Superbowl 2013: The Birth of “Engagement Marketing?”

The 2013 Super Bowl illustrated a very interesting trend that is happening within the marketing world: the shift to storytelling. When you watch the Ram “Farmers” spot as well as Audi’s “Prom” ad, you realize that these ads weren’t about the products. They were ultimately about connecting the viewer to the narrative. Whether you are religious or not, whether you are a farmer or not, the Dodge Ram piece evokes powerful emotions about that layer of our society responsible for keeping us fed. There is an appreciation for the work they do and how hard they work to get it done. Without complaint. And on the Audi side, connection is made between the story’s main character (a high-school boy going stag to the prom), his act of bravery, and every viewer that wants to find that moment of bravery within themselves.

Of course, there were lots of other ads as well. Some funny (i.e., Dorritos), some horrifying (I still can’t get the slurping out of my head from the commercial), and others banal.

But after a $4m ad spend, all of these brands should be asking, “what’s next? How can we leverage the momentum generated from those ads in more campaigns?”

The problem, for most, is that they can’t because they did not create a character (in a state of unresolved conflict) to which the audience connected. Toyota. Dorritos. These ads were funny but they lacked a character they could carry through additional messaging. Companies like Audi and Ram would seem to have a perfect opportunity to build on the emotional connection they created. Only even between them, there was failure.

Audi: Missing the Mark

Look at the Audi commercial. When you watch that spot, you are inclined to ask a number of questions at the end, “what happens next? Does he get the girl? What do his parents say about the black eye?” That’s because Audi did an excellent job of creating a character in conflict within an insinuated larger story arc. But when you go to the Audi website, they have failed to really connect that “bravery” campaign (and what it generated) with their web experience. Instead of focusing on the storyline and the character (inviting the audience to explore more of the storyline which, of course, involves the product), they feature the Audi S6 (the car used by the character) as the “lead performer in the big game commercial.” Really? The lead performer? What did the car do to resolve the conflict? Nothing. And Audi didn’t even put the video spot onto their website. Epic fail.

Of course, we are only in the beginnings of the evolution of advertising to something else. The ideal activity for Audi, post superbowl, would have been to tie their entire website into the storyline by asking the website visitor, “how can Audi make you brave?” By showing the video. By including new content extending the story and driving home the emotional connection the video makes.

But in order for that to happen, Audi must embrace the concept of messaging about the company (through narrative storytelling) not messaging about the product. The Audi ad did such an excellent job of that. The follow-up? Not so much.

Ram: Strange Message, But “Driving it Home”

Although the general consensus on the “farmer” ad was confusion, Ram is, regardless, putting a stake in the ground and using their “enabling farmers” message as the showpiece for their digital presence promising more stories and more ways they are going to build on that message throughout 2013. In fact, they have given a name to that. The Year of the Farmer. From their website:

We’re so honored that so many Americans are watching our “Farmer” commercial.
Your belief in our message is truly humbling. And this is only the beginning. Sign up to see what’s next in The Year of the farmer as we continue to support FFA.

And although it’s still a little nascent, Ram has even branded their Facebook page with the same messaging. They get it. Build off the emotional connection with those “characters” in the video (each farmer was a character with a conflict which the implication was Ram helped resolve).

The Consensus?

The 2013 Superbowl demonstrated us that stories are important and that more big brands/big marketers are turning to them to create emotional connection with the audience (and differentiate themselves from the competition because, really, it’s  hard to just copy a story). But at $4m a pop, many of those marketers failed to build off what they had started in those 2-minute spots. There is no doubt we are heading down the path of an evolutionary change in how companies speak to and engage with their audience. Broadcast-messaging about products (although useful to support key messages within stories) is being pushed aside for more complicated, more complex, and ultimately more interesting marketing focus on engaging through the message (rather than trying to simply use messaging to convert prospective customers into sales opportunities). Perhaps in 10 years we will be looking back on the 2013 Superbowl as a tipping point for the birth of “engagement-marketing.” Whatever we do, the name of the game is definitely changing.

- Jason Thibeault, Sr. Director, Marketing Strategy. You can connect with Jason on Twitter @_jasonthibeault.

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