3 keys to a killer Super Bowl ad

February 4, 2012: 8:35 AM ET

Advertisers are paying record amounts to put their brands in front of you during Super Bowl Sunday. Here are three ways to grade them.

By Alex Konrad, reporter

darth_vader_vw_commercialFORTUNE -- Super Bowl weekend is here. For some, Sunday is all about the game. For others, the ads take center stage. For the latter, here are three keys to making a killer spot.

1. Story
Some of the ads during the game will stand out precisely for their in-your-face crassness, but the spots that stick out tend to have a meaningful story. While many ads go for a quick laugh, the ones that build a narrative are likely to stick with viewers for a longer time, says Jennifer Escalas, a marketing professor at Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management. Escalas, along with Jesper Nielsen of the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, found in a study published by the Journal of Consumer Psychology that ads with a strong story not only have a better shelf life in our memories, but also have it easier maintaining momentum in later ad campaigns.

Even with the average 30-second spot costing $3.5 million, some companies will pay for extra airtime. But for most, Escalas says the trick is to find the balance between simple and a Tolstoy novel. "If it's too easy to figure out, you might laugh once but it won't be funny the second time around," she explains. "And if it's too complicated, you tune out. There's a sweet spot somewhere in the middle." The trick is to have viewers making small discoveries as they follow along, without feeling lost in the overall plot.

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The Coca-Cola Company (KO) might strike the balance with their multimedia polar bear campaign, Escalas predicts, while Volkswagen struck story gold with its ad "The Force" last year and is positioned to match it with "The Dog Strikes Back" this time around. Honda's (HMC) CR-V campaign with Matthew Broderick as a real-life Ferris Bueller also gets strong storytelling marks from the researcher. GoDaddy, meanwhile, stands out to Escalas as a brand that seems to put little effort into telling a story in its spots.

2. Brand
An effective story is a start, but it's possible to tell a good yarn without reaping the benefits. Take 2005, when Ameriquest Mortgage ran a memorable spot in which a series of mishaps befalls a man cooking dinner for his partner, leading to her walking in to what appears the impending murder of their cat. The ad was memorable and amusing, but had what Derek Rucker, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, calls a linkage problem. "The ad was extremely funny, but no one could remember what it was for," Rucker says. "We have some concerns about linkage when you remember the ad, but not the brand or position."

Rucker leads a yearly Super Bowl Advertising Review with colleague Tim Calkins, in which the professors discuss the night's ads with their students to measure each one's overall effectiveness. Rucker notes that the story and tone of ads must be right -- where Groupon's (GRPN) infamous 2011 spot imploded and Century 21 will face a challenge this year as a real estate company -- but that the ad's level of linkage is critical to informing a consumer's later decisions. One linkage success story Rucker can point to: Google's (GOOG) "Parisian Love" ad from 2010. The ad, depicting the evolution of a Parisian romance through searches, created an emotional connection while also remaining thoroughly about the brand, Rucker explains.

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Strong linkage can help brands garner recognition even where they come up short in other areas. Dockers' pantless ad from 2010, for example, does well in making the brand memorable, even if viewers found it bizarre. And for caution, Rucker points to GoDaddy as a company whose ads have linkage but nothing else positive, as the ads offend many people and cater only to a limited demographic using the same tired honey trap.

3. Equity
With a strong story and good brand linkage a firm can make a solid impact with America's largest TV audience, over 100 million people. The last major thing to watch for is something Rucker calls "Super Bowl equity." In other words, the brands that appear perennially can build up a positive association in consumers' minds. Viewers simply expect to see an ad for Budweiser. Its owner Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) is a perennial favorite advertiser for Rucker because it maintains the linkage and story -- with its indomitable Clydesdales, for example -- while establishing continuity from one year to the next.

Professors Rama Yelkur and Chuck Tomkovick, who study the Super Bowl ads at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, point to such consistency as a critical factor for success. "You get a lot of one-and-dones, especially with the dotcom companies," Tomkovick says. "You have to hang in there. Anheuser-Busch is always running ads." Yelkur adds that companies that make the difficult choice to drop out miss out on such consumer expectation. "Continuity absolutely helps a brand," Yelkur says. "There's an expectation that people bring these spokespeople back, and they're recognized as synonymous with the brand."

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Some brand strategies reflect recognition of that benefit. Tomkovick points to Volkswagen's teaser ad for its 2012 Super Bowl campaign, which maintained the Star Wars theme of its 2011 hit, while the 2012 ad itself also pays homage to its predecessor. The two also point to GoDaddy as a brand that, for all its ads' criticism, still hang in from year to year and have become associated with the game. Tomkovick says that with one-time ads for companies like Pets.com a decade ago or Groupon last year, audiences can sniff out a brand that does not seem to have staying power.

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