Super Bowl viewers are about to get a serious case of the munchies. There are more packaged food and beverage companies advertising during the game than in any year since at least 2003, according to Ad Age research.
Twelve brands in the two grocery categories are expected to air 19 ads during the game Sunday, according to the latest tally. That's up from the nine marketers that bought ads last year and far more activity than in the early 2000s, when three or four packaged food and beverage brands typically bought time.
The usual beer, soda and snack suspects will appear this year, including Coke, Pepsi, Budweiser and Doritos. But a whole new batch of family-targeted brands has ponied up, including first-time Super Bowl advertisers Cheerios and Chobani, as well as Heinz and Dannon, each making just its second big game appearance. Meanwhile, smaller challenger brands like home seltzer-maker SodaStream and Wonderful Pistachios are back after debuting last year.
The growth is propelled in part by shifting media-buying strategies for consumer packaged goods. In the past, marketers would go for "churn and burn," buying as much time as possible during all times of the day as they sought a steady presence, said Chris Pyne, U.S. chief strategy officer for Omnicom Media Group's OMD. But as viewers migrate away from scripted prime-time programming, "live events become where [CPGs] are bringing together huge, eclectic audiences," he said. "Regardless of who you are, it's one of the only things left in the world where people actually do tune in, sometimes specifically just to see the ads."
The game is a "second Thanksgiving," said Claudine Cheever, chief strategy officer for Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, whose clients include Cheerios. "It's one of the biggest all-family events of the year." Women comprised 47% of the Super Bowl viewing audience last year, according to Nielsen.
Kris Magel, chief investment officer for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative, said the rise of digital video, search, mobile, social and other consumer engagement opportunities have also increased the appeal. "There is so much more that can be achieved in terms of total impact," he said in an email. "The expensive cost of a unit in the game makes sense for more types of marketers."
Packaged food and soda brands are enjoying a stellar year in the increasingly important pre-game period so far, gaining attention with teasers and full-length Super Bowl ads released early online. Budweiser, Doritos, SodaStream and Bud Light were among the top five brands on Ad Age's pre-game viral video chart Friday, and Dannon's Oikos yogurt brand was 10th.
Meanwhile, food and beverage companies were behind 6 of the 12 most-watched Super Bowl teasers on YouTube as of Thursday, according to Google. Food and beverage advertisers are "clearly winning the discussion so far," Karen Sauder, Google's industry director for food, beverage and restaurants, said in an interview earlier this week.
Results like this are especially important for grocery brands, which typically have a dual goal of using the Super Bowl to raise long-term awareness while driving game-day consumption.
For some marketers, the ads are a way to excite retailers as much as consumers. "The retailers are expecting an uplift … and are giving us increased shelf space," said Ilan Nacasch, chief marketing officer for SodaStream, which makes home soda machines. The company, which released a version of its ad a week before the game, has been running retail promotions that include bulk discounts at key retail accounts such as like Macy's, Amazon and Best Buy, accompanied with messaging that that encourages consumers to "Fizz your Game Day Party!"
Intense market share battles are also fueling Super Bowl ad growth. Nestle is using the game to launch ads for its new Butterfinger Peanut Butter Cups, which are aimed at Hershey Co.'s Reese's brand. Hershey is not in the game, but Mars Inc. is and the candy giant has -- perhaps not coincidentally -- chosen to promote Peanut M&Ms with its ad. Chobani and Dannon are dueling for consumers in the fast-growing Greek yogurt segment. The Cheerios ad comes as cereal marketers try to revive interest in the sagging category, which is getting new competition from on-the-go breakfast alternatives, such as yogurt.
General Mills-owned Cheerios, whose heartwarming Super Bowl spot features a multiracial family, is timing the ad with a program called the "Family Breakfast Project," which encourages families to "find seven minutes for sharing breakfast together." The effort includes a digital toolkit with food prep ideas, "conversation starters" and games to "help families connect at breakfast."
But how appealing are ads for healthier products like yogurt and Cheerios in the middle of a greasy Super Bowl party?
Chobani's "How Matters" branding emphasizes natural ingredients. But "I didn't want to be overly serious on the Super Bowl," said Chobani Chief Marketing Officer Peter McGuinness. Its spot shows a bear rummaging through a food market.
"We are not being righteous," Mr. McGuinness added. The goal is to raise the profile of a brand that is the top-selling Greek yogurt and yet still has relatively low awareness, he said.
H.J. Heinz Co., which last advertised in the game 16 years ago, is trying to squeeze more growth out of the mature ketchup category. In the past 10 years the percentage of hot dog, hamburger and french fry eatings that includes ketchup has fallen by about 3% on average, according to the brand.
"We really need to make sure as the leader of the category we grow the category," said Jason West, CMO for Heinz North America.
"The Super Bowl is a natural fit for us because we are already part of the game," he added. Heinz ketchup is "invited to more Super Bowl parties than just about any other brand," he said, referring to its availability at homes or restaurants.
The ad shows people happily banging Heinz bottles to get ketchup out. At retail, the brand is selling special bottles labeled "Ready for the Big Game."
But curiously, as packaged food marketers put their game faces on, fast feeders are mostly staying on the sidelines. None are expected to air in-game national ads, although some marketers, like Smashburger, are doing regional buys.
Over the last 10 years fast food chains have sporadically opted into the game. But this year brands seem to be saving money to plug new products slated for release later in the year.
Last year, Yum Brands' Taco Bell and Subway bought spots during the Super Bowl, but both have said they have no plans to do so this year. "We are not in the Super Bowl, as we are gearing up for several big launches later this year," said a Taco Bell spokesman. "The 2013 Super Bowl was the ideal platform for us to debut 'Viva Young,' a branded spot that brought to life our Live Mas lifestyle branding."
Subway's spot was also more of a branding ad -- celebrating Jared Fogle's 15 anniversary as the chain's spokesman -- than a product one.
Pizza Hut, McDonald's and Papa John's will be airing spots in the pregame. McDonald's will have a 60-second spot before kickoff. Yum Brands' Pizza Hut has multiple spots it will air before the game, as will Yum sibling KFC. Subway has long had a partnership with ESPN related to the Super Bowl and in the week leading up to the game with an ESPN radio sponsorship.
Contributing: Maureen Morrison