The Big Game is over, and whether you bet on Brady or Mahomes, you probably didn’t win or lose as much as Redditors betting on GameStop.
But there was more at stake in this year’s Super Bowl than money, a trophy or a ring. The game within the game was played out during the commercials. There’s an ongoing debate between two schools of marketers, and the outcome won’t be decided for some time.
After a year that gave us a pandemic, politics and polarization, the marketing industry needs to give us something back. Something to cheer about, laugh about and, most of all, not think about. Make us feel something in our hearts, or in our bellies, because there’s already too much on our minds.
There is the marketing school of assumptive empathy. This dominated advertising during the first months of the pandemic and throughout the summer. Brands assured us that we were all in it together, even though most brands didn’t know who we were, or whether we’d lost jobs or loved ones. In every category, brands felt compelled to tell us the sun would come out tomorrow, if only we’d bet our bottom dollar on their latest sale.
Some recent studies suggest consumers want brands to take a bigger stance on social issues, but conducting those surveys tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like asking people if they floss or eat their vegetables. The people predisposed to answer always say yes. Reality lurks in the silence of those who just can’t be bothered or wish marketers would just leave them alone. Too many brands have overestimated their moral authority and importance in people’s lives.
Yes, your brand needs a purpose, and the customer experience should deliver on that promise. Brands like Warby Parker, JetBlue and Lemonade are generally good at connecting the dots between what they sell and what they support, as well as how they answer the phone, design their website and treat their employees. Other brands should take note, because infusing a brand with humanity is vastly different from presuming to know what you care about, how you voted or whether your own moral compass needs recalibration by a posturing commercial.
A better way to get credit for caring is to do something good for people, like repurposing your ad dollars to support local business, or better yet, redesigning your business model to pay things forward every time you make a sale. Countless brands are doing this now, and their success is showing older, more traditional companies that a sustainable business model also means sustainable profits. This year’s Big Game featured an artful ad by Chipotle that perfectly captures the delicate balancing act for brands interested in promoting purpose.
The second school of marketing might be called self-deprecating self-awareness. These brands recognize that you know they want to sell you something, so they adopt in-on-the-joke irreverence. You might recall the old public service announcements: “Please excuse this interruption of your regularly scheduled programming.” All commercials are interruptive, unless they manage to be more entertaining than the programming that surrounds them.
In other words, make us smile. A laugh would be a bonus, and a guffaw might get you a Lion, an Effie for sure. Remember that if you get someone to smile, a chemical reaction occurs, endorphins get released into the brain and their stress levels drop. When you consider our collective daily anxiety, that’s a bigger deal than you might think. It’s certainly more welcome than a ham-fisted grab at my heartstrings or a maudlin moment of solidarity.
The reasons we watch football aren’t all that different from why we like our favorite ads. A rush of adrenaline, an escape and a visceral kick to the gut. The Super Bowl gave us DoorDash, Bud Light Seltzer and Tide as three brands that proved likability can lead to memorability.
Looking at the months ahead, deciding whether empathy or entertainment is best for your brand is a tough call, as the national mood continues its bipolar dance. The abject failure of public institutions is why brands have been suddenly forced into the public debate, so CMOs face increasing pressure to comment on issues they are ill-equipped to address.
The pandemic may get worse before it gets better, and news media is now dependent on a business model that keeps us polarized in order to drive ratings. And since it’s unlikely the government—you know, the people who brought us the Department of Motor Vehicles—are going to solve things anytime soon, we may continue to hope brands will show us the way.
Getting it wrong makes you seem tone-deaf, so whatever school of marketing you’re in, study hard.