 30-second spot in the game costs between $2 million and $3 million these days (Mr. Sharples said HomeAway paid "under $2.5 million, but not far off" for its Super Bowl ad berth). An ill-received ad can tarnish a company's image, not to mention drain millions of dollars from a nascent marketing budget. And yet, newcomers have been flocking to the game in recent years, accounting for 21% to 26% of the advertisers since 2005, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Since the recession began in late 2008, these first-timers have played an even more important function: filling the slots left behind by larger veterans, including FedEx Corp. and General Motors, who feel big-budget ads send the wrong message during shaky economic times. In 2009, Denny's, Teleflora, Castrol Motor Oil, Pedigree dog food and even General Electric, parent of the TV network broadcasting the game, NBC, placed ads in the game for the first time. The 2010 contest could depend even more heavily on newbies, as PepsiCo is sidelining ads for its popular beverages, which have been longtime Super Bowl supporters.
But putting an ad in the Big Game is folly without a broader program in mind. Denny's was out to promote breakfast in 2009 and used the Super Bowl to light a spark under a broader ad campaign. Teleflora hoped to use the Super Bowl last February to goose sales for Valentine's Day.
For its part, HomeAway wants to use the Super Bowl to bolster an concerted effort to "build a brand and build awareness for our company," said Mr. Sharples. The move could be crucial, he said. "When we go out and survey our target market to hear about awareness of our company, the average person still doesn't know who we are."
Some quiet testing
HomeAway even quietly tested TV advertising in San Francisco this past summer in order to determine whether traditional advertising combined with online efforts would add lift to "awareness and purchase consideration."
To avoid the fates of those early dot-comers, HomeAway is using lessons it learned from watching Super Bowl ad feats of the recent past.
Sure, the company has licensed use of "National Lampoon's Vacation" from Warner Brothers for a year, but it has also geared up to use the web alongside the TV buzz it hopes to stoke. "A week or two before [the Super Bowl], we'll release some 'sneak peeks,'" Mr. Sharples said, and the company also intends "to create more content around" the advertising "that will keep people engaged for longer than Super Bowl Sunday."
Other techniques: sending of the easily-recognized "family truckster" vehicle from the "Vacation" movies to various locations; filming additional footage of Mr. Chase and Ms. D'Angelo that can be used in other venues; and a possible documentary on the making of the ad.
Boosting tech support
More important, perhaps, is preparing for online activity after the ad runs on TV, said Mr. Sharples. HomeAway has spent some time talking to executives at Cash4Gold.com to learn how the TV ad sparked activity on the company's website immediately after it aired. HomeAway has been told to ready itself for a massive traffic spike in the minutes after its Super Bowl ad runs, Mr. Sharples said. "You've got to spend seven figures on hardware just to be able to handle that five- to 10-minute spike," he said. "Unfortunately, after that spikes goes away, you've got a lot of hardware you don't need for anything else for seven years."
Or the next Super Bowl commercial. Check back with HomeAway at the end of 2010, and it might be able to tell you if all the effort was worth it. "For a company of our size, it is quite an endeavor," the CEO said.