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The Purpose Bowl4 min read

The Purpose Bowl

How Political Activism and Marketing Became (Unintentionally) Entwined

JJ Emru, MBA Class of 2018

Let’s get this out of the way. As a lifelong Jets fan, I found much of what happened between the lines during Super Bowl 51 downright nauseating. I’ve been told that others found it very entertaining.

But if you were one of the more than 100 million viewers who tuned in to the big game this year, it was what happened during those infamous commercial breaks that may have truly inspired you. Or perhaps made your blood boil.

From couch surfing to big lumber, automotive titans to beloved household brands, #SB17 will be remembered in the marketing world for the role social causes played in brand advertising. Let’s call it: the #PurposeBowl. To an extent we’ve never seen before, brands used their $166,667 per second not just to highlight their product functionality or make you laugh; they used their Super Bowl air time to convince you that their brand stood for something bigger—a purpose.

Audi’s affecting spot featured a father cheering on his daugher at a soap-box derby, wondering aloud what her future would be like in a world beset by enduring gender inequality. Airbnb declared that no matter what you look like, where you come from, or who you love, #WeAccept. Budweiser harkened back to their immigrant roots, celebrating the story of a young Adolphus Busch confronting a xenophobic 19th-Century American public as he made his way to St. Louis to launch his beer brand.

And the action wasn’t limited to strictly progressive-minded causes. Privately held and previously unknown construction supply firm 84 Lumber got into the mix with the most puzzling ad of the night—at first glance, a heart-gripping, inspirational story of an undocumented immigrant mother and her child making the treacherous crossing across Mexico to the American border. Yet when the family arrives, they find that damned wall, with a big (84 Lumber-built?) wooden door standing in their way. This one was actually pulled by Fox for being too political and brought down 84 Lumber’s website as #SB17 viewers hunted for meaning in the story’s conclusion.

The inevitable Twitter flame wars were stoked. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Tweeted: “Love this #SuperBowl ad from Audi USA, which drives home the need for equal pay for women. Now more than ever, we need ads like this which push back on gender stereotypes.” Simultaneously, trending campaigns like #BoycottBudwiser [sic] took aim at brands for delving into what some saw as “political” issues.

Given the potential rucus, why would so many major advertisers take on the risk of aligning with social purpose amidst such a divisive political climate on the biggest ad day of the year? One simple answer would be brand lift. Mildly fired-up Breitbart readers aside, the massive positive buzz and favorable PR tail following these ads helped the brands dominate the digital conversation for several days before and after the game. Budweiser, Airbnb, and Audi each ranked in the top 5 most shared Super Bowl ads this year. While studies have indicated that 80% of Super Bowl don’t increase immediate sales intent, if an ad makes it into the media echo-chamber, it can find significant success.

But this may not just be a flash-in-the-pan brand lift strategy. As brands like Budweiser and Audi increasingly recruit millennial consumers to drive growth, they may be fundamentally working to redefine their brand with a deeper soul. Perhaps surprisingly, research indicates millennials are actually more brand loyal than their parents. But there’s no doubt they are looking for different values in brands than older consumers: quality, authenticity, engagement, purpose. Millennials are searching for brands that get them.

In this context, aligning with and even owning largely progressive issues has become a viable strategy for many brands. Despite the often ugly domestic rhetoric, millennials wear their beliefs on their sleeves. In a recent Pew survey, 76% of Millennials said “immigrants strengthen the country.” Across a range of social issues from LGBTQ equality to gender norms, the perspectives of millennials are opening up new possibilities for brands to find their voice on social causes.

Nonetheless, as demonstrated by the backlash against Audi’s gender-positive ad when it was revealed that none of Audi’s management team are women, there are critical questions brands still need to answer. What issues, causes, passions do their core segments care about? Can they reasonably own these issues (are there legitimate “reasons to believe”)? Are there any weaknesses issue advocacy might expose?

As this year’s Super Bowl hinted, the future may well be won by brands that can articulate a higher purpose. The big question that may determine brand success is: Which brands will truly mean it?

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