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Super Bowl: events like this are perfect for brand storytelling – unless companies get their messaging wrong

The Super Bowl – the championship game of America’s National Football League (NFL) – stands as one of the most lucrative annual showcases for big brands. With 115m viewers watching the game last year in the US, 30-second ad spots go for a reported $7m (£5.5m). These days, “Super Bowl ads” are highly anticipated in terms of creative, memorable storytelling that hits home.

For major corporations, getting the creative and messaging right is essential. Successful ads leverage the massive platform not just to grab eyeballs, but to reinforce brand values through authentic, engaging stories.

Goals range from sparking viral conversations to initiating loyal customer relationships to unveiling innovative offerings. Looking back, all-time great Super Bowl ads like Jeep’s iconic 2020 Groundhog Day remake with Bill Murray, cleverly appealed to audiences’ nostalgia while also pivoting towards the brand’s eco-friendly direction.

Brand authenticity has become ever more important in our digitally connected world. Recent uproar involving brands like Peloton, whose much-derided Christmas ad appeared to show a husband gift his very thin, nervy wife an exercise bike for which, a year later, she thanks him profusely for “changing her life”.

Media-literate audiences are adept at sensing falsehoods and can become cynical, diminishing brand trust and affecting loyalty.

But it’s not just consumers; once employees lose trust, this can further damage the brand. Our research showed that employees who believe in the brand will go out of their way to do good. So when brands appear to “bang the social justice drum” publicly, but employees experience a lack of equality on the inside, this can lead to distrust.

This was the case with Wholefoods which, while telling the world they cared about black voices, was accused of ignoring those very voices among their own employees.

When brands don’t read the room

Consumers prefer brands whose values align with their own. Reducing environmental harm and standing up for social issues are two examples of consumer expectations of favoured brands, some of which may be tempted to jump on the bandwagon.

The widespread scorn over Kendall Jenner’s farcical Pepsi ad – which not only downplayed violence against black people but also glamourised it – should have been a salutary lesson for the sector.

But soon after, Gillette, in its attempt to play the social activist card, launched its “is this the best a man can get?” campaign. In a dramatic two-minute ad, aspects of toxic masculinity, including bullying, sexism and sexual harassment post-#MeToo were addressed.

This fuelled anger amongst consumers sceptical of the brand’s motives. Others felt the ad was suggesting the majority of men engage in toxic behaviours, leading to significant backlash across social media, with pundits claiming offence at stereotyping and perceived virtue signalling.

In April 2023, Budweiser turned the adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” on its head. Sales of Bud Light plunged 25% in response to its promotion featuring transgender influencer/actress Dylan Mulvaney. This led to a boycott by angry conservative consumers accusing the brand of going “woke”.

Before the boycott, Bud Light marketing director Alissa Heinerscheid said in an interview that the brand was in decline and needed to be more inclusive. After the backlash, CEO Brendan Whitworth said: “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people – we’re in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”

When brands fail to align their behaviours with their espoused values, this can wreak havoc with a brand’s reputation. The consumer base ends up feeling alienated by the brand’s perceived hypocrisy and inauthenticity.

Evolving narratives

As the 2024 Super Bowl LVIII approaches, brands want to make sure they don’t go down as yet another big corporation chasing social causes to look good. Rather than disingenuously espousing values, or grasping at emotional connections without context, brands should use the power of storytelling to convince viewers of their underlying purpose in a way that connects to their lives.

Research shows that storytelling increases reader identification with characters, shifts attitudes and beliefs and creates more lasting memorability than straightforward delivery of information. Unlike explicit messaging which can feel inauthentic, getting lost in a story can inspire emotions and shape beliefs in a subtle, organic way.

Look at Apple’s 1984 commercial introducing the Macintosh – it didn’t talk about the actual product, but rather created a hero narrative against conformity and totalitarianism. Or Coca-Cola’s famous 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad that united people at a time when America was experiencing a dark period during the Vietnam War. These are the storytelling ads that resonate rather than force-feed a supposed values-based message.

Digital immersive storytelling

In our research, we go further. We propose using immersive digital storytelling techniques for brands to craft and validate the authenticity of their messaging.

Interactive digital media enables more participatory story experiences between brands and audiences. Working with a company to showcase their sustainability efforts, we created an immersive storytelling experience using extended reality technology. In this case, the founder of the company takes the audience on a walk through a forest purchased to help offset the operation’s carbon emissions.

This visceral storytelling immerses the viewers via a VR headset in the experience, emotionally engaging consumers with a positive real-life story, thus avoiding the allegations of greenwashing that plague major brands like Google and Amazon.

By showing rather than telling, this gives consumers a deeply authentic experience of the brand’s causes. They can see for themselves what the company is doing as opposed to being fed messages from traditional advertising.

Rather than indulging in virtue signalling to distinguish themselves, brands may find greater resonance in adopting more immersive and transparent approaches to connect their mission with real-world impact. Such strategies may prove more effective than preachy commercials that lack authenticity.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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