By Alex Konrad, reporter
FORTUNE — The Super Bowl remains brand marketing’s holy grail. And that isn’t likely to change until the 100 million or so people who tune in, revel in an orgy of viewing parties, hot wings massacres, and studied ad criticism stop. Until then, advertisers will continue to shell out record amounts for 30-second spots year after year. (The average cost for 2012 is $3.5 million a pop.)
What has changed? It’s no longer enough to claim victory through USA Today‘s Ad Meter (which is partnering with Facebook this year for the first time) the next day or settle for a mention in professional best-of lists. Social media has become the industry scorecard. To wit, Volkswagen last year crowed that its ad, “The Force,” garnered 20 million YouTube views the week of the game– it’s now up to 50 million — and Groupon CEO Andrew Mason had the blame game well into the spring over a disastrous Tibet-themed spot.
The brands know that the Super Bowl ad game is increasingly about what happens away from your television set on Sunday, even as they spend more to reach you in that precious time. To avoid simply throwing their dollars at this changing space and hoping they stick, companies face a choice: change the playbook or fail.
1. The two-week pregame
With so much money invested, brands are increasing their exposure prior to the game in the hopes of building up momentum and stretching out the period of relevance for each campaign. Honda (HMC) already has raised eyebrows with its released spot for the Honda CR-V, in which a paunchier, older Matthew Broderick invokes the memory of Ferris Bueller, playing hooky from a film shoot around Los Angeles. The online video, telling a longer version of what game-day consumers will see of Broderick’s “day off,” already has over 5 million views on Honda’s YouTube channel.
Volkswagen, meanwhile, took a different route. It put out a teaser ad that tied together 2011 and 2012’s spots, well before the game. Uploaded to YouTube on January 18, “The Bark Side” video of dogs singing Darth Vader’s imperial march already has more than 10 million views. But Tim Mahoney, Volkswagen of America’s chief product and marketing officer, says that the largely positive comments posted about the video are what get the company most excited. Such comments can lead to the viewers passing the ad on to friends and improve the chances of Volkswagen’s game-time ad receiving more attention. “It keeps the conversation going longer,” Mahoney says. The company also released its main spot yesterday; “The Dog Strikes Back” already has over 1 million views on YouTube.
2. Catching the viral bug
While parent PepsiCo (PEP) has not always promoted its most iconic brand, Pepsi, subsidiary Frito-Lay has become a Super Bowl regular — and not just because its products are Super Bowl party staples. Frito-Lay’s strategy? To use crowd-sourcing for its ad spots. In its “Crash the Super Bowl” contest, Doritos enthusiasts submit their own ad and five finalists as voted by internal judges and fans. Two of the five finalists get their ad to run during the game. This year’s contest featured almost five hundred thousand votes and over six thousand submissions, according to Tony Matta, vice president of marketing for Frito-Lay. The finalists can win $1 million if they finish first in the USA Today Ad Meter, among other benefits. Matta, who’s working on his first “Crash” campaign this year, argues that the strategy makes sense on multiple levels: Frito-Lay benefits from the creative juices and humor of a wide swath of people, while engaging fans of the brand. The cash prize certainly helps, but Matta also envisions the scheme helping creatives launch Hollywood careers. (The winner gets to collaborate with the Lonely Island comedy group on a future spot.)
3. New media, old faces
Soft drink companies are habitual advertisers during the Super Bowl. Coca-Cola (KO) has run several campaigns in the past seven consecutive years, according to Katie Bayne, president of the Sparkling Beverages division for Coca-Cola North America. This year, the company decided it had had enough focus on forays into the digital space for their own sake. Bayne and creative excellence vice president Pio Schunker decided to continue innovating in digital advertising while bringing back one of Coke’s venerable brand equities, its polar bears. Working with agency Wieden+Kennedy, Coke decided to anthropomorphize the bears into actual fans of the game. Through teams of puppeteers and media staff, the bears will seem to react to live events going on in the game via live streaming video, even tweeting about themselves.
The company has been email blasting rewards members and promoting heavily through social media, its digital vending machines, and at public transportation stops. Bayne is going for a much larger audience through the roll-out effect of such a presence. Based on last year, she says Coke knows that ”we’ve been hitting 100 million people, and with additional ways we can hit 250 million views.” Schunker notes that the logistics of involving Coke’s various media agencies were tougher with such an operation than those of a typical campaign – and Bayne admits that only a fraction of people will watch the television ads and feel inspired to check the live feed. That’s why Bayne’s last ace up the sleeve may prove most effective: rich media ads on websites that fans will likely check in the hours of the game build-up, from all the major social media sites to ESPN, NBC Sports Digital, and SB Nation, with the live stream of the bears appearing right there in the ad. One click and you’re off to Coke’s dedicated site for the campaign.
4. Bottling lightning
With more complicated campaigns adding levels of interactivity with the consumer each year, brands face more pressure than ever. Staying in the “the creative arms race” of the new generation of ads, says Mike Sheldon, CEO of Deutsch LA, takes no small amount of courage. For companies in industries that don’t mesh well with the general Super Bowl ad’s theme – quirky, humorous, or flashy in some way – it can be a difficult environment . Yet real estate company Century 21 will venture into the fray in 2012, while Sheldon tips his cap to eTrade (ETFC) for its continued success with its talking baby spots.
At Deutsch, tactics vary from one account to the next. Deutsch is behind Volkswagen’s recent momentum and has high consumer expectations to live up to this year given its 2011 smash hit. But for an account such as Dr Pepper, wading in to try to have its own smash hit doesn’t always make sense. Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPS) last appeared in the 2010 Super Bowl with a spot for Dr Pepper Cherry, says marketing head Jim Trebilcock. But the additional production values and cost of a Super Bowl segment mean that Dr Pepper prefers to run ads only in years in which it plans to launch a major new campaign for one of its products. Trebilcock says his team will be closely watching this years’ slate of ads to see how they translate over social networks. But he says companies must weigh carefully whether they can provide real justification for appearing. “Brands like Budweiser, Pepsi, even GoDaddy will be there in a strategy of creating brand relevance,” Trebilcock says. But that might not be the right fit for every company.
5. Counting success
Let’s say you’re a marketer, and you’ve reached the 100 million viewers watching on television, even the millions of others watching on YouTube (GOOG) and participating in social networks. How do you know that your dollars have been worth it?
In the aftermath of the big game, the challenge is to monitor how diversified campaigns actually translate into sales and a net positive for the company. Sheldon at Deutsch breaks it down as a $5 or $6 million dollar investment that can yield over $100 million dollars in return. He reaches that estimate by adding up YouTube views (Volkswagen’s 50 million in this example) with the cumulative value of Twitter discussion, talk show appearances, and exposure in the media. To engineer the same amount of exposure at each piece’s individual level, he says, would have cost Deutsch the $100 million.
Coke’s investment this year in its polar bears comes with a laundry list of additional overhead, from animation at a standard and price seldom used in advertising to backup servers and generators to ensure there’s no technical glitch during the game. “From a profit and loss and management side, there’s definitely more strain,” Bayne says. She and her team will measure the campaign’s success through their typical tracking and attribute scores, as well as by gauging how many people contributed in social networks and clicked the rich media banner ads. The company will then assess what parts of the campaign worked the best to inform its campaigns for other major events such as the Olympics, Academy Awards, and March Madness.
Putting a price tag on an improved brand image and Facebook “likes,” however, remains a tricky business. Frito-Lay will trot out its most successful finalists on a media circuit to maintain buzz. Mahoney at Volkswagen notes that marketers are still figuring the quantification part out. “Can I say that 50 million views translates to 26 percent market share? I can’t,” he laughs. “But it is a positive correlation.”
One sign of that correlation may rest in the stock prices. Aggregate market prices of stocks whose brands promoted during the Super Bowl beat the market over the following two weeks over a period from 1996-2010, according to research by two University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professors, Rama Yelkur and Chuck Tomkovick. The duo says that the trend holds true when the S&P 500 drops over that period. In the face of naysayers, they’ve found the trend hold true for companies that underperformed in the previous 13 weeks before the game, with the better prices sometimes extending even six months after the game.
Marketers will have to continue to adjust their measurement tactics as their campaigns evolve – so don’t expect it all to get figured out by this month. But the brands pushing new tactics in the Super Bowl ad field will test what we expect when we think of advertising’s biggest day, while those on the sideline for now, like Dr Pepper, will be closely watching. And for the fans who have little love for another New York versus Boston sports showdown, at least there’s a deep field of new advertising plays to clap on or give a Bronx cheer.