The Branding Bowl: MBAs rank Super Bowl ads

January 31, 2014: 4:22 PM ET

For the past nine years, Northwestern Kellogg has hosted a Super Bowl Advertising Review that requires MBA students to assess commercial spots during the big game.

By Jeff Schmitt

2013

Kellogg's 2013 Super Bowl Advertising Review

(Poets&Quants) -- What a difference 47 years can make.

In 1967, the first Super Bowl tickets sold for $12. Now, they cost $2,000. In Super Bowl I, the winning Packers took home $15,000 a piece. Now, winning players earn $88,000. Back then, marching bands, not Bruno Mars, served as halftime entertainment. And advertising? Well, a Super Bowl spot in 1970 cost $42,000. Now, companies pony up $4 million dollars for just 30 seconds.

For advertisers, the Super Bowl is a high-stakes competition, with top brands jockeying for mindshare and publicity. That's why this Sunday's event -- to be viewed by nearly 110 million people -- provides the perfect vehicle to study advertising. At the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, they've turned evaluating Super Bowl ads into a science.

For the past nine years, Kellogg has hosted a Super Bowl Advertising Review that requires MBA students to assess commercial spots against a six-point strategic framework that emphasizes brand building, value propositions, and motivating purchases over flash and entertainment. Launched in 2005 by marketing professor Tim Calkins, the exercise gets MBA candidates to think like advertising decision makers.

"The Super Bowl event is unique because our focus is on the effectiveness of all this advertising," says Calkins. "So we're less concerned about creativity and humor on its own…. Our focus is always on efficacy and trying to think, 'is this ultimately going to have a positive impact on business?'"

The ADPLAN Framework

The event is driven by a framework called "ADPLAN," an acronym for Attention, Distinction, Positioning, Linkage, Amplification, and Net Equity. According to Derek Rucker, who co-leads the review with Calkins, ADPLAN is "a starting point to how you strategically evaluate an advertisement." Rucker also notes that the framework goes well beyond viewer popularity surveys. Some ads, he says, can be "the brand spot I loved the most but the name I forgot the fastest." He adds, "Our review is not focused on what they like the best or the least. It's ... which brands did the best and which brands should strive to improve."

What Happens at a Super Bowl Advertising Review?

Prior to the event, 40 to 50 students are hand-picked by faculty to serve as panelists. Most are marketing majors who've taken a graduate advertising course and studied the ADPLAN framework. Before the game starts, panelists gather at Kellogg's Allen Center, where they walk through the rules, review the framework, and evaluate practice ads.

Once the game begins, the panel works nose-to-the-grindstone. Sure, students gorge on pizza and soda, but this is no ordinary Super Bowl party. Here, the commercials take center stage, while the game itself is the time for panelists to take bathroom breaks. As the spots rush by one-after-another, students score each ad with A through F grades using the ADPLAN framework. During the Super Bowl, panelists don't discuss the grades they assign or make comparisons. Each ad stands on its own merits against how it performs against the framework.

After reviewing all the ads during the evening, the students hand in their report cards. Calkins discards the top 5% and bottom 5% of scores, taking the remaining grades and averaging them out. Calkins adds that brands like Budweiser (BUD), which runs multiple spots, are scored as a whole, not according to individual advertisements.

Roughly 30 minutes after grades are turned in, the ad rankings are revealed and the winning and losing ads are re-played. In the ensuing discussion, Kellogg students debate the fundamental strengths and flaws of various ads, always pointing back to specific ADPLAN elements for why they succeeded or failed.

For example, M&M's was among the big winners at Kellogg's 2013 Super Bowl Ad Review for their "Devour" and "Anything For Love" commercials, which featured the Red M&M's struggles to find "true" love. "Why did they do so well," asks Rucker. "Branding is there through the whole spot. The characters are central. It's playful. It fits brand equity. And it delivers a clear, distinct message."

How does the panel evaluate ads? 

Using the ADPLAN framework, panelists focus on bread-and-butter issues like messaging and positioning over flash and entertainment. To earn marks, brands must succeed in each of the six elements:

Attention: In a cluttered environment, does the ad capture viewers' imagination so they recall the spot, brand, and positioning?

