4 Customer Management Wins & Losses from Super Bowl XLVII

Contributor:  Brian Cantor
Posted:  02/05/2013  12:00:00 AM EST
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It is doubtful any individual broadcaster has the power to ruin the Super Bowl.  Entrenched in our culture, “Super Sunday” will be a vastly-celebrated national holiday regardless of the telecast’s actual execution.

But that does not mean some broadcasters, brands and performers cannot utilize the platform better than others.  As the biggest, most engaging television event of the year, the Super Bowl gives everyone involved—the players on the field, the announcers calling the game, the live musical performers, the advertisers who buy commercial time—the opportunity to create unforgettable memories before an audience of more than 100 million Americans.

Who got it right for this year’s matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers?  Who missed their opportunity to forever embed their brand in the hearts of everyday Americans?  We break down some key customer management observations from the 2013 Super Bowl.

CBS’ coverage was remarkably unremarkable

When it is a network’s turn to host the Super Bowl, it will naturally turn to its “A team” broadcasters to man the commentary booth.  That inevitable reality makes it futile to complain that CBS’ play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz is bland while color commentator Phil Simms’ analysis is as shallow as a Sir Mix-a-Lot song.

Limitations of the announce team aside, the broadcasting network cannot be excused for its failure to hit the key narratives.  People might watch the Super Bowl no matter what, but their level of engagement and enjoyment greatly depends on how well the announcers sell the story of the game.  That storytelling element is what transforms unknowns into household names every four years at the Olympics, and it is what drives meaningful interest in the NFL’s championship.

Otherwise, it is just a game.

CBS, at least during its actual game coverage, failed miserably in its attempt to tell that story.  Sure, it made fleeting references to some of the key bullet points, but it never hammered home anything that could help the game transcend the football field.

Among the missed storytelling opportunities:

  • The rarity of brothers serving as opposing head coaches.  Occasional references were made to the relation between the two Harbaughs, but immensely more could have been done to hammer the point home.  CBS let an unbelievably unique facet of the game slip through its fingers.
  • The Ray Lewis journey.  It might seem unfair or even disrespectful to put a specific player at the game’s center, but Ray Lewis is a superstar in the football world, albeit a very controversial one, and CBS could and should have built considerable interest around his final run at the Lombardi Trophy.

    His charismatic, Bible-referencing post-game speeches have dominated sports media interest.  Past allegations of involvement in a double-murder continue to haunt him.  And he was playing his retirement game, capping a final playoff journey that saw a fading Ravens team reinvigorate itself en route to an unexpected Super Bowl return.  All of this created tremendous context for the game.

    Athletic ability is what matters on the sports field.  But when it comes to the sports business, personalities play an enormous role, and Ray Lewis possesses one that deserved showcase.
  • Respecting Joe Flacco.  Despite achieving unprecedented success as the Ravens’ young quarterback and despite personal claims to the contrary, Flacco is not perceived as an elite player and is thought by some to represent a bottleneck for the Baltimore franchise.  Constantly needing to prove himself, Flacco played tremendously through the NFL Playoffs and finally had a chance to silence his critics with a Super Bowl win.  That he would be doing it with free agency impending only made the situation more enthralling.

    For all the (deserved) hype about Colin Kaepernick’s ascent in San Francisco, it was a shame to see CBS so notably miss the boat on the other quarterback’s compelling narrative.

Beyonce’s performance made for a great Beyonce show, but a mediocre halftime show

There are A-list movie actors.  There are multi-platinum recording artists.  And then there is Beyonce, who in her lengthy reign atop the pop culture heap has become an actual icon.  Fans do not simply admire Beyonce; they worship her.

Those fans, many of whom posted sarcastic quips about the “random sports game” bookending the Beyonce concert, exploded with social media praise as the certifiable diva worked through her electric performance.  For these millions of fans, by the time the segment ended, there was no doubt about it: Beyonce rocked the Super Bowl.

She looked tremendous.  She was bursting with energy.  She danced phenomenally.  She reunited with former Destiny’s Child partners Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams.  She arranged a setlist that appropriately recognized the scope of her musical arsenal.

She, quite simply, succeeded in bringing the Beyonce experience to the biggest television event in the nation.  From a branding perspective, this was a resounding victory.

But insofar as Beyonce is not necessarily the perfect Super Bowl performer, a great Beyonce show does not necessarily make for a great Super Bowl halftime show.

Beyonce’s catalogue is deep for a contemporary pop/R&B musician, but the one thing it lacks is the one ingredient most appropriate for a Super Bowl halftime show: stadium songs.

What dazzles in a concert hall and engages in an arena is not inherently capable of resonating throughout a massive stadium like the Superdome.  Only certain songs, which typically fall under the “arena rock” classification, are designed to meet the energy and volume requirements of such a daunting facility.

Beyonce’s setlist does not pass that test.  And when the resonance of the performance is compromised by poor microphone amplification, the difficulty of singing while aggressively dancing and Beyonce’s decision to frequently depart melody to call out to the crowd, it has no prayer of making the entire arena shake.

Even “Halo,” which due to Ryan Tedder’s bombastic composition has traces of an arena feel, failed to send the desired shockwaves through the arena.

The decision to gear the performance to television rather than the arena further hampered Beyonce’s performance.

That point is sure to create confusion.  After all, there were nearly 110 million viewers watching on television and less than a hundred thousand watching in person.  Why would a performance target the latter rather than the former?

The answer: energy and spectacle

Sports arenas are breeding grounds for unprecedented energy, and that quality, when captured properly for television, is infectious for those viewing at home.  A performer’s ability to inspire thousands of live spectators ensures a feeling of significance, which drives meaningful engagement from a television audience.

The stunning stage visuals and intense facial expressions were all caught on camera, but without the context of a stadium full of screaming fans, they did not feel special.

Large-scale pyro and light shows are far more effective in creating a magical, once-in-a-lifetime aura of excitement.

By delivering some honestly on her identity, Beyonce provided marketers with a master class in branding.  By not thinking through the totality of the halftime experience, CBS and the NFL did not do the same.

Don’t back down in a blackout

From the on-the-field action, to the aggressive commercials, to the musical performances, the Super Bowl broadcast is predicated on unrelenting action.  Dull moments simply do not fit the profile of an event designed to keep Americans glued to their televisions.

But the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry, and the CBS broadcast was victimized by a power outage that delayed game action—and silenced the announce team—for more than a half hour.  With the night growing late and the game already looking out of reach for the struggling 49ers, a technical difficulty could not have been more circumstantially unwelcome.

Unprepared for such a situation, CBS had no prayer of handling the power outage perfectly.  Thankfully, perfection is not a necessity for survival, and the network ultimately made the most of the unfortunate situation.

Knowing the risks of a lengthy delay, many broadcasters would have instinctively played the ambiguity card.  If viewers are convinced that the game could resume at any minute, why would they risk changing the channel?

CBS, however, took an alternative path by openly admitting that they delay could exceed twenty minutes.  Risky in theory, this transparency ultimately built trust while minimizing the potential for frustration.

It also put a finite timeline on the game’s return, which helped keep viewers engaged.  A twenty or thirty minute delay, though slightly inconvenient, would not be daunting enough to send viewers to bed.  But if they feared the game, already a blowout, might take hours to resume, the choice to give up on Super Bowl XLVII might have been considerably more appealing.

During the blackout period, the CBS analyst team did a serviceable job selling the notion that the power outage would halt the Ravens’ momentum and give the 49ers a chance of getting back into the game.  That narrative gave viewers another reason to stay tuned (the fact that it proved true was icing on the cake).

Commercials without a cause

Specific intentions for Super Bowl ads will differ from brand to brand, but all are ultimately predicated on the notion of getting noticed.  Whether through controversy, unexpected visuals, heartwarming narratives or comedy, brands aim to create lasting memories with the massive viewing audience.

At least they usually do.

Though a handful of Super Bowl XLVII commercials garnered favorable reviews, virtually none demonstrated the creativity and energy supposedly inherent to Super Bowl commercials.  Apparently every major advertising agency missed the memo confirming that treading new ground and getting people talking are cornerstones of the Super Bowl promotional process.

Ads like Budweiser’s “Brotherhood” and Taco Bell’s “Viva Young” scored positive marks, but what did they do to change the game?  What did they do to reinvent how brands advertise on television?  What did they even do to inspire more than a minute or two of water cooler chatter?

GoDaddy’s ad involving a graphic, sloppy, uncomfortably-loud kiss between Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli and a stereotypical computer geek (played by Jesse Heiman) generated buzz (mostly negative), but it did nothing to transcend the brand’s well-worn pattern of developing “shock” campaigns with attractive women.  It did nothing to change the game and provide a prototype for the future of television advertising.

And, in that sense, it failed in its goal of creating a meaningful memory.  It failed in its goal of effectively seizing the Super Bowl opportunity.

Successful Super Bowl commercials are not simply effective but ambitious and different.  Nothing this year cleanly fit the billing.

Brian Cantor Contributor:   Brian Cantor

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