The case for purpose in Super Bowl ads

There is a strong track record for purposeful Super Bowl ads in recent years, but it needs to be done right in order to be effective.
06 February 2024
NFL Football
Wendy Gerber

Senior Partner, Brand Solutions, North America

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As brands are well aware, the Super Bowl is by far the most-watched sporting event in America and as such an opportunity like no other to reach, engage and influence a mass audience. Indeed, Kantar finds that the vast majority of consumers, a whopping 71%, actually look forward to the ads shown during the Super Bowl.   

And while the classic Super Bowl ad ingredients include humor, nostalgia, celebrities, special effects, and, of course, animals, there is a strong case to be made for brand purpose during the big game. That is, ads that showcase a brand’s positive impact on society and reason for being beyond just selling products.     

Entertaining Purpose, Not Controversy 

It’s understandable that brands may be hesitant to create ads that may get them unintentionally implicated in the nation’s current political culture wars, especially after some well-publicized incidents in 2023. And yet, purpose-driven ads are not nearly the third rail some may imagine. For instance, studies show most consumers expect brands to be inclusive and diverse, including in Super Bowl ads. Kantar, in fact, found that 1 in 3 consumers said they would actually “stop using brands that do not promote inclusion and diversity during the Super Bowl.”   

Moreover, there is a strong track record for entertaining and purposeful Super Bowl ads in recent years.   

Unilever provides a great example. For the last three Super Bowls, the company has run Hellmann’s Mayonnaise ads promoting its “Make Taste, Not Waste” initiative to combat food waste, including 2023’s humor-filled spot featuring celebrities Jon Hamm, Brie Larson and Pete Davidson encouraging consumers to use Hellmann’s to enjoy leftovers rather than discard food. Unilever will continue the campaign during this year’s Super Bowl as well. “Given what we know about food waste the day after the game, there couldn’t be a more relevant moment to drive awareness and make an impact about the issue,” explained Unilever’s Chris Symmes, who added that the company has seen a double-digit increase in the conversation about food waste from the campaign.   

Other examples of purposeful themes in last year’s Super Bowl ads include Budweiser’s “Six Degrees of Bud” commercial showing that diverse communities are just a “six pack away” from being connected to each other, Snapchat celebrating diverse perspectives to better see oneself, and Jeep, GM and Dodge RAM all promoting electric vehicles.   

We will see purposeful ads during this February’s game as well. Makeup brand NYX is making its Super Bowl debut this year with a commercial aiming to celebrate the “power of women” in the “traditionally male-dominated” football industry, while Unilever’s Dove will return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2006 with a spot focusing on the importance of boosting self-esteem and promoting body confidence in girls to encourage them to keep playing the sports they love.   

It remains to be seen what role purpose will play in additional Super Bowl commercials this year, but many brands clearly understand its importance in connecting with consumers.  As Mars, Inc., which will run an M&Ms ad during February’s game, has noted, “Consumers are becoming more intentional about their purchase decisions and aligning their…preferences, behaviors and purchasing decisions with their values, migrating towards brands and companies that echo their values.”    

Achieving Effective Brand Purpose  

Companies are focusing on brand purpose for good reason: it provides real-world, tangible benefits. Kantar’s BrandZ global brand equity study of 20,000 brands across 50 markets, in fact, shows that brands that are perceived by consumers to have a strong purpose grew their value by 175% over a 12-year period—more than double that of brands perceived by consumers as having a weaker purpose.  

Yet, purpose has to be done right in order to be effective; Kantar studies have also found a significant discrepancy between a brand’s purpose efforts and their audience, with consumers often unable to identify the specific brand associations and attributes of a given brand’s purpose—key factors in brand preference and choice— even when they recognize the brand as being purposeful.  The most effective brand purpose—whether in Super Bowl ads or otherwise—needs to encompass several key characteristics to resonate with consumers and be effective.   

At a fundamental level, brand purpose must be relevant, i.e., something your consumers care about. It should be inspirational; motivating your consumers to share your cause and take action in favor of your brand and the larger movement you are spearheading.  And it should be sustainable, focusing on long-term goals of significant social, cultural, or environmental importance.    Moreover, in today’s era of consumer backlash and social media, a brand’s purpose must be both authentic and credible, meaning that it must fit naturally with your brand in consumers’ minds, not engender skepticism and should be seen by consumers as consistent with your corporate actions internally and in the marketplace.   

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for the global Super Bowl platform, brand purpose should embrace emotional storytelling to create a powerful, passionate response that connects with consumers. In short, the power of a compelling purpose-driven story combined with the unparalleled platform of the Super Bowl offers tremendous opportunities for brands to lead with purpose and make a real impact.   

All told, that’s a touchdown for brands.  

On Brand with Kantar: Is the Super Bowl a Safe Space for Brand Purpose?

Watch our On Brand with Kantar, a new LinkedIn Live series where brand experts will discuss and debate issues vital to today’s brand marketers. In our first episode, host Margot Acton and her guest Wendy Gerber will tackle Brand Purpose in Super Bowl Advertising. Is there still a place for purpose in the Big Game and beyond, or is the risk too great for brands amid our current political culture wars? Find the session here.

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