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Memo to Super Bowl Advertisers: It’s Time to Draw up Some New Plays

Good communications succeed by connecting with the audience. Whether you’re talking about a business-to-consumer organization or an enterprise software company, it became clear that not all ad agencies and their clients subscribe to this mandate as I watched wide range of ads airing during the Super Bowl on Sunday.

While the game kept viewers on the edge of their seats up until the very end when the New York Giants won, the same cannot be said about most of the commercials. Far too often, it felt like advertisers were trying to do too much just to be different and forgot that you also need to connect to consumers and get them to actually want to do something about your ad, not just be entertained. In most cases, they dropped the ball more than some Patriots receivers!

Sure, there were a handful of exceptions – including the Coca Cola polar bears, Clint Eastwood’s heartfelt monologue in a lengthy Chrysler commercial, a dog bribing his owner with Doritos to keep mum about a missing cat, and Ferris Bueller skipping work to drive around a new Honda CRV.  But I am no closer to buying briefs donning David Beckham’s name now than I was before the game. I won’t be downloading TaxACT anytime soon, and I won’t be visiting GoDaddy.com in the foreseeable future (nor should I expect the entire female population to, either).

Considering advertisers paid $3.5 million for 30 seconds in front of 111 million or more viewers, I can understand the need to stand out, and let’s face it, sometimes missteps draw as much attention here too. But what exactly determines success for these ads?

One measure I use as a barometer for effective communications, especially advertisements of this nature, is whether they are both relevant and distinct.  In such high profile, expensive to produce spots, a lot of the commercials will be distinct, demonstrating creativity, edginess and inspiring the sense of seeing it for first time.  But as we saw too often, it’s much harder to be relevant.  You need to push forward a clear, concise message to viewers who are paying just as much attention to their buffalo wings and beer. And you have to make it actionable.  In other words, make them want to go out and shop for your car, beverage or snack food.  Or at least spark a desire to find out more your product or services – not just a colorful ad – when they are considering the category of product you represent. It’s on this very front that brands fall short far too often.

For example, Jet Blue had what appeared to be a fairly low cost to produce ad about a new employee being squeezed into a cubicle with two others and expected to actually get to work.  Everyone who flies could relate to the concept and so its relevance score for me was 100.

Sure, I may remember some of the awful ads for a while because they were distinct.  But I’ll do something about the ads that were also relevant to me.  Fortunately, my job at Pega is not causing a lot of sleepless nights, but if it were, I’d be sure to check out careerbuilder.com, whose monkey themed ads stood out again and showed they understand what’s on the minds of dissatisfied job seekers everywhere.


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A dynamic, senior-level technology executive with a proven track record building businesses on a global basis. As Chief Marketing Officer for Pegasystems in Cambridge, MA Johnson is responsible for worldwide marketing strategy and execution. He oversees corporate marketing, field marketing, industry marketing, product marketing, marketing programs, marketing communications, analyst and public relations, and global web strategy. Previously, Johnson was the Vice President of Marketing at Guidance Software (GUID) and Vice President of Marketing and served as an officer for FileNet Corp., a $400+ million enterprise software vendor acquired by IBM in 2006. Prior to that, he was Vice President of Marketing for FrontBridge, an email management vendor acquired by Microsoft. Johnson led the company’s re-naming and re-launch, built the marketing team and delivered integrated marketing programs to support significant and sustained revenue growth. He has also served as Director of Marketing for Symantec, with worldwide responsibility for the Norton brand, and as Senior Vice President of Marketing at Ethentica, an enterprise security vendor. Johnson received his bachelor of arts from the University of California, Santa Barbara and his master’s in business administration from Pepperdine University. He has also published several articles on best practices in high tech marketing and co-authored the book, PowerBranding™