How Banks and Credit Unions Make Pricey Super Bowl Advertising Pay Off

The Super Bowl is a cultural touchstone that attracts millions of viewers, and there are ways to leverage the game for brand awareness without the high cost of a national ad.
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Super Bowl ads are among the most watched and most memorable television spots every year. When Fox airs Super Bowl LVII on Sunday, February 12, it is expected to attract an estimated 100 million viewers, with millions of them tuning in just for the commercials.

They can expect to see at least one advertiser from the financial services industry — E-Trade will return with its famed chubby-cheeked baby.

Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase have made Super Bowl appearances in years past, but generally speaking banks are unlikely to turn up in national ads.

“Historically, we don’t see banks in national Super Bowl spots,” says Josh Mabus, the president and chief creative officer of the Mabus Agency, a marketing firm in Tupelo, Miss., that specializes in the banking industry. “The macro view of banking is a parity product. Nuances set one bank apart from another, and the Super Bowl is not an advertising venue known for nuance.

Regional Ads Cost Less, Yet Still Have High Impact

Regional ads are more common for banks, which favor heartfelt brand advertising for gametime impact. M&T Bank, for example, has been a frequent Super Bowl advertiser in the markets where it operates. A 2019 ad campaign that it kicked off with a regional Super Bowl buy featured customers talking about what’s important to them, and positioned M&T as a bank that understands.

A regional ad is also far more budget-friendly, especially given that the Super Bowl is just about the priciest advertising venue around. Fox is reportedly getting up to $7 million for a 30-second spot that runs nationwide, as did NBC when it aired the game last year.

Besides, even a smaller broadcast area can claim a huge audience. Detroit’s WJBK Fox 2, for example, is selling packages of four spots (three before and one during the 2023 Super Bowl) for around $400,000, with a reach of a million households.

It's Not Always 'Go Big or Go Home':

National Super Bowl ads can cost millions for a 30-second slot. Buying a regional ad is easier on the marketing budget and makes a lot more sense for banks without a national footprint.

A coordinated campaign — which has the additional expense of assets like digital and social media ads — helps to maximize the impact of a national or regional Super Bowl spot.

U.S. Bank, which has its name on the Minneapolis stadium that hosted the 2018 Super Bowl, opted for a regional ad during the pregame show that year. Its coordinated campaign included sponsored videos on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, along with a Snapchat filter, according to a Tearsheet article.

Other major components of the campaign involved two venues — a rail station and a restaurant — near its namesake stadium. The bank plastered the rail station with ads and converted the restaurant into a lounge for football fans, where they could try out various activities, like doing their best touchdown dance, to earn points. U.S. Bank then made donations to charity based on the points they received.

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Pro Tips on Regional Super Bowl Ads

One of the reasons regional ads make a lot more sense for most banks is that few have national breadth anyway.

The $16.5 billion-asset Renasant Bank in Tupelo, Miss., has had success with regional ads, including with two 30-second spots during the 2022 Super Bowl, John Oxford — the bank’s chief marketing officer — tells The Financial Brand. The bank, which works with the Mabus Agency, operates 190 branches across five states.

Though Oxford’s intent was primarily brand awareness, Renasant did plug its “Rewards Extra” checking account in one of the ads and its digital banking app in the other. ESPN sports broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit starred in the checking account ad, which aimed for a “Father Knows Best” vibe, complete with laugh track.

The ad for the digital banking app incorporated the theme song from the HBO show “Silicon Valley” because, Oxford says, the music conjures up “high tech.” Theme songs from hit TV shows may be unusual in a bank ad, but such cultural references can help a message get noticed.

Renasant got a boost in brand recognition, as Oxford hoped, and “we did, in fact, see a lift in branch visits and web traffic during the period after we aired our regional Super Bowl ads,” he says. But calculating a return on investment gets muddied by other marketing tactics happening at the same time.

Oxford isn’t planning to advertise during the Super Bowl this year, but his advice to others who might want to is consistent with the M&T approach. “Be emotional,” he says. “Did you help someone achieve the American dream because you got them a home loan? Or help someone save to go to college? Or make it easy to pay babysitter with Zelle? That’s what you show.”

That’s a message banks and credit unions can continue to build on afterward, which increases the ad’s impact. “You don’t want to run out of bullets,” Oxford says, “and this approach does create the opportunity to build a really nice campaign to start the year.”

One drawback with a typical regional ad is a lack of control over where it gets placed. So it may appear in a lineup of other ads that are less than ideal. “You want to be the first one at the front of the regional ad break,” Oxford says. “If you get sandwiched between a couple of local ‘shouters'” — say, a used-car business that is using the same low-budget ad it runs regularly during the news at 5 p.m. — “the viewer just turns away.”

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Alice Cooper Makes One Credit Union’s Ad Memorable

Super Bowl ads are all about making a big splash, so it certainly doesn’t hurt to recruit someone like rock star Alice Cooper in that endeavor, as Desert Financial Credit Union did for its epic 2018 Super Bowl ad.

The $8.5 billion-asset credit union in Phoenix had changed its name from Desert Schools to Desert Financial, and Cooper, who lives in the area, agreed to perform his classic song, “School’s Out,” for a Super Bowl spot about the rebranding.

The spot starts off with two customers about to use an ATM. To their surprise, Cooper appears on the ATM screen and lets them know about the name change. “I’m telling everyone, school’s out,” he says as the branch doors open to reveal a wild scene worthy of a Cooper music video. He performs the song amid pyrotechnics as a guillotine chops the word “Schools” out of the credit union’s logo.

Desert Financial's Super Bowl commercial featuring Alice Cooper

In the month after the Super Bowl ad aired, online account openings were up 50 percent, according to an American Banker interview with Desert Financial’s Cathy Graham. And for that year, the annual rate of membership growth at the credit union more than tripled what it had been in previous years. (Graham was chief marketing officer at the time but has since moved up to executive vice president.)

To reinforce its message, Desert Financial had followed up the big Super Bowl moment with a campaign that included outdoor, social media and Google ads. But Graham insisted that the Super Bowl made all the difference.

“There wouldn’t have been that buzz,” she said in the interview. “It created a level of awareness that I think made people pay attention to the other messages.”

Is Super Bowl Buzz Really That Big a Deal?

The biggest benefit of Super Bowl ads is perhaps the awareness they generate.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota sought to quantify the buzz in a study they published in 2019. They measured both online and offline conversations among consumers to gauge the impact of advertising on word of mouth for 538 U.S. national brands in 16 categories, including financial services, over a period of 6.5 years, while controlling for alternative explanations like product introductions and media mentions. Then they conducted further analysis to tease out the influence of Super Bowl advertising specifically.

“Sports are a part of American culture — we love our teams.”
— Josh Mabus, Mabus Agency

The study found a 16% increase in total word of mouth generated among consumers in online and offline conversations the month of the game.

The impact on online word of mouth proved higher, with a 68% increase for the day of, a 48% increase for the week of and a 27% increase for the month of the Super Bowl.

“If a company is looking to generate a buzz, the Super Bowl might be a good place to do it,” Linli Xu, one of the researchers and an assistant professor at the Carlson School of Management, said in a University of Minnesota article about the study. “Paying big money for the commercial could help a firm reach its goal of increasing brand awareness or staying connected with its customers.”

Other research also suggests Super Bowl ads can attract investors to a brand.

If the Super Bowl is beyond your budget, though, bear in mind that it is not the only game in town, so to speak. Sponsoring other sports on other days can achieve brand awareness and have emotional impact.

“Sports are a part of American culture — we love our teams,” Mabus says. “Watching a game is a release from the stress of a work week and a chance to come together with friends. These are all sentiments with which financial institutions should want an association.”

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Capitalize on the Super Bowl with Social Media

But the Super Bowl is a cultural touchstone, with a collective emotional energy that few other events offer. Banks and credit unions that can’t resist its gravitational pull could opt to reach the audience using social media.

Ally Bank did this in an impressive way in 2018. Before the big event, it launched a mobile app called “The Ally Big Save,” which allowed Super Bowl viewers to compete in an augmented-reality game.

Whenever there was a commercial break during the broadcast, the app let players collect images of money superimposed on their smartphone screen — the AR technology made it look like the dollars were floating down onto the furniture and floors in their own home — and drag it into a virtual piggy bank. The higher their scores, the better their chance to win cash toward their savings goals.

From the more than 30,000 people who competed, Ally selected 15 winners to split $250,000, which went toward such goals as children’s college educations, emergency funds, retirement and health expenses.

The intent was to encourage people to save their money instead of spending it on the products being advertised. “We thought it was a really unique and interesting way to get people to think about saving,” Andrea Brimmer, Ally’s chief marketing officer, told ChiefMarketer.com at the time.

Ally promoted the app and the contest in a campaign that included social engagement and influencer content. The results included 184 million media impressions and 1.2 million visitors to a related microsite, according to ChiefMarketer.

“We were able to create a lot of attention for our brand that was really good for our customers at the same time.”

— Andrea Brimmer, Ally

The period leading up to gameday is valuable for a social media campaign — Ally began its promotion about a week before.

The NFL’s own social media impressions illustrate how interest builds ahead of time. In 2022, its impressions increased 42% the week before the Super Bowl, and content engagement increased 67%.

But while Super Bowl advertising will cost less on Facebook than on Fox, marketers can expect to shell out compared with the usual pricing. AdWeek reports a 50% jump in social media CPMs (cost per one thousand impressions) during the last Super Bowl.

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Should You Do a Super Bowl Ad? It Depends

In the end, there is no easy answer to the question, is a Super Bowl initiative worth it?

But according to Oxford, the answer is in the question, at least when it comes to a television spot that airs during the game.

“If you have to ask that question, I would probably skip the Super Bowl,” he says. “If you’re thinking, ‘If I do one big ad, everyone’s gonna know us,’ I don’t think that’s the case. Do something else creative that will last the year instead.”

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