The Excellence of Execution

The Super Bowl is generally considered the biggest sporting event of the year in North America. For this year’s game, pitting the New England Patriots against the Philadelphia Eagles, 103.4 million people tuned in. The only event to ever draw as many viewers as the Super Bowl was the finale of M*A*S*H in 1983, with 105.9 million.

As you can imagine, this makes the Super Bowl a jackpot for advertising, to the degree that some people will tune in not because they care about the event, but because they want to see what sorts of ideas the advertisers have come up with.

Two of the big winners this year were Tide and Tourism Australia.

Despite their unique executions, both brands employed the same strategy:

They subverted the established expectations of their viewers.

Tide’s premise began with a spot that asked if every ad featuring clean clothes was secretly a Tide ad, followed by several shorter spots that, despite initial appearances, actually were.

Proctor & Gamble’s agency, Saatchi & Saatchi New York, used the full force of the company’s brand portfolio, creating parodies of Mr. Clean and Old Spice commercials, in pursuit of the idea that any of the Super Bowl commercials could be part of this larger campaign.

Tourism Australia, meanwhile, staged its ad as something a bit more conventional: a supposed reboot/sequel of the beloved film Crocodile Dundee, starring actors Danny McBride and Chris Hemsworth. Agency Droga5 used normal Hollywood tactics, releasing teaser trailers and posters, to create a sense of legitimacy and excitement before the reveal that the “movie” was a tourism advertisement.

Both agencies knew that the Super Bowl has a specific context - not only is there a built-in audience who is going to watch the entire thing, but companies have used the platform for the surprise announcement of new products.

Understanding this context gave them the opportunity to be creative in their execution.

This is a lesson that all of us can take.

We may not have the monetary resources to run a big, flashy ad during the most-watched television event of the year.

What we can do is think about what customers expect when it comes to a product or brand, and come up with ideas that subvert these expectations.

One of my favourite brands doing this is Field Notes.

Field Notes notebooks are designed to be as simple and functional as possible, a throwback to the sorts of agricultural memo books that co-founder Aaron Draplin grew up around in the midwest. Kraft-coloured covers, Futura typeface, 48 pages, sold in a three-pack.

Just the essentials, nothing to distract from the product’s utility: being filled up.

Having such a straightforward product gives the company license to subvert the expectations of their customers, which they do quarterly through their limited editions.

Originally, limited edition Field Notes were done on a whim, simply changing the colour of the covers. Then came sets of three books, all in different colours.

To date, there have been editions themed around agriculture and craftsmanship, a waterproof edition for an Arctic journey, an edition with covers made of wood, an edition with photosensitive covers, and editions based on historical utilities like reporter’s notebooks and dime novels.

While the size and shape and materials change, the product itself doesn’t change.

A notebook is still a notebook.

In experimenting with how their products are executed, Field Notes can see which editions are particularly popular, and organically grow their product line by offering them on a permanent basis.

By pushing the product in new directions, they can appeal to those who may not have any use for the standard execution.

There’s no need to risk everything on a different execution, but those who aren’t willing to try new ways of presenting their products are in danger of becoming stale.

Stagnation only leads to indifference, and in marketing especially, indifference is lethal.