Super Bowl

For Super Bowl Advertisers, Pre-Game Is the Real Game

Advertisers Without a Pre-Game Plan are Wasting Their Money

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Advertising Age Player

We don't even know who's playing in the Super Bowl yet, but already the first official Super Bowl commercial has been released: Lexus's Super Bowl ad for its NX SUV.

Early releases of Super Bowl ads always raise questions. Aren't marketers spoiling the suspense that keeps viewers watching during Super Bowl ad breaks? Aren't they ruining the fun for consumers? But it's increasingly clear that the TV advertising game is won by preparations done well before kickoff. And advertisers that don't have a solid game plan in place today will find themselves on the loser's bench on Feb. 2.

While most of the press attention gets focused on the ads that air during the game, it's the pre-game activity that sets stage for this spotlight. The two-week runup to the game contains a massive amount of hype, both for the game itself and for the game's supporters and sponsors.

Once the game is over, that hype quickly dies off. So the smart strategy for advertisers dropping millions on a Super Bowl ad buy is to leverage the buildup and anticipation by airing ads in advance in support of the upcoming spot.

According to our iSpot.tv analysis of 2014 Super Bowl ads, the spots that were released early or tied into a pre-game campaign in some way enjoyed far higher digital engagement rates than those which did not.

Take Budweiser for instance. The brewer is largely considered to have "won" the TV ad game of the last Super Bowl with its "Puppy Love" spot, despite the fact that it didn't air until the waning minutes of a blowout game. But Budweiser had posted the ad on YouTube a week in advance, which went viral. (It plans to do the same this year with three ads, including a sequel to "Puppy Love.")

That "Puppy Love" spot blew away the rest of the field, generating over 54 million online views and over 2.6 million social interactions. For context, that's twice the number of online views and five times the social interaction rate of the second-ranking spot -- the Jaguar "Rendezvous" campaign -- which itself had significant pre-game buildup.

Other advertisers taking this tack include Doritos, which crowdsources its Super Bowl ad through a contest of aspiring filmmakers, fans and others. It generates some 5,000 submissions and posts 10 finalists online a month before the game. Two will air during the broadcast: one chosen by fan votes and the other by the company itself. In the nine years since this strategy began, Doritos has consistently scored highly on all post-game reviews.

And then there's Esurance, which ran a sort of ran a sort of "trick play" last year by not broadcasting an ad during the game. Instead it aired an ad immediately after the game announcing plans to give away the money it saved by not running a Super Bowl ad, with an associated hashtag for viewers to vie for the prize. That ad was supported by a pre-game teaser campaign on social media.

The common thread of these pre-game strategies is their focus on generating earned digital activity around their brand. Ultimately, that's the most meaningful measurement of success. That's the scoreboard. The name of the game is digital, and Super Bowl advertisers should be focused on gaining online attention in the form of earned media, online views, social chatter and so on through their Super Bowl ad spend.

TV spots that had no pre-game support on average scored in the six-figures for online views, and the four-figures for social actions. With a 30-second spot running an estimated $4.5 million now, the idea is to get the most bang for your buck. Just buying a Super Bowl spot alone means nothing. Advertisers have to think multiplatform. Think not only of the ad, but think ahead to where that mindshare goes next.

Spending millions on a Super Bowl ad with no additional investment in pre-game momentum is like buying first-class airline tickets for your vacation and staying in a flea-ridden dump. You're just wasting the money you've already spent.