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Marketing Briefing: How the Super Bowl represents a return to normalcy that’s yet to become reality

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There are two conflicting narratives being told in the United States right now. On the one hand, there’s a return to normalcy — or some version of it — with the Super Bowl this past Sunday, fans in the stands and few references to the coronavirus pandemic (or masks) in the advertising. On the other, there are new strains of the coronavirus taking hold, the desperate need for more vaccines and the on-going economic hardship that many Americans are facing. 

The whiplash of the back and forth of the two messages can be tough to process. We’re being told that it’s safe for people to go to their jobs but we need to isolate at home as much as possible. Don’t forget that restaurants and small businesses are hurting, though, so we’ve got to support them. However, you need to stay home otherwise you’ll help spread the virus. Remember the vaccines are finally here — but we have no idea when and how you’ll get one. 

Even with that blink of normalcy this past Sunday, there’s a sobering reality that the uncertainty of 2020 is extending into 2021. “The Super Bowl was trying to put a gloss on a world that’s really messy right now,” said Ann Billock, partner at Arc Advisors. 

That mess has a ripple effect as marketers, agency execs and industry observers say that the dueling narratives make it difficult for marketers to plan out the rest of the year, as there is still little clarity into when or if we’ll truly be back to any sense of normal. 

“Right now, [the messaging] is just, ‘Get your shot and wait your turn,’” said the agency exec. “But there’s nobody who says we’re in the fourth inning. We don’t know how to contextualize where we are [with the pandemic]. How do you plan a brand if you don’t know where you are in the game? Where are we in the Covid cycle? If we knew that with a little bit more precision it would really help the planning.” 

There’s confusion among marketers when it comes to a path forward. For brands in troubled categories like travel, however, there is a sense that they need to return to advertising for fear of losing market share, according to marketing execs. Those same execs, however, admit to being unclear on the right strategy heading into the end of first quarter and that much of the planning is still focused on the short-term. 

“Marketers are not making their intentions known because I think they honestly don’t know what the right course is themselves,” said Derek Walker, founder of the agency Brown and Browner. “It’s a perfect opportunity for advertising agencies to step up and provide more than ads. They should be helping with developing a plan. I doubt that happening.” 

When it comes to the two narratives, it’s not surprising that the Super Bowl advertising veered toward the sunnier version of events as there’s a “cautious optimism” among marketers now, per one agency exec. “People watch the Super Bowl to escape and most advertisers respect the Covid fatigue that people are feeling by using humor,” noted Allen Adamson, brand consultant and co-founder of Metaforce. 

With the Super Bowl come and gone, marketers need to get a better sense of what’s to come this year. Without some clarity and long-term planning, brands could face more difficulty going forward. 

“We aren’t thinking about how we need to change to the new normal of today,” said Walker. “We aren’t driving the recovery, we are hoping the wave of recovery will pick up and move us along. The problem with that is that we are not in control of where we are headed. We might end up in a new, better place or end up on the rocks or going over the falls. It is always better to be in control of where we are going.”

3 Questions with Dun & Bradstreet CMO Stacy Greiner

What has been your biggest challenge as a CMO and how are you approaching it?

Well, I started as CMO of Dun & Bradstreet the week the physical offices closed last March, so this particular year my biggest challenge was driving transformation and elevating the impact of marketing with a team I’ve never met in person. It requires being very clear in goals and expectations, over-communicating everything and trusting in the skills of your team.

How does being remote affect your leadership strategy?

To shape connection top-to-bottom across our organization, we hold purposeful weekly leadership meetings, bi-weekly extended leader meetings, and global monthly marketing meet-ups to cover key goals and accomplishments with the entire marketing team and other key internal partners. In addition, I have weekly coffee chats that we branded “Espresso Yourself” with small groups of people who are on the front line so I can understand where we have gaps and where we can make improvements. I do hope at some point in the near future I will get to see faces in person that I’ve only seen on a screen for the last eleven months.

What’s top of mind for you as a CMO right now?

There are three main things I’m focused on as we head into 2021. The first is continuing our transformation to a marketing team that is measured on generating revenue and making sure our programs and teams are focused on this goal. In line with that, we are bringing a lot of our operations in-house so that we have complete insight into the entire customer journey and can be more flexible and helpful in our response and outreach. Finally, this past year has really accelerated the shift to almost entirely digital marketing. This means that even B2B marketers are dealing with customers in their personal spaces. Combining B2C and B2B to achieve a true business-to-person connection is something we are focused on. — Kimeko McCoy

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By the numbers

Marketers relied heavily on levity and donation in their brand voice for this year’s Super Bowl. It shouldn’t come as a surprise as more consumers expecting their favorite brands’ values to align with their own. New research from Brand Prism breaks it down:

  • 87% of consumers consider a brand’s values when purchasing a product.
  • Compared to six months ago, 73% of respondents find it more important to purchase a product from a company with strong values. 
  • 64% of Gen Z, the generation poised to outpace Millennials’ consumer spending in the next ten years, select products and services based on the brand’s internal culture, its interactions with customers and the content it puts out into the world. — Kimeko McCoy

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