PepsiCo and Frito-Lay CMOs talk what’s different for the Super Bowl this year

February 7, 2021, 1:00 AM UTC

Gone are the days of joining friends for drinks at packed sports bars or huge Super Bowl watch parties. The coronavirus pandemic, and the need for social distancing, has dramatically changed the viewing experience of this year’s Super Bowl LV. 

As a result, more Americans than ever before will be watching from the comfort of their own homes, either alone or in a small group of family and friends. Some of the country’s largest companies see this as a prime opportunity to advertise their products during the biggest sporting event of the year.

“If you think about watching the Super Bowl in a large group or at a bar, there’s a lot more distractions and a lot more noise,” said Beth Fossen, a marketing professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.  “This ad environment has potential to be very attractive for advertisers; viewers are likely to be more attentive with fewer distractions when they watch at home.”

For PepsiCo, ranked No. 51 on the Fortune 500 list and North America’s largest food and beverage business by revenue, Super Bowl LV presents an opportunity to showcase new products and take advantage of the millions of Americans watching the game in small groups from home.

“In a way, it’s the biggest year ever for our brands,” said Greg Lyons, PepsiCo’s Chief Marketing Officer. “We’re going all in. We’ve got six game-day ads, we’ve got Gatorade on the sidelines all game, and we’re in our 10th year sponsoring the Pepsi Halftime Show.” 

PepsiCo’s game-day ads, which range from promoting new Doritos and Cheetos products to touting this year’s halftime show featuring The Weeknd, share a common theme: escapism. 

After a year of economic hardship, unprecedented social activism, and a pandemic that has killed more than 450,000 Americans, Lyons said he believes that more than ever it is PepsiCo’s responsibility to provide a sense of joy to consumers. And companies like PepsiCo are looking to tap into that mindset by delivering ads designed to entertain viewers and present new products.

“It’s been a really difficult year,” Lyons said. “From our research, it’s become very clear that people want a bit of an escape and they want to smile.”

Ads focused on this sense of escapism are likely to do well this year, especially coming from brands consumers are familiar with, according to Fossen.

“On average, viewers watch sports for that escapism feeling, and the Super Bowl is the pinnacle,” Fossen said. “Especially this year, they’re looking for something enjoyable, and so I think that the ads that offer that escapism are going to work well.”

Other companies have taken a different approach, either by forgoing the Super Bowl entirely or by using their ad space as an opportunity to take a more serious tone and empathize with consumers enduring hardships from the pandemic. It remains to be seen which ads will garner the most attention come game day.

“It’s certainly a tough time,” said Jonah Berger, Wharton professor and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. “So playing to either of these segments is justifiable, but which is right for a given company depends on their brand and what they are selling.”

Striking the right tone is something that marketing executives have had to juggle all year as the pandemic forced the country into a recession and hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their lives. With many industries struggling, Fossen said marketing dollars traditionally spent on ads are often the first to get cut. 

Last month, Coke announced in a statement to CNBC that it was skipping the Super Bowl “to ensure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times.” 

Budweiser announced last week that it was skipping the Super Bowl for the first time in 37 years, instead opting to use its marketing dollars to support COVID-19 vaccine education and awareness efforts.

In its place, Anheuser-Busch released its 2021 Super Bowl commercial on social media, a 90-second ad highlighting “America’s collective resilience” in the face of the pandemic.

Experts say this in and of itself is an advertisement for the company. 

“What Budweiser did was just a different kind of ad, a different route that’s still generating a lot of buzz,” Fossen said. “Are they going to get the same level of buzz that they would have gotten if they decided to run a Super Bowl ad? That’s up for debate.” 

No matter the approach, one thing that’s sure to take on more importance for companies during the big game this year is social media. Lyons and Rachel Ferdinando, PepsiCo Senior Vice President and CMO of Frito-Lay, said the company has invested more into social media outreach this year than ever before. The brand will feature several Snapchat filters tailored to its various ads, for example.

“Social media outreach is probably more important than ever this year,” Lyons said. “Because more people are home for the game, we’re gonna lean in as much as we ever have.”