by Brian O'Connor
TV commercials during the year's biggest football game have become cultural institutions, if not viral moments, celebrated and as rigorously dissected as the game itself. While a price tag of several million dollars puts a 30-second spot out of reach for all but the largest marketers, there are lessons all business owners can draw from watching them.
Simplify your product or service
Animals are among the biggest stars in these spots — an ad in 2000 about cowboys herding cats helped move the phrase "cat herding" into the pop-culture lexicon. "Small businesses should take note," says Mitch Dowell, creative director at Branding Experiences. "Even the most challenging product pitches or concepts can be simplified by leveraging metaphors through animals or other non-human subjects."
Dowell says the first step in simplifying a product or service is to demonstrate an understanding of the target audience's pain. "Let's say your small business is an app that provides pickup and drop-off dry cleaning services," he says. "Understanding the weekly lifestyle of your overbooked, overburdened and time-crunched audience is important. Draw them in by painting their all-too-familiar picture in your marketing and advertising, and using adjectives and descriptions that they identify with."
Make an emotional connection
We may believe we make decisions with the rational part of our brains, but advertisers have long recognized that emotions also exert significant influence.
"It's the power of storytelling," says Sean Kelly, owner of BookRetreat.com, citing one commercial that explored a bond between a horse and a puppy. "It is a classic Hero's Journey. The main character undergoes a series of obstacles before triumphantly returning home with the help of his friends."
For his own business, a travel tech startup for wellness retreats, Kelly tries to use the power of emotional connection to encourage his audience to share his content. "I created a quiz and put it on my blog," he says. "The key is to make sure people feel good about themselves for having taken the quiz. No one shares a quiz that doesn't make them feel good or give them a sense of approval or accomplishment. That's a powerful motivator. If you help people feel uplifted emotionally and positive about themselves, it sets the conditions for them to share your content."
Seize the value of humor and humility
Whether it's a baby talking smack from his crib or burly men dancing in tutus while eating chips, brands that make good use of humor can create viral moments or cultural memes. "Humor is something that many audiences find appealing, male and female, all ages," says Dowell. "Sometimes, not taking yourself so seriously is just the vibe that your audience needs to experience."
As an example, Dowell cites an imaginary photography studio. "They're in a crowded category," he says. "Chances are their target audience is already experiencing 'portfolio fatigue' while researching all of the options out there. Sooner or later all of the photography studios will start to look the same to them. That presents an opportunity to have fun."
Dowell suggests a company like that run a campaign featuring their goofiest client photos, or making fun of the photographer selection process. "View it from the consumer's perspective," he says. "Provide some personality and lighthearted humor that will draw your audience in."
Fit into the conversation authentically
"It's a good idea to first understand how your brand can fit into conversations."
While independent businesses may not be able to compete with big brands on social media on game day, they can make an impact within their respective communities and industries. "Small businesses can find adjacent social media opportunities through themes, stories and trends either within ads or during the game itself," says Kate Canada Obregon, chief strategy officer and co-founder of Oishii Creative.
But first, she says, "it's a good idea to first understand how your brand can fit into conversations. At a minimum, this means taking advantage of every opportunity by listening and engaging live through social media."
Obregon suggests companies use social media "listening" apps to track conversations, relevant phrases, words, or trends, and then empower their social media teams to comment and share stories, tips, and ideas. "As long as what you're putting out there is aligned with your core brand values, you'll be able to fit in in an authentic way," she says.
Take advantage of those in-between moments
Viewers have come to expect commercials that are funny, outrageous, simply absurd — and fast-paced. Obregon says there's opportunity in the moments when audiences are not "flying on an emotional high."
"Several brands have created ads that slowed the frenetic pacing of the day," she says, citing a carmaker's ad that celebrated centenarians. "And they were huge successes because they took their time to build interesting, well-crafted and timely stories about living the good life and positive thinking." Obregon says these moments, by opening up space for the audience, allow more active participation in real-time social media to help build a bigger conversation.
For small businesses, Obregon says this may mean creating content or launching initiatives that aren't timed around major events or holidays. "Follow a theme and then build the story on different platforms throughout the year, be it social media, blogs or media opportunities," she says. "Track what's working and what isn't, so you know where and how best to spend your time and resources. But remember to have fun and enjoy the experimentation process, too. Otherwise, what's the point?"
Brian O'Connor is an editor and writer in New York who writes about business and brands.
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