Consumers are likely to notice something different when they tune into the Super Bowl this Sunday: a slew of advertisers they've never seen before on the game, many of which saw their businesses boom over the last year during the pandemic.
An ever-growing list of newcomers will be shelling out roughly $5.5 million for a 30-second commercial to show their stuff. Among them: trading app Robinhood; freelance worker platform Fiverr; online food delivery company DoorDash; used car company Vroom; resale platform Mercari; gardening supplier Scotts Miracle-Gro; employment website Indeed; online betting company DraftKings; restaurant chain Chipotle; Kimberly-Clark's Huggies; and mayonnaise brand Hellman's, owned by Unilever. And more will surface as the game draws closer this weekend.
Companies that are advertising during this year's game face risk because of the coronavirus pandemic. Derek Rucker, who teaches advertising strategy at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, said brands that are too serious could be perceived as a downer by consumers, but going too far in the other direction also could be counterproductive.
"There is a possibility that if you're so irrelevant and so disconnected, consumers might not really like it," he said. "The stakes are high and some brands will get it right, and I want to see how they manage that."
Some of the newcomers were useful for consumers at home during the pandemic. The ad from DoorDash, for instance, will feature "Sesame Street" characters highlighting items like paper towels (or yes, cookies) that it can deliver. The company last year began offering more convenience items, household supplies and other health and wellness products during the pandemic, when people were trying to limit their grocery store trips.
"We got about 20 million new customers in Covid time last year, and the goal is to keep them and grow the market," Hagedorn said on "Power Lunch."
Hagedorn added that the Super Bowl is a way to reach those people and persuade them to stay.
"The Super Bowl is a great platform for the big, breakthrough kinds of messages for a company," said Jim Nail, principal analyst for B2C Marketing. In a year like this, that could mean, "How is the brand relevant in a pandemic-induced world?"
Nail said Indeed is following this route and expects and Fiverr to do the same in their ads. The former said its spot will highlight the journey of looking for a job in a challenging market when people are facing economic distress. Fiverr's ad will discuss how small businesses have needed to pivot their businesses digitally to survive, and how freelancers from Fiverr could help.
Fiverr chief marketing officer Gali Arnon said this has been a "landmark year" for the company.
"All over the world, freelancers [are] joining our platform, because of the situation, because of the pandemic and because of the high rate of unemployment all over the world," she said.
Mercari's spot shows a couple receiving two popcorn makers as gifts, then showing as they list one on Mercari, and then shows it in its new home. "Buy or sell almost anything online from home," the voiceover reads.
Mercari's U.S. CEO John Lagerling told CNBC the company started to see an uptick in business beginning in the spring lockdowns.
"People wanted to turn unused things into cash, manage their finances," he said. On the other side, they wanted to "bling out, or optimize" their spaces while they were at home using secondhand items.
In a normal year, people may have turned to Craigslist or old-fashioned garage sales to find or get rid of old items, but many people were trying to limit contact. And Lagerling said Mercari was a way for them to do that.
And because of the pandemic, real-life roommates and a real-life couple were cast in the ad rather than strangers pretending to be living together or married. The company worked with Rain the Growth Agency on the ad.
Another Super Bowl newbie, Vroom launched its IPO in 2020 and said it saw major growth as people chose to shop for vehicles online instead of at a dealership. Though the company said it initially saw disruption to its e-commerce operations because of the pandemic, consumer demand for used vehicles eventually returned to pre-Covid levels because of strong demand for e-commerce and contact-free delivery.
"Particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, some people physically could not get to a dealership because some of them had to close for obvious reasons," Vroom chief marketing officer Peter Scherr said. "We were an interesting alternative and a new one and an innovative one that really captured the moment for consumers."
The spot is part of a campaign with MDC Partