Puppy love? Super Bowl ads zero in on elusive millennials

Budweiser hopes this little guy continues to win hearts. Budweiser

Millennials, that evasive group born from 1982 to 2002, featuring characteristics and dispositions unlike any other age segment, are increasingly becoming the target of Super Bowl advertisers, as fans will see when the Seattle Seahawks battle the New England Patriots this weekend.

Unfortunately for marketers, engaging the group hasn’t been easy.

Just what is a millenial?

Millennials, including anyone aged 13 to 33, are more numerous (about 80 million), more affluent and better educated. They are more connected and technologically advanced, having grown up with the internet and come of age with smartphones. Their conversations center around social media (as a medium and a topic).

According to a Pew personality profile, they are confident, self-expressive, liberal, less religious, upbeat and open to change, as well as more ethnically and racially diverse.

They are an age group that is clearly increasing in influence. Collectively, they’re expected to spend more than $200 billion a year beginning in 2017 and $10 trillion over their lifetimes.

Added together, this makes them both a highly coveted target for companies of all stripes, from makers of iGadgets to sellers of soda – if highly amorphous. The point is that they cannot be ignored, and advertisers will have to learn to effectively court this group because they will be the most important target audience for many years to come – replacing their baby boomer parents.

It seems, though, that the Super Bowl – the biggest ad day of the year, in which a 60-second spot now goes for a cool US$9 million or so – isn’t doing so well.

Estimates suggest 23 million 18- to 34-year-olds watch the Super Bowl. But perhaps as many as four out of five of them think the ads are usually “just ok,” “disappointing,” “plain awful,” “offensive” and/or “not as good as they used to be,” according to an informal survey by Forbes.

At the same time, almost a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds say the commercials are the most important part of the game, more than any other age group, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.

What’s more, they spend more than average on their Super Bowl parties, with adults aged 18 to 24 planning to shell out $96 and those aged 25-34 expending $102, compared with $78 for all age groups.

This Bud’s for millennials

Anheuser-Busch InBev, for one, is taking this challenge head on and has designed a strategy this year that directly targets millennials, many of whom have never tasted Budweiser before.

In the ads, the self-proclaimed King of Beers will of course include its famous Clydesdale horses but also the little puppy that melted hearts last year – though this year the story line has it getting lost apparently.

Currently Anheuser-Busch is the only beer advertiser in the Super Bowl ad program and plans to run three spots: two for Budweiser and one for Bud Light.

The focus this year will be to get millennials to engage digitally with those two core brands. That means no more celebrities, a digital “war room” to engage with consumers before, during and after the game, and more horses.

The company definitely has a lot of work to do. The company told the Wall Street Journal last year that 44% of 21- to 27-year-olds have never tried a Budweiser.

The puppies may do the trick, according to Advertising Week, which cited adorable young dogs as one of the three key “P’s” millennials will want to see this year, along with provocative content and progressive characters.

Making a hash of it

Beyond the ads themselves, some companies are focusing on social networks and more specifically Twitter hashtags to engage the age group.

Hashtags, used to identify topics and themes on the social network, are popular with millennials and are being used to translate Super Bowl hype into social media status. Almost a third say if they can’t engage in social media during the game they’ll be upset.

Loctite, a small glue maker based in Westlake, Ohio, for example, purchased a Super Bowl ad slot for the first time this year. The half-minute slot, costing some $4.5 million, will eat up its entire advertising budget for 2015. But Loctite, owned by Germany conglomerate Henkel, hopes its hashtag #WinAtGlue will have a multiplier effect and make those seconds much more valuable.

Toyota is also in the social media game utilizing Twitter, calling on users to tweet photos of their dad using the tag #OneBoldChoice. The Japanese carmaker is trying to engage millennials – who are less likely to buy cars than other age groups – ahead of the big game. Its Super Bowl ads will feature football-playing fathers and other professional athletes with their children to highlight the contributions of dads to their families.

Leading the way

Two brands said to be leading the way in getting through to millennials are Kia cars and Axe deodorant.

Kia won them over when it introduced dancing hamsters, with ads structured around the four pillars of music, sports, pop culture and the connected life, and was successful with last year’s Matrix imitation. This year, the carmaker is skipping the hamsters and running a spot starring Pierce Brosnan parodying his roles as an action film star.

Axe has also done a good job reaching millennials, with its tongue in cheek political “Make Love Not War” campaign that surprised audiences used to the company’s sexually charged advertisements.

Not exactly lovin’ it

McDonald has plans to advertise during the Super Bowl for the first time in years. But the fast-food joint has its work cut out for it in reaching health-conscious millennials. The company released a teaser that suggests one of its highlights will be a new payment system, which young people are far more likely to adopt than most people.

Beyond the big game, McDonald’s has been trying unsuccessfully to target millennials for some time. 18 to 33 year olds have tended to shun the “golden arches” and opt for Panera Bread and Chipotle instead.

$150,000 a second

Marketers are hoping the audience for Super Bowl XLIX will top last year’s record 112 million households, making all those precious seconds ($150,000 each) worth it.

While the audience will be broad, millennials will comprise a generous chunk and earn an ever increasing share of advertiser attention. With trillions of dollars in spending at stake, how well the content of those spots resonates with millennials could determine their companies’ futures.