March 2017

Narrative Checker

Super Bowl LI: A Look at the Ads

The Power of Narratives was on display at Super Bowl LI. Ads that tapped into the stories we tell about ourselves and each other continued to resonate long after the event was over, though not always in ways CMOs might have hoped for.

Budweiser's origin story, "Born the Hard Way", garnered enough negative attention that a company spokesman had to explain they weren't really taking a stand on immigration. 84 Lumber's ad, "The Journey", generated more than 3 million views on YouTube and crashed the company website. Both Twitter and Facebook lit up with negative responses and 84 Lumber had to go on the defensive, explaining what the company really meant versus what the ad seemed to imply.

For anyone who thinks narratives don't matter, this is a classic object lesson. Few topics are more polarizing today than immigration. In fact, it occupies what we call a polarized narrative landscape. 84 Lumber had strategic objectives (the ad links to a career page on their website encouraging you to start your own journey with us), but reaction to the ad didn't line up with those objectives. The company was trying to carve out middle ground in a debate that's not ready for middle ground. Even though Budweiser got swept up in unpredictable cultural events — Trump's immigration rhetoric — and people called the ad propaganda, both for and against illegal immigration, the company fared much better. By going with an evocative narrative that was both credible and authentic to the brand, the ad garnered more than 32 million online views, and 79 million TV impressions.


"Deep brand loyalty comes from customers aligning with a company's mission and values, and that only really happens when the right narratives have been triggered."

For marketers studying Super Bowl results, Takeaway Number One should be: connect through narratives if you want your message to resonate. And here's Takeaway Number Two: you have to be smart. You need to know the narratives, you need to know where your brand sits, and you need to navigate perilous waters with exceptional care. The primal power of narratives can drive things either way.

Of the top ten Super Bowl LI ads, half were driven by social issues ranging from environmental activism (KIA) to celebrating diversity (AirBnB) to equal pay and opportunities for women (Audi) to self-determination, the indomitable human spirit and the immigrant's struggle for a new and better life (Budweiser and 84 Lumber). These ads and the conversations about them continued to hum like tuning forks long after the broadcast ended (See SNL's skit "Pitch Meeting"). Other ads — Pepsi's ad for artisanal water or GoDaddy's Internet personified — simply faded into the ether.

Narratives are everywhere. They appear at every level from the individual up to the species and resonate at all levels in between. Deep brand loyalty comes from customers aligning with a company's mission and values, and that only really happens when the right narratives have been triggered.

Takeaway Number Three: find narratives that are positive and connect with the mission of the company. The NFL ad, "Football is Family", for example (the one with babies standing in for football icons like Mike Ditka and Marshawn Lynch). Like the dominant ads of Super Bowl LI, it celebrated the human condition, the human family. The all-positive nature of this narrative deflected the lurking negative narratives that have plagued the NFL in the past – underinflated footballs, cheating, and head injuries.

Deep narratives flow through culture like live current. Plugging into that current gets people's attention. But you also need to understand the content of the narrative, what meanings it carries, and the nature of the deep feelings it's stirring up. Get any of those elements wrong and you may find yourself reeling back on your heels, defending against something you didn't mean to say.


Written by

Doug Randall, Chief Executive Officer

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