Distinction: Is the ad distinct from direct competitors and other advertisers – or does the message get lost (or even confuse consumers)?

Positioning: Does the ad position the product so consumers understand what the brand represents and why it should be used over other products in the category?

Linkage: Do viewers connect the ad with the brand and its unique message and benefits -- or do they forget some part of this equation in translation?

Amplification: How do viewers interpret the message according to their values and experiences -- and do these individual responses create a favorable impression of the brand?

Net Equity: How does the ad build on a brand's history, reputation, and viewer expectations? Does it strengthen and reinforce the brand?

The framework is designed to reduce bias, which results in a narrower range of differing opinions. While brands rarely earn an A, Rucker adds that most arguments stem not from best-to-worst, but whether a brand (for example) earned a B or a C.

In his experience, Calkins has seen more divergence in opinion. "Many spots will be polarizing. People are weighing different things higher or lower. And that's why we have a panel."

What do students gain from the Super Bowl Advertising Review? For starters, it is a perfect example of how Kellogg connects theory and practice. According to Calkins, the review "picks up on the concepts we teach in the advertising class. In doing that," says Calkins, "it also helps them understand what marketers are doing in the world today."

With millions of dollars at stake with each ad, brands have little room for error. There are real life consequences when commercials are offensive, off brand, or confusing.

Best of all, the event is unscripted, so the unexpected is always possible. For example, last year's Super Bowl blackout served as a blessing, according to Rucker. It gave the panel an opportunity to discuss how brands could capitalize on adversity as it happens, as Oreo did with its 'Dunk in the Dark' Twitter campaign during the blackout.

Winners and losers

Just as franchises like the 49ers, Patriots, and Steelers have dominated the Super Bowl over time, there are also brands that have clearly elevated their advertising prowess to legendary status. They are the businesses that, in Rucker's words, "you always look forward to."

Over the years, Rucker believes Budweiser has been the big winner. Why? Aside from ingenious concepts and flawless execution, Rucker cites the brand's consistency.

"They have a Super Bowl Formula…. They will entertain with their Bud Light spots. They will build equity with their Budweiser Classic spots [i.e. Clydesdales], those emotional builds. So what I like about it is this is very core brand strategy…. They're using different spots to achieve different goals." Although Budweiser struggles to launch new products from Super Bowl ads, Rucker views them as "a big winner overall."

Calkins cites CareerBuilder as a success story, as they ran compelling ads with chimps that were engaging and funny. "People became aware of [CareerBuilder], started using it, and became more comfortable with it." Calkins also adds GoDaddy to his list of top Super Bowl performers. Despite criticism the company has received for objectifying women in their ads, Calkins argues that it's "hard to imagine a company that's gotten more from their investment."

And the losing brands in Super Bowl advertising? In recent years, Rucker cites Groupon (GRPN) and Snickers. These brands had to issue apologies for ads that were perceived to be dismissive of human rights violations and supportive toward anti-gay sentiment, respectively. He adds that CareerBuilder's "Follow Your Heart" spot, despite strong messaging, turned off viewers with sickening imagery of a beating human heart tendering a resignation.

This year's buzz

While the professors shy away from watching Super Bowl ads (or predicting winners) until the event, each is looking forward to certain spots this year.

For Rucker, it is the head-to-head matchup between Chobani and Oikos. Here, you have two different brands of Greek Yogurt duking it out. "Whose is better the brand? What is each doing to maximize [their spot]?"

He is also curious about how Butterfinger, which will introduce a peanut butter cup in a category dominated by Reese's. And he will closely watch how SodaStream (SODA) uses Scarlett Johansson in their ad. "When you pick a spokesperson or celebrity, how do you manage the celebrity versus the brand? [There is a] fundamental tension between talent and a brand. You want [the spot] to be about the brand. Will they pull it off effectively?"

Calkin is looking out for surprises. "The thing about the Super Bowl is that you never know what's going to happen until the game is actually played. That's true for the football and it's also true for the advertising. Advertisers show up and run spots on game day that you had no idea were running…. [It's] impossible to predict."

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