How will sponsors navigate a pandemic-altered Super Bowl?

This week we anticipated the sports world descending, as happens every year, on this year’s Super Bowl Host City, Tampa, Fla.

While millions are eager for Sunday’s Super Bowl LV matchup between Pat MahomesChiefs and Tom Brady’s Buccaneers, there will only be a smattering of (socially distanced) activities…We’ll still have Miley Cyrus and TikTok, the NFL Experience (though with drastically limited fan attendance) and even American Cornhole‘s “SuperHole” made-for-TV event with Doug Flutie, DeVonta Smith and Rashad Jennings marches on just down the road in Winter Haven, Fla.

Normally a mob scene, Super Bowl LV Radio Row is a ghost town

The non-stop parties, the concerts, the Radio Row craziness? Deferred until next year at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

From a brand standpoint, without in-person activations on a Super scale, companies have pivoted to the digital space. Or in some cases, have chosen to sit out this year, changing their focus, and their dollars, as Budweiser has done, to cause-related activities and messaging.

Among the traditional faces not buying in game ads are Avocados from Mexico, Coca-Cola, Facebook, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Olay and Pepsi. For Bud, this will be the first Super Bowl in thirty-seven years without an in-game spot from the “King of Beers.”

Pepsi is still involved, only they’re just focusing on the sponsorship of the Super Bowl Halftime Show starring The Weeknd. Parent Pepsico has still grabbed six spots for Mountain Dew and Frito-Lay. Also still a player is Bud’s parent, AB InBev, with Bud Light, Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, Michelob Ultra and Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer all finding their voice during the game—at a record $5.6 million for every 30 seconds.

Don’t worry though lovers of dogs, group singalongs and slow motion close-ups: Bud still created a feel-good spot, “Bigger Picture,” which they shared online (below) to call out that they are redirecting funds to the Ad Council and Covid Collaborative to help push vaccine distribution and awareness.

And for those who just can’t imagine going Super Sunday without the Clydesdales? Have no fear: Sam Adams saves the day.

Economic impact?

The National Retail Federation says consumers will spend $13.9 billion this year on game-related items such as food and apparel. That’s down more than 19 percent from 2020. Makes sense as last year’s game was played pre-pandemic, so the number of parties and the number of people who will watch from bars or restaurants will be down significantly from previous years. The NRF’s 2021 Super Bowl Survey, conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, says a record low 28 percent of people will venture from their homes on Feb 7.

The good news for brands? The NRF’s survey reports 186.6 million adults still plan to watch the game, right in line with the past several years. So, after a regular season that saw TV ratings off 7 percent, it appears the eyeballs will still be there.

What should those of us watching expect to see?

With a drastically different environment, we took a look at what consumers will see, and experience, as the NFL wraps a season like no other.

Some of the faces we will encounter this weekend will include ex-athletes Shaquille O’Neal, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Birk and many others, although most will be amongst the cloud, not on site.

“We’re seeing a strong trend toward customized branded content activations over social and digital platforms that feature a wide range of athletes,” said Sean Downes VP, Business Development, A1 Partners. “Because athletes have never been more accessible through technology, brands can be more creative in developing programs that deliver strong brand messaging yet remain authentic to the interests and lifestyles of their athlete ambassadors.”

Downes was part of some of the key activations the NBPA did in and around the NBA bubble, and through the holidays, as brands like Kia joined Bud parent AB InBev in marrying social media and storytelling to great success. And now, rather than buy ad time, Kia this year will expand its charitable initiative, “Accelerate The Good” in support of America’s youth, which began in 2019 when the Great Unknowns Scholarship was established to help young people in need get a foothold in higher education.

A Super Bowl during a pandemic? ME. WANT. COOKIES. DoorDash

A list of things to watch for includes pandemic winners such as food delivery services GrubHub, DoorDash and Uber Eats; General Motors pivots to look forward to an all electric car line with Malcolm Gladwell while Will Ferrell hates Norway; a slew of gaming opportunities; and multiple efforts to expand upon the idea of “Homegating,” as we head towards the 6:30pm ET kickoff on Sunday on CBS.

We also will see many new faces, some viewers will recognize from elsewhere—Chipotle, Huggies, Indeed and State Farm—and some many may not—Fiverr, Mercari, Triller and Shift4 Payments.

Squaring it up

If you want to enhance your bets, it’s all about the squares this year.

NFL sponsor Rocket Mortgage and their Super Bowl Squares Sweeps will be featured heavily with Tracy Morgan leading the way, while SBDPlay, a free-to-play sportsbook is using Marshawn Lynch as its face where five best sports bettors earn a share in nearly $7,000 in cash prizes without risking any money.

The most multifaceted gaming play will be made by Super Squares, a new live mobile platform, which will offer the “world’s biggest Super Bowl Squares Party.” People can play the football squares game using a free-to-play app while watching the game and also be able to join a live Twitch watch party hosted by Birk, a Super Bowl winner from his days with the Baltimore Ravens, along with fellow NFL alum and ESPN personality Mike Golic. They have outlined a $2.4 million dollar payout strategy where numbers from the traditional squares games keep switching, and it is a platform, according to founder Frank Maggio, which will be expanded to other sports in the near future.

Brands to watch for

DoorDash has unveiled a multi-platform marketing campaign in the U.S., including its first Super Bowl spot, “The Neighborhood.” The campaign “reinforces DoorDash’s mission to grow and empower local economies and unveils new brand messaging around deliveries of neighborhood favorites beyond food, highlighting the breadth of DoorDash use cases and platform categories like restaurants and convenience.” Sounds pretty heavy for a campaign that features Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street.” Promising to put community connection front and center with Grammy and Tony Award-winning actor and rapper Daveed Diggs and Sesame Street’s Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover and Rosita, maybe Muppets will be the breakout stars of SBLV?

Fiverr looks to make a splash and enter the mainstream using an evolution of the company’s recently launched campaign, “It Starts Here,” teasing “Small biz goes big.” For a brand still building awareness, will the spot help drive viewers to try out the freelancer platform?

Amy Schumer + mayonnaise sounds like a recipe for an NC-17 ad Hellman’s

Hellmann’s joined with Amy Schumer to debut the Unilever unit’s first Super Bowl ad, “Amy Schumer’s Magical Mayo Transformation,” to raise awareness around the issue of food waste. Together, Amy and Hellmann’s will encourage Americans to get creative in the kitchen and “make taste, not waste” with ingredients that might otherwise end up in the trash.

Huggies, the Kimberly-Clark brand, will make its Super Bowl debut appearance welcoming newborn babies to the world. The 30-second ad — which the brand teased with its very ambiguous It’s Almost Time To Go spot — airs in the second quarter and will feature babies born that very day, a “first for both the company and the broadcast itself.” Who doesn’t love chubby-cheeked babies? But will we love the integration? And will they sell more diapers?

Shift4 Payments will promote its partnership with Elon Musk‘s SpaceX in the first all-civilian mission to space. Shift4’s Founder & CEO Jared Isaacman will use one of four seats on the space flight, but is giving away the other three spots to help raise at least $100 million for St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

Triller, the music-centric TikTok competitor owned by Proxima Media, which recently handled Mike Tyson’s exhibition bout with Roy Jones Jr., will further cross-over from entertainment to sports in its Big Game debut.

Uber Eats goes retro for its first Super Bowl appearance with “Wayne & Garth Are Back.” That’s right, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey are reprising their roles from Wayne’s World. A teaser spot finds a way (no way!) to recycle their catchphrase: “We’re back. 2020, that was a really great year…Not!” Can the roadies from Aurora, Ill., outshine the furries from Sesame Street?

Volvo Cars USA is bringing back the “Volvo Safety Sunday” campaign, as part of this year’s “Volvo Safety Sunday: A Million More.” Volvo is “doubling down on safety” by pledging to give away up to $2 million worth of cars if a safety is scored during Super Bowl LV. (Last year, Volvo put $1 million worth of cars on the line, but no safeties were scored during Super Bowl LIV. In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet as only nine safeties have been scored in 54 Super Bowls: IX, X, XX, XXI, XXV, XLIII, XLVI, XLVII and XLVIII.)

Vroom combines coronavirus fighting contactless selling with eliminating often horrific “Dealership Pain” in driving home the digital car buying experience. “Buy your next car on Vroom, and we’ll deliver it, so you never have to go to a dealership again.” Sounds pretty good to us.

Will this be a one year blip, or are we at the start of a lasting rethink of brand engagement for the future?

“I think we will be seeing so many unusual things happening this year, and we will see some best practices stick,” said Chris Lencheski, CEO, IRG Sports + Entertainment and CEO, Winning Streak Sports LLC, whose company again will be creating a good part of the commemorative banners for whomever raises the Lombardi trophy on Sunday. “The ability to use platforms like Zoom to better engage is now the rule not the exception, and while there will be a great amount of interest in looking ahead to Los Angeles next year, we can’t miss the lessons learned from this most unusual of time.”