And the winner is… (best car Super Bowl spots)

I missed most of the Super Bowl, and had to watch the spots afterward to get my annual taste-test of advertising trends. There’s Adweek’s great coverage, USA Today’s ad meter, Ad Age’s Bob Garfield rundown, and many other opinions if you want to compare impact and effectiveness. Most agree that Go-Daddy captured the flag in an aggressive Bob Parsons assault on Worst Damn Spot (didn’t Lady Macbeth have something to say about that, like “Out… OUT!”) It’s got me looking for a new hosting provider … daddy’s going away from Go-Daddy.

I mentioned before the event that I really liked the Sonata paint spot … which came in next to last on the (humor-biased) Ad Meter but I still feel was strong in building actual brand knowledge and respect.

I chuckled at their Brett Favre spot, too, but didn’t comment on it before now.

Thanks to for compiling a scientific comparison of the actual benefit of Super Bowl car spots this year. This is worth 10 minutes of your time to compare and get an analysis based on actual brand-specific traffic.

The summary of the effectiveness ratings is as follows:

  1. Hyndai: Sonata, Favre, and spots — 1.51 rating, traffic change +155% after, +24% during
  2. Kia Sorento: 60-second Sockmonkey spot — .93 rating, traffic change +56% after,
  3. Audi A3 TDI: Green Police — .78 rating, traffic change +47%
  4. Honda Accord Crosstour: Animation of inside space — .53 rating, traffic change +14%
  5. Dodge : What men sacrifice — .40 rating, traffic change +24%
  6. VW: Super Bowl Punch — .22 rating, no brand-specific traffic change, but up 13% during the Super Bowl

Here are the spots, ranked in order of effectiveness according to My comments on each ad follow. Mostly, I agree with their analysis, which you can read here.

In my opinion the Hyndai Favre spot suffered from a case of directorial fear — the writers were obviously worried that no one would get it, or would react angrily — so they stayed on Favre too long, explained the joke too much … and pulled the punch. I’m guessing it was client/agency fear of tapping into volatile Favre reactions. This was a case where the celebrity’s brand was bigger than the automaker’s brand … and they didn’t want to sink with a guy whose fortunes are so complex right now.

I would have spent less time on Favre — cutting the line, “When you’re older than most of the players, coaches, and fans, it’s tough to take orders from people.” Huh? Why’s that in there? Just go from “29 years.” to “I should probably retire after this.” Then, introduce the Hyundai warranty, and with the right script connections it could intercut with Brett’s “I don’t know” line to make the joke stronger and the certainty of a Hyundai future clearer by contrast. The focus needs to be on the amazing Hyundai brand promise, not Favre’s vacillation and age.

The Sonata spot is worth repeating. “Because beautiful works of art are meant to last”!

Bottom line, I agree with that Hyundai wins overall in the race to get noticed and investigated on the web, because the spots combined audience appeal with substantive claims that support the brand.

2. Kia Sorento spot

I think the visual storytelling approach in this spot holds attention and builds the brand whether you relate to the Sock Monkey phenom or not. Because it’s so catchy musically, random visually, intercut with strong product shots, and punctuated by the one-button start at the end, it supports the branding proposition: that Kia is going to surprise you if you look into it.

3. Audi A3 TDI “Green Police” spot

This one is entertaining to a progressive, Puget Sound guy like me and the folks who made it. Not sure how it plays in Peoria. Then again, Audi probably doesn’t sell many cars in Peoria. It needs to appeal to Eurofriendly, green-thinking intellectuals on the northern reaches of both coasts. For them, it’s funny to envision getting in trouble with the government for buying incandescent bulbs or setting the hot tub too high. But I also know how Midwesterners think, how Appalachian and Smokey mountaineers think… and I see a spot like this generating more heat than humor there. Methinks it mixes the brand into the brewing category 5 storm over energy/economy.

4. Honda Accord Crosstour – Squirrel animation

Now we’re hitting spots that really represent bad stewardship by an ad agency. What’s the point of spending millions on a surreal animation of the cargo space of a car most folks haven’t heard of yet?

5. Dodge Charger – Man’s last stand

This reminds me of the Burger King campaign for young, unhealthy, stupid, Type 2 diabetes-destined males… which they now admit was equally aimed at old, unhealthy, stupid, Type 2 diabetes-afflicted men and women. When are ad agencies going to learn that just because you have the power to say stupid things, you don’t have to? Is this just a cynical confession that fast, gas-guzzling machines are soon going to be a dinosaur? Why not at least do what Cadillac did and let the woman share in the ego-driven escape from reality?

6. VW PunchDub spot

Carsdirect panned this one, but I think it deserves to be ranked 2 or 3. The result was skewed because there was no specific brand to track on the site.

This VW spot is brilliantly cast and directed… a tremendous variety of people, cultures, ages. Lots of humor and excellent acting by the cast (policeman, old man with grandson, etc.) Watch it 4 times and you’ll keep seeing new things… like how well they caught flashes of each car from shot to shot, establishing continuity from scene to scene. So it’ll hold up well and help bring brand history up to date. I guess I’m a sucker for VW spots in general.

Here’s the Carsdirect summary on Hyundai, which won hands down:

Hyundai Sonata Super Bowl Commercials

  • Hyundai Super Bowl Traffic Change*: +24%
  • Sonata Super Bowl Traffic Change*: +166%
  • Seconds Advertised: Three 30 second ads plus in-game sponsorships
  • Effectiveness Index: 1.51

Hyundai featured three 30 second ads during the super bowl, the most memorable of which was for the Hyundai Sonata and featured Brett Favre in self-parody mode (seems to be his new M.O. these days). In the past, Hyundai’s ads have usually gone for a more serious tone. This year they took a more humorous approach with their Brett Favre super bowl commercial. The ad featured Favre winning the 2020 super bowl MVP and pondering retirement (once again). While at first glance it may seem like the ad didn’t draw enough of a link between Favre and their brand (I didn’t even remember which company that he’d been advertising for), it seems like the collective good-will towards Favre (as well as in-game sponsorships) translated into an effective overall Hyundai Super Bowl ad campaign.

Note: Traffic to the Hyundai Genesis, which Hyundai targeted in the 2008 & 2009 Super Bowl was up 50% despite no ad coverage. The Hyundai Super Bowl 2010 ad seems to have helped it out tremendously.


Adweek reported on a parallel survey of internet metrics by Autometrics Pulse. It reports the same first five as above, leaving out VW which did not feature a single car. Thanks to @JeffSexton for this info.


Best of the Pre-released Super Bowl spots – 2

This spot has a series of stunning precocious victories in the life of Timothy Richmond… and then links it to the fear we all have when trying to find and buy a car. Well produced, nice humor combined with pathos, holds attention until the branding statement … and then leaves a strong connection between the brand and the idea behind the spot. Like the Hyundai paint spot, it works great IMHO.

Best of the Pre-released Super Bowl spots – 1

I love this Hyundai Sonata ad… strong visuals and music that create a question that holds our attention until the payoff punch. And very well written, with a strong branding statement about quality.

VW Volcano taps volcanic resentment among creatives

Here’s a new spot on YouTube… thanks to the Creative Intensive Network on LinkedIn, for sharing it, and Alexander Bickov for posting it on YouTube.

I really love the storytelling that director Marcello Serpa of AlmapBBDO Brazil accomplished in only a minute seventeen seconds… but judging from the comments on LinkedIn, I’m in the minority. Most of the comments were critical of its relevance, amount of brand recognition, etc. “Creative for creative’s sake”, “Epic waste of a client’s money”, and an entertaining rant with no doubt an interesting backstory about sleek conference rooms and busty interns offering beverages in a big agency. Maybe they’re right. But I don’t think so.

This spot has everything an urbanite worried about the future could want: a smoking volcano threatening an idyllic way of life; a creative solution delivered in heroic fashion by young progressives, working together. Getting their hands and cars dirty in the process, and blessing the soccer players, the old, the young, the chickens, and the goats. A beginning, middle, and end all in just over a minute. Classic dramatic storytelling in the service of car advertising!

Here’s the spot.

Here’s what I said on LinkedIn:

I like it a lot. Well directed: good casting (the old man, the boy), amazing job of making a character statement about the people bringing the popcorn in just a few frames (attractive girl getting out of the car, cool-looking but not Abercrombie-esque shovelers.) Excellent editing… watch it 5 times and you can see how nicely the details support the message. Environmental/urban reinvention statement (Smoking volcano repurposed for human health — with cool factor like chickens & sheep) Great special effects that don’t detract from the story. Well-conceived branding elements as the line of identical cars come toward us (if you watch on YouTube at HQ).

Disagree with the linkage to the Beetle. This spot was clearly conceived to support some branding research somewhere that said “small, green, community, versatile, practical … and yet racy, daring, sporty, and fast.”

Come on, folks, lighten up. What do big horses have to do with Budweiser? Is there a meaningful difference between Huggies and Pampers? The whole thing is just another devilishly clever charade purporting to solve the challenges of life with a product that, in reality, is no better than any other vehicle in solving them. It’s art, and it’s artifice, and if we’re in advertising that’s what clients pay us for.

What thinketh thou?

Appreciating the Audience

The most important part of successful communication is to appreciate the audience. Hillman Curtis styles it, “Eat the Audience”. It means to know, to have empathy for. It also means to honor, or value their perspective, their biases, and their preferences. And it means to understand and have emotional intelligence regarding how our own perspectives as storytellers and filmmakers on behalf of a business or institution contrast with that of their audience. Perhaps it’s merely a gap in awareness or knowledge. The institution or company knows something the audience doesn’t know.

But more likely, there are subtle differences of viewpoint or experience. Or significant differences of values and beliefs, or the entire cultural point of reference. Whatever the source of the difference, it is the communicator’s task to do the bridge-building, and that means starting where the audience is, honoring their current place and viewpoint, and then providing a framework for movement that is acceptable and relevant to them. If they like the framework we have provided, they will choose to take a step toward us… we cannot and should not try to manipulate their response, either in terms of feelings or conclusions.

In this real-life example, I was tasked first with helping build a bridge to Ohio Wesleyan alumni. It is a given that the alumni love their school, and are interested in meeting its new President and expressing their views on how to best preserve the institution. The client had three communication objectives: reassure the audience that the school is effective in changing the lives of contemporary students; set out a vision of three aspirational objectives for the school; and build a shared emotional touchpoint for future fundraising conversations. It was not a fundraising video, per se; and it was used as part of a conversation, not a presentation in the more traditional sense.

This clip is the first minute of a 10-minute alumni video. I chose to begin with an iconic timelapse of the Ohio Wesleyan campus, accompanied by a student a capella version of a classic Madonna song, “Like a Prayer”. Since most of the alumni in the audience are Boomers, this song delivers a familiar and emotional memory touchpoint with their youth. The next images are static institutional affirmations by famous OWU alumni — Norman Vincent Peale, Branch Rickey — and a cornerstone quote from the Gospels. These paving stones, cornerstones and pillars become the visual framework for contemporary student expressions of what they appreciate about Ohio Wesleyan. These student expressions (rather than alumni testimonials) are vitally important, because unless the institution is effective in changing the lives of contemporary students, it will not be seen as a good investment by even the most loyal of alumni. Notice the third interviewee, Jesika Keener. She says that Ohio Wesleyan has become her home: a statement that surely resonates with the alumni audience. A slight editorial change to that comment makes a big difference as we repurpose the same creative elements for an entirely different audience — prospective students:

Though sharing the same basic interview and shooting budget, there are a number of important editorial differences between the two approaches … and these flow from an appreciation of each audience. Jesika now leads the interviews, but we leave out the home reference, because incoming freshmen are more interested in getting away from home than finding one. It’ll take them a couple of years before the college they pick, whatever it is, feels like home to them.

Then, the music: instead of a familiar piece performed by OWU students, I chose a very fresh song by up-and-coming artist Jamie K: Dare to Dream. Instead of making the institution the frame of reference, which is an emotional connection with alumni, I changed the editorial emphasis to “what I was looking for” … small school, diversity, specific subject areas, etc. Instead of quoting profs on what they like about the school, I let students share what they like about professors — especially the personal relationships with profs. No emotional connection with the school is assumed. All we wish to do here is to establish a credible testimony by students who may or may not resonate with the viewers. It’s up to each audience member to decide if they “fit” that authentic brand.

Finally, there’s a big difference in pacing. The Boomer piece has 21 cuts and 4 interview clips in the first minute, while the Millennial piece has 34 cuts and 10 interview bytes by 7 interviewees in about the same period of time.

It is an appreciation and honoring of the audience that leads to approaches that are authentic in both cases, but decidedly different because the audiences are different.

Starbucks: fighting a land war in Asia

When a person adapts to the times, they’re seen as progressive… becoming more “highly evolved”. When a company whose brand is as highly evolved as Starbucks adapts to the times, they run the risk of appearing shifty. That’s what Starbucks is facing, as has been widely reported in the press and blogosphere. At issue is what the Huffington Post called “going undercover”.

Signage reminiscent of "You've Got Mail" and Fox Books

Signage reminiscent of "You've Got Mail" and Fox Books

It’s amusing, really. It reminds me of the David and Goliath story in You’ve Got Mail … right down to the signage Starbucks put up… does it remind you of that cute “Fox Books coming around the corner” sign, preparing to steamroll its tiny competitor, the “Shop around the corner”?

Starbucks came out today with a fact sheet to try and defuse the controversy, but the original charges still stand: Starbucks has been ham-handed in its approach to this situation. Here are the red flags that strike me:

  • Authentically local stores have described lengthy visits by Starbucks personnel who carried notebooks labeled “Observation”
  • The store right next to the 15th Ave shop has had many of its design details copied by Starbucks: wall colors, light fixtures, similar salvaged wood and framed chalkboards, similar used theatre seats in the serving area
  • Door of the remodeled Starbucks

    Door of the remodeled Starbucks

    The new store sign on the door says it was “inspired by Starbucks”. Is this true? Isn’t it more accurate to say that it was inspired by Smith, and is actually attempting to distance itself from Starbucks by the decor change, by a shift in the technology of drink production, and by the elimination of Starbucks labeling from the equipment and bags of coffee and tea? After all, don’t those bags contain the same coffee and tea that other stores get, with the Starbucks brand? It really does smack of deception.

I like the idea suggested by Matt Whiting in his paragraph about transparency: compromise by calling it “15th Ave. Coffee and Tea: your Neighborhood Starbucks.” And I would add, don’t give the appearance of deception by removing Starbucks logos from the coffee and tea bags. Take away the branding shell game, and then Starbucks is simply updating its store decor, which now becomes a virtue and a sign of sensitivity to the wishes of its customers.

So I agree with the sentiments of those who feel that the new Starbucks experiment is a good idea … a realization that the goal of being truly accessible, local and organic implies a fresh approach. Maybe even a new “unbranded” brand if it can be done without getting sneaky.

But here’s the rub: I’ve never seen a high-value brand maintain its value long-term after scaling upThe Limited gave way to Express which lost its upscale standing to a host of small competitors. Abercrombie needs its Hollister foil to keep its brand value high… Nordstrom has developed great customer service as its hedgehog concept, but it’s engaged in one of those Asian land wars now, too. (A big part of this is simply the plate tectonics of aging demo groups, too.)

Upscale panache downscales in perceived quality and value when it goes mainstream, and Starbucks has lasted longer than most. Starbucks is 1000 times more substantive than Beanie Babies, but there might be more of a similarity in the trajectory of those two brands than we care to admit. Ultimately we’re dealing with the law of supply and demand. Supply increases, demand drops. That’s why every city that has a community at its core can support 6 local one-up coffee shops better than it can support half a dozen Starbucks stores. Maybe that’s why Jim Collins writes, “Great companies do not necessarily have innovation as a central part of their vision or strategy.”

In my own industry, video production, I’ve seen lots of fads and lots of factories. I’ve seen them grow and gain market share, and prosper — for a while — by cranking out special effects and creative approaches that are markedly similar from project to project. I’ve seen these shops build their staff around specialties: camera guys, editors, 3D animators. They buy a gizmo; it cost a lot; so by golly, they’re going to use it. Creativity gets redefined from what works to what’s au courant. Remember morphs? Spins? Marquee Effects? Page turns? Remember Cranston/Csuri Productions, which lasted 7 years doing slick network animations when you could charge $1000/second for cranking them out? Yes, some of these skills require some specialization, but when you bring devotees into a room to decide on the approach, each fights for his own specialty. And the result might be efficient and it may even be truly creative … But in my experience it’s not a creativity that is harnessed to the customer’s needs, but to the production company’s internal dynamic of “the state of the art”.

Actually I think the YouTube phenomenon is a backlash against such slick communication-by-committee. It’s not that people don’t like good production values. YouTube video quality is getting better and better. What got lost was the truly unexpected, the honestly authentic, expressions of individuality; and everyone loves to see that when it happens. Along with the lower cost of entry, I think the desire for authenticity is the biggest reason why today’s best work is done by small shops and by agencies such as The Martin Agency which delegate lots of creative power to individuals in a horizontal, non-specialized community of thinkers.

Starbucks is a great company which may succeed as it adds food, alcohol, and more neighborhood individuality to its impressive quality brand. If it can keep providing health care costs for its part-time workers (and if good health care coverage remains in short supply), I think the company can continue to retain great people who attract loyal customers. (John Moore has much wisdom to offer as an observer of Starbucks.)

On the other hand, the difficulty of truly scaling creativity makes Vizzini’s joke relevant, it seems to me. A big company can compete because of economies of scale, and a small 3-store chain can compete because it has no scale. All its decisions are individual. One good, in-touch entrepreneur can feel what needs to happen in a neighborhood … and the individuality of such a person can out-maneuver an army of junior managers carrying “Observation” notebooks.

So while I agree that Starbucks “gets it” that unique, neighborhood stores are what people want, and wise in its desire to deliver a truly local experience store by store, I also sympathize with those who were offended by their execution of the plan.

Imitation is not creation, and hiding a brand does not change its fundamental identity. Those are classic blunders, along with fighting a land war in Asia.

Trader Joe’s DNA

Heather Snow contributes an excellent analysis of the Greenpeace attack on Trader Joe’s sales of red-list fish. I’m glad to see the effort to hold TJ’s accountable to a sustainable standard.

I’d like to suggest a few reasons why Trader Joe’s is pursuing this unenlightened policy, and why what seems like a hip, green-friendly brand may have trouble responding quickly to the Greenpeace attack.

For years we’ve shopped at Aldi. Actually, when I go grocery shopping I like what $50 buys me at Aldi … while my wife prefers supermarkets. Aldi is amazingly efficient. You bring your own bags or you buy theirs —  5 cents each. You bag yourself.

ALDI has grown 8% a year since 1998

ALDI has grown 8% a year since 1998

If you want a cart you put a quarter in the lock mechanism, and get your quarter back when you return it to the cart lineup: there are no carts piling up in the parking lot, and no employees running around to regather them. Instead of 20,000 products to choose from in a regular store, or 150,000 in a Walmart supercenter, in an Aldi store there are under 1000. No brand names, no fancy advertising because they license with major distributors and buy extra capacity … but all good quality stuff, whether peanut butter, chips, pickles, or ice cream. Business Week describes the selection as “East Berlin, circa 1975”. (I don’t think it’s that bad!)  There are usually only 2 people visible working the store, and all they’re doing is ringing up the lines of people waiting to check out. But I would say the average cost at an Aldi store is about 1/3 to 1/2 the price you would pay at the supermarket.

Business Week wrote them up 5 years ago here. Turns out they are a German company spreading fast, a discount store that actually gives Walmart a serious run for their money. They avoid debt, buy small stores where real estate is cheap, keep their footprint small and their profits up, and quietly feed off the (growing) bottom of the U.S. grocery market. They’re gaining market share fast, and in a way similar to the Limited’s initial focus on the most profitable niche in clothing — women’s fashion — Aldi out-Walmarts Walmart by selling high-profit, high-traffic grocery items.

Maybe 5 years ago my wife discovered Trader Joe’s. They have little physical resemblance to Aldi except that they tend to be small stores in non-prime strip malls. They cater to an entirely different market. Instead of lines of sullen people who look like they need to pinch pennies, (the reason my wife hates to go to Aldi’s), Trader Joe’s is a festive experience. We both love what feels like a healthy respect for the environment, for quality food, for healthy choices like fresh fish, whole wheat pasta, cool nuts, chocolates, wines, fresh veggies, real cheeses, and cheerful, helpful staff. It reminded us of the food co-op we used to frequent near the Ohio State campus when we were first married.

But in the back of my mind I was always perplexed by the economics of Trader Joe’s. How could they be so much cheaper than Whole Foods or Wild Oats (which have since merged in weakness)? Not until a year or two ago did it make sense to me… when I learned that Trader Joe’s is also owned by Aldi.

Here’s what Business Week said about Trader Joe’s in 2004.

It’s a phenomenally lucrative combination, analysts say. Sales last year were an estimated $2.1 billion, or $1,132 per square foot, twice that of traditional supermarkets, according to the Food Institute, a nonprofit research group in Elmwood Park, N.J. The Monrovia (Calif.) company would not talk to BusinessWeek, but its Web site notes that while the 37-year-old chain quintupled its store count from 1990 to 2001, profits grew tenfold.

“What’s unique about Trader Joe’s is that there’s no competition,” says Willard R. Bishop Jr., who heads his own consulting firm in Barrington, Ill. TJ’s develops or imports many of its own products from sources it has developed over decades and sells more than 80% of them under the Trader Joe’s brand or a variant thereof: Trader José, Trader Ming, and Baker Josef are a few. In states where it can, it sells discount wine and liquor. The latest rage is its own Charles Shaw label of California varietals, affectionately known as Two-Buck Chuck for its $1.99 price tag in California (it’s $3.39 in Ohio stores).

At least at that time, BW reported that they paid their staff well above industry norms, and the service at TJ’s around here reflect that.

So now it all makes sense. Trader Joe’s keeps its prices down in the same way it does at Aldi stores: by doing deals with its own suppliers and establishing its own store brands. (By the way, this is the same thing that Limited Brands did to gain ground in the fashion world — not by buying the work of famous designers, but by creating their own designer brands.)

The management of Aldi/Trader Joe’s is old school and, while understanding their niche well, not a marketing driven company. The whole ethos of both brands is to provide an authentic quality product at an unbeatable price. They gain share and traffic by sustaining the lowest of low prices through their purchasing arrangements and internal efficiences — which bypass marketing altogether. There simply is no Aldi or TJ branding going on in the media at all. And they keep people coming back by offering excellent quality at amazingly low price points.

Aldi/TJs is not the kind of company that got where it is by listening to customers. Like Walmart, it grows by being the lowest price provider. Period. It is accused of having run 35,000 small stores out of business in Germany in 2006. It was accused of forcing milk prices down by 15% across Germany since 2001. While Trader Joe’s was a gift to Theo Albrecht’s sons, it shares that corporate DNA. It sets it own agenda based on its own perceptions of authentic value, and delivers that brand promise efficiently. TJ’s has probably locked up long-term deals to buy the excess production of major fishery operations around the world. The TJ’s corporate DNA is, I suspect, radically different from the brand aroma.

So like Heather and the others who are commenting on this story, I’ll be interested to see how TJ’s responds. Hopefully, they will change their fish purchase policies over time to reflect the need to be good stewards of the earth’s resources. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. The corporate culture was built by responding to blue-collar concerns, not magenta-leaning tree-huggers like me. It’ll probably take them a while to curtail their faux-green sales of red-list seafood such as orange roughy… 🙂

Footnote – The founder of Aldi, Karl Albrecht, is quite elderly but no longer involved in the management of the company. He is worth over $20 Billion, and in the top 10 richest men.  Aldi stands for Albrecht Discount.