Brands Are Sitting Out the Super Bowl: Is This an Inflection Point for Marketers?

How companies are recalculating the complex math of advertising during the Big Game. It’s riskier than ever.

The Super Bowl LV is right around the corner. The Kansas City Chiefs will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and this year’s match-up is all about legacy vs. new. The duel of Tom Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes. Will Tom Brady be able to win another Super Bowl and retain his GOAT status? Or will the 25-year-old star outperform him on a national stage? It will be a fascinating game to watch.

Off the field, we also see the duel of legacy vs. new as we look at the much-ballyhooed ad spots surrounding the Super Bowl. Several legacy brands that traditionally bought ad spots are sitting out this year: Budweiser, Pepsi, Coke. While other brands like Chipotle, DoorDash and Indeed are willing to get in the game and spend $5M+ for 30 seconds of airtime. Even amidst the criticism against the NFL for their lackluster response to Black Lives Matter, the controversy of physical audiences during the pandemic and viewership ratings once again on the decline, the Super Bowl is still considered the quintessential placement for U.S. advertisers.

“The Super Bowl is still considered the quintessential placement for U.S. advertisers.”

In addition to navigating these ongoing challenges, this year’s Super Bowl also brings the duel of advertising on legacy television vs. digital video to a head. Brands are increasingly aware that coveted eyeballs are turning off the television while the reach and engagement on YouTube, Twitch and other digital platforms are becoming the new prestige play. CMOs today are seeing digital video advertising deliver results and brand awareness is also functioning as a direct response.

We believe this interesting match-up of legacy vs. new highlights 3 shifts in how CMOs decide where and how they invest their marketing dollars:

1. From Static to Dynamic

CMOs are increasingly under pressure to move the needle and do it fast. Their mandate has expanded from the top of the funnel down to acquiring customers. As a result, they are continuously experimenting with ways and channels to optimize the return of their marketing investment – often challenging practices that have been considered “tried and true.” For the first time in decades, Anheuser-Busch announced that the iconic Budweiser brand is sitting this Super Bowl out. We can still expect to see ads from BudLight and the first-ever corporate spot. Regardless, this still came as a big surprise to many.

2. From Reach to Relevance

The pandemic has shifted consumer behavior. Consumers have become more open to trying new brands – even new players – forcing brands to defend their positions. As a result, CMOs are changing their approach from maximizing reach to proactively finding ways to embed their brands in consumers’ lives. This year, for some consumers, the Super Bowl will not be as important as in prior years, given social distancing. Budweiser understands this and is reportedly reallocating its Super Bowl budget to a topic that is more relevant to its audience: COVID relief in the form of coronavirus vaccination awareness efforts.

3. From Opportunistic to Authentic

Shifting marketing strategy and execution depending on context or market conditions is not new. The best marketers have done it to raise the bar and set the standard on how to engage consumers (remember the “dunk in the dark” tweet from Oreo in 2013?). Today this is increasingly difficult as consumers expect and demand brands to be authentic. Consumers are quick to call out anything that looks and feels different or “off-brand.” With the ease and speed of social media, brands have to answer to their customers. It will be interesting to track how Budweiser executes on the COVID-19 efforts now and into the future from an authenticity perspective, at the risk of exposing the brand and hindering the return of their investments.


Investing in a Super Bowl ad is a big decision for any marketer. Sometimes the decision is clear and compelling: by showing up to where consumers are, on the right platforms, in the right context and with authentic engagement, marketers have a better shot at maximizing the return of their investments.

But the case is not always clear and yet organizations continue to invest.  Why? The culture within organizations is slow to change. Successful marketers go beyond the data to focus on aligning the mindsets and behaviors of their organizations to ensure they make the right decisions, not the decisions that have “worked” in the past.  It’s a tall order.