Success Without a Plan: The Super Bowl Halftime Show Paradox

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The Super Bowl halftime show holds a strangely unique and enviable place in culture, one that no other annual event can really emulate. It blends so many different entertainment elements – most of which generally live outside the world of sport – to create a moment in time that taps into a huge global audience across all forms of media…

But looking back, there doesn’t seem to be a real strategic plan for the show and its growth nor a defined amplification strategy. So, why do marketers (or artists) value this property so highly? Why fit the bill and defy all other rules to be part of this event?

Before we can attempt to answer that question, it is important to explore the halftime show’s history and evolution (and its humble beginnings). The first-ever Super Bowl halftime show, back in 1967, was headlined by a marching band… Much like a high school or college game, it served as the background music to football fans’ bathroom breaks and beer refills, rather than a spectacle in and of itself. The show would go on to host lackluster performers ranging from Elvis-impersonators to magicians before drawing the 115 million+ eyeball it does today.

With time, the help of history-making performances from the likes of Michael Jackson and Prince, and a quick scandal with Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, however, the halftime show transformed into a one-of-a-kind cultural phenomenon. Fast-forward to 2016: Bruno Mars, Coldplay and Beyoncé – arguably some of the biggest names in popular music today – headlined the show, and saw major boosts as a result. After a duet with Mark Ronson and dance-off with Beyoncé, total sales for Bruno Mars’ latest album shot up to 10,000 copies (a 400% increase from the week prior). Coldplay’s seven albums saw a combined sales increase of 93,000, and Beyoncé’s last album saw a pick-up of 44% (nearly two years after its release).

Beyond sales, mentions of these artists, and interest in upcoming tours, boosted across social media. Though performers are not financially compensated for the show (in some cases, they’ve even been asked to pay to play), the exposure from the event is worth its weight in gold. It’s a no-brainer for artists: if you can handle the pressure of the big game, you will reap the benefits.

But on the flipside, what’s the benefit for brands, who are covering the expense of these massive productions? The cost to the NFL of producing the 12-minute halftime show has been estimated at $10 million, while brands presenting the show reportedly spend more than $7 million (not including ad space during the game, which runs about $4 million per 30-second spot). Compare this to the cost of sponsoring a major festival like Coachella or Bonnaroo (hundreds of thousands) and the expense seems overwhelming – but can these properties be compared?

It is widely reported that today’s content consumption is at an all-time high: the options of what to consume are endless, and yet the Super Bowl defies the over-saturation of choice. Where else would millions of people care what happens at halftime or actively talk about TV commercials? The Super Bowl halftime show puts brands in front of an engaged audience of more than 115 million viewers for over 10 minutes, not including the social conversation to follow. It’s an opportunity that stacks up like no other, and $7 million+ becomes a relative investment to be part of this global experience. Pepsi (a longtime halftime show sponsor) has been investing in sports marketing and music for many years, with the industry collectively supporting the success of the brand in driving conversation and awareness, in exchange for their monetary support.

Some would argue that the halftime show’s viewing numbers have to decline, creating opportunities for major performances to step up to the plate. And as brands evolve their storytelling strategies and truly integrate artists into these stories, perhaps we will see moments that can start to give other producers the chance to compete with the NFL, to engage this kind of audience on a similar scale. But for now, their dominance in the global landscape seems like it cannot be touched…

What lives as a benchmark in entertainment also creates a target for the next generation of event producers, broadcasters, content creators and artists to come together and compete.  But given the history, profile and upside for all parties – this is one property that seems untouchable.

The NFL has successfully created an anomaly in entertainment, in which the world’s leading music stars are prepared to perform for free on the biggest stage imaginable, and the best-known brands will fit the bill to be a part of the conversation. What ends up being just a few minutes of intense live music has a ripple effect that benefits the artist and brand on such a huge and impactful level that the normal rules don’t apply.

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