The Super Bowl is deserving of our attention, and brands that shell out to feature had to bring their best game. Ogilvy & Mather’s James Hidden takes a look at last night’s spectacle and wonders: does the glamour of the game make marketers forget their ABCs? Here's how they fared.

Much has been written about the cost of advertising in the Super Bowl. At roughly $5m for 30 seconds of airtime, it’s by far and away the most expensive media investment around. But is enough analysis done about how that money is used? In amongst the cacophony of Monday Morning Quarterbacks waxing lyrical about what they’d have done differently, our obsession with crowning winners and losers means we too often forget to actually learn from the losers. But too many brands make basic mistakes that go against the core principles found in any marketer’s playbook. So, what can we learn from these fumbles?

Fumble no.1: Underestimating your opposition

Your opposition is not your brand’s competitors. Nor is it other brands’ brilliant advertising. Your opposition is everything that is distracting your consumer. The craft IPA your consumer gets up to grab while the ads are on. The heated discussion about hatred of the Patriots that drowns out the TV. Far too many brands fail to think about the environment in which their ad is being viewed. Most people are not sat in silence eagerly anticipating your ad; they’re in boisterous bars and noisy viewing parties. Our industry is obsessed with creating work that is “thumb-stopping” and “designed for the feed” in social media, yet far too many brands waste their massive investment with complex, dialogue-driven storytelling that assumes a captive audience. Take Mass Mutual, whose long, narrative-driven spot required the viewer to work hard to both understand the message and why the brand was delivering it.

To really maximize their investment, more brands should invest in the tried and true basics. These include simple storytelling (Jeep’s “Anti-Manifesto” worked as a visual product demo even without sound); borrowed equity to capture attention (see the age-old celebrity hired gun, like Lionel Ritchie entertainingly refusing to say his most famous words for TD AmeriTrade); hard-working distinctive assets (Bud Light’s Dilly Dilly); sound-off storytelling (Wendy’s supers-driven anti-McDonalds’ approach); and music (Mountain Dew and Doritos’ smart use of music and celebrity). Utilizing one or more of these techniques results in the holy grail: attention captured and brand remembered.

Fumble no.2: Calling the wrong play

Many brands treat their Super Bowl investment as a Hail Mary, a time to throw their smart strategy and carefully crafted campaign out the window in a desperate attempt for something “Super Bowl-worthy”. This is almost always the wrong play. Whether it’s a creative one-off that bombs (see Ram Trucks’ bizarre Vikings/Queen hybrid), or jumping on the latest bandwagon in a desperate attempt to be relevant, brands too often wastefully disregard the tried and tested.

Just as last year saw brands being political (see Coca-Cola, Airbnb and 84 Lumber), this year was clearly purpose and cause marketing-focused. From Budweiser (disaster relief) to Stella Artois (water) to Verizon (emergency services), many brands clearly felt the need to show they cared. All admirable efforts, but does this ‘one-off’ approach actually help build memory structures and mental availability? Furthermore, when it feels like a stretch for the brand, it is both inauthentic and lost in the noise. What does a collection of babies with voiceover talking about equality have to do with T-Mobile? And what right does Ram have to use Martin Luther King’s words to sell trucks? (Very little, judging by the social media backlash).

By contrast, those who took their existing platforms and raised their game for the Super Bowl saw success. Michelob Ultra took their active lifestyle platform, added an entertaining celebrity and made an enjoyable ad. Febreze continued their odor elimination entertainment with a funny “My Bleep Don’t Stink” play. Message delivered, positioning reinforced.

Fumble no.3: Dropping the ball

Too many brands resort to formulaic, lazy efforts, with unsurprising results. You can’t expect your B-team to win the Super Bowl, so why do marketers think ok is good enough? $5m may buy 110m eyeballs, but it does not buy attention. And the dollars wasted on forgettable creative is painful to watch.

Hiring a celebrity in the forlorn hope it’ll make your forgettable message suddenly watchable? Check. (Looking at you, Pizza Hut.) Lazy, instantly forgettable copycat work that pales in comparison to your key competitor? Check. (Pitiful, Persil.) Navel-gazing historical anthology that says nothing about your brand? Check. (Poor, Pepsi.) Running your existing snooze-worthy creative because you don’t want to invest more dollars in production? Check. (Zzz, Zzzquill.)

By contrast, those brands that rose to the occasion and embraced the creative challenge saw success. Like P&G, who developed a clever construct that involved Tide entering plenty of its other brands’ ads in an entertaining, talkworthy way. Or Amazon, who found a funny way to further embed Alexa in popular culture with a celeb-filled extravaganza. And Mucinex, whose post-game ad cleverly acknowledged the number of post-Super Bowl sick days, and encouraged viewers to try the product “when you’re really sick”.

In conclusion

It’s simple, really. Play the game that’s in front of you, with the marketing playbook you trust. Put your star players – your core brand idea, your product itself, your distinctive assets - at the heart of your execution. And, most importantly, gamble on a two-point conversion, not the safer one-point option; place a smart bet on breakthrough creativity and best-in-class execution to generate the return your investment demands.