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Values On Display At Super Bowl 2017

February 13, 2017

Budweiser.jpgIf you get Brandtalk as a newsletter, you might have spotted, last week, one little line in which I opined the Super Bowl ads were pretty unremarkable this year. Now I didn’t see all the ads so I’m willing to change my mind about that. Ordinarily, the general tone of Super Bowl ads switch back and forth, year to year. One year, they all go for humor, the next, they all go for heartwarming. Then, back to humor again. Uncharacteristically, this year was a mixed bag. If anything united them, it was a kind of mediocrity. The funny ads weren’t all that funny, the heartwarming ads weren’t that warm. But there were three ads that I’d like to talk about, before they fade from memory, because they were all carefully designed to communicate, to a vast audience, the values of the brands behind them. It is vital that brands match the values of their constituencies and it just seems interesting that the three brands in question – Budweiser, AirBnB and 84 Lumber – all chose this year’s Super Bowl to put those values on display through advertising.

Budweiser ran an ad called “Born the Hard Way”. In a 60-second spot, they recount the immigration story of Adolphus Busch as he leaves Hamburg, Germany for a very unwelcoming New Orleans, Louisiana and then heads up river to his ultimate, American Dream-like, success as a brewmeister. No lost puppies, as in past years. No Clydesdale horses playing football. Just a very-well produced reminder that Budweiser, arguably that most American of beers, was founded by an immigrant and, by extension, a lot of the best things in the USA were created by immigrants. A reminder that the vast majority of us come from immigrant stock. Why would Budweiser choose to get so close to a hot-button political issue?

For whatever reason, Budweiser need’s its market to know where it stands on this issue. They must believe the vast majority of Bud drinkers remember their families’ own immigration stories. Brands don’t flaunt their values without reason. They do it to demonstrate a kinship with their customers and to remind them “We’reon your side. We’ve walked in your shoes. We’re just like you”.

84Lumber.jpg84 Lumber also took on the immigration controversy, only they were a little more hard-hitting on the subject, with an ad called “The Journey”. This was their first time ever advertising at the Super Bowl and they went in big with a extremely expensive 90-second buy. Then they spent another estimated $15 million telling the story of a mother and daughter who are on a pilgrimage to … somewhere. It was never really revealed because the ad was originally rejected by Fox for being too political. (If you smell a rat at this point, settle down. It’s not unusual for ads to be rejected but, ordinarily, its for being too sexual or sexist. GoDaddy has had more than one ad rejected.) So 84 Lumber had to quickly recut their ad with a call to action “See the conclusion at Journey84.com”.

Spoiler alert! Those who did go view the conclusion learn the couple eventually come to an immense wall. The little girl sadly reveals a childlike, American flag she has crafted from bits of plastic she’s collected along the journey. Mother and daughter embrace in despair until – hallelujah – they notice a giant door and push on through. Now the ad ends with “The will to succeed is always welcome here”.

But here’s the strange part. 84 Lumber has declared this is a recruiting ad! They say it was designed to attract men 20-29 to come work for them. If so, are they specifically targeting Mexican immigrants? And why make your protagonists female? There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense here. But the bigger point is 84 Lumber, like Budweiser, feels the need to communicate where they stand on the immigration issue and, by implication, the illegal immigration issue specifically. They want their customers to know how they feel about it, presumably, in an attempt to strengthen their ties with their market.

AirBnB.jpgAirBnB ran a short, 30-second spot called “We Accept”. This might be the most direct and in-your-face declaration of corporate values among the three. The company has worked hard to counter alleged discrimination by some AirBnB hosts. They’ve created a program called Community Commitment through which they combat such discrimination. The ad reinforces that program by running this direct super-graphic over a montage of multicultural faces, “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”

This ad, again, alludes to the current immigration controversy but also addresses the wider issue of tolerance for the other, whether from abroad or home-grown. And it is not at all shy about expressing where it comes down on the issue. Unlike the ambiguity of the 84 Lumber ad, AirBnB literally spells out its position on acceptance. Given the nature of its business, and its own internal controversies, they can’t afford to be anything less than frank and direct. And, it appears, they have no problem embracing that stance.

All businesses have internal values. One of the important tasks of brand-building is to make sure those values authentically match up with the values of their corresponding markets. That these three, disparate companies have picked this moment to underline how they feel about immigration and acceptance says a great deal. The strategy seems obvious to a brand like AirBnB whose customer base is younger and demonstrably more open. But Budweiser and 84 Lumber have customer bases that are older, white and male – a population not exactly known for tolerance. There must have been some board-room conversations about the risk of running such ads. It’s telling that both companies chose to take the risk.

See all the Super Bowl 2017 ads at http://www.superbowlcommercials.co/

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