Why this year’s super bowl ads point to marketing’s biggest leadership issue

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: February 06, 2018

What a Super Bowl night! In the end, it was a hard-fought victory for the Eagles. Off the field, another battle raged on between Budweiser, Coke, Kia, Pepsi, Squarespace, P&G, and many others: the nation’s top brands fought for customers’ attention. But after the dust settles, many CEOs, CFOs and shareholders will ask: Was it worth it? Can I trust my marketers? This year, again, they’re short of good answers (from my Forbes column).

Start with why

The Super Bowl. Very few events generate more marketing buzz before, during, and after the show. Agencies and marketers alike use every opportunity to rave about their work. At a time when C-suite trust in marketers isn’t always high, I wanted to know how well CMOs communicate the business goals for their Super Bowl ads. To find out, I studied the official press releases and CMO statements of over a dozen major brands. I created three simple columns to tally which element(s) the brand owners were talking about. The columns were labeled as follows:

1. The ad’s creativity (of interest to the general public)
2. Ad creation details (of interest to the agency world)
3. Business goals (of interest to the CEO and shareholders)

As expected, the creative and creation columns filled quickly. This is obviously the cool stuff that CMOs love to talk about—and rightly so. Creativity matters.

I soon realized that I didn’t actually need that third column. For this year’s Super Bowl ads, business goals were thin on the ground. Although a few brands highlighted specific marketing objectives—including Febreze(you do need this type of product), Tide(a new scent and a new stain-focused cleaning line), Wendy’s(only fresh beef in all burgers), and Sprint(cheaper than Verizon)—most didn’t bother talking about business outcomes at all.

To be fair, most CMOs may have detailed long and short-term business goals tucked away inside their desk drawers. But considering these were public statements about the nation’s most high-profile campaigns, what I found seemed pretty light.

Just as a reminder, we aren’t talking about Adweek. These were official press releases, typically located in the company’s online investor relations section. They appear next to earnings statements and annual reports. They get read by investors, analysists, and, for sure, the CEO. Are marketers sending the right messages to build trust with this important audience?

The big issue: C-suite trust in marketing

The CMO brand has recently been under fire. Coke, Colgate-Palmolive, Coty, Mondelēz, and Tyson Foods have now installed chief growth officers. Seriously? What is a CMO’s focus if not profitable growth? Peter Drucker would turn in his grave. And let’s not forget: CMOs still get fired more than any other C-suite member. In many firms, “CMO” seems to stand for “Chief Most Out”.

The sobering truth is that CEO trust in marketers is low—and many CMOs aren’t seen as drivers of profitable growth. Researcher Whitler’s recent HBR article cites a study that found that 80% of CEOs don’t trust or are unimpressed with their CMOs. And our own large-scale global CMO study found that 33% of all top marketers don’t focus too firmly on marketing returns. These numbers are astonishing.

It’s complicated

Long-term brand building matters! The Bud frogs, the Geico gecko, Coke’s “It’s the real thing”: iconic campaigns like these still pay back today in terms of brand preference and revenue. You can’t put a price on that. But that’s exactly the problem. Much of CMOs’ work deals with the future. But the future can be hard to prove. Marketing professor Patrick Barwise paints a picture of the issue. What customers experience impacts the short-term revenue and profit. But almost every campaign impacts the brand’s long-term equity, too—and subsequently long-term sales and profits. However, measuring these long-term effects isn’t easy.

CEOs, CFOs, and shareholders understand the marketing measurement issue. But since digital makes short-term impacts more measurable than ever, the expectations are higher for CMOs to prove the long-term influence too (or spend less on it).

Yet, even under toughest circumstances, some CMOs manage to build high C-suite credibility.  Patrick Barwise’s and my recent CMO researchhas revealed that building this credibility requires strong leadership skills. The most respected CMOs install proper measurement systems, align marketing activities and company goals, and communicate with the C-suite—openly and free of buzzwords.

You sell or else

The purpose of advertising is to sell—ideally at a profit. Although this concept sounds obvious to the CEO, CFO, and shareholders, it has become uncool in the marketing community to just sell. The new big word is purpose. (Selling is a purpose too, but that’s not what people mean.)

Pressured by the need to become more purposeful in their output, CMOs have increasingly tried (and often failed) to gear their ads toward a greater good. Some of this year’s Super Bowl ad descriptions read like pressure group mission statements, highlighting cultural moments, inclusion, bridges between generations, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe brand purpose matters—and companies could do a much better job as global citizens (including paying their fair share of taxes). But when it comes to spending millions of dollars for 30 seconds of airtime, marketers better make damn sure they are getting some bang for their buck.

A report of consultancy Communicus last year found 80% of all Super Bowl ads fail to change consumer opinions and intentions regarding a brand, and only 10% of consumers remember having seen a given ad in the first place. Whether or not there’s a purpose involved, great ads still require a relevant message and an arresting creative execution to hammer the message home. This is called craft, and it’s key.

The reality is: Only thriving brands will have the power to affect significant social change.  At the end of the day, thriving means getting more of these fizzy drinks, room fresheners, and trucks into the consumers’ hands. David Ogilvy’s words still stand: We sell, or else.

PS: Tide appears to have won this year’s Super Bowl commercial battle by using the full spectrum of best practices: a relevant message, an arresting creative execution, event-dominance, and a sales-relevant product purpose: fewer stains.

Next year, the Patriots will be back with a fresh attempt to win the game. What if CMOs, too, would change the game in 2019? What if they leverage the high-profile Super Bowl event to communicate amazing creative work paired with clear business goals. What if they were to prove to stakeholders that marketing works? Through a strong focus on the marketing craft—and the leadership to keep the eyes firmly on the revenue line. It would be a battle worth fighting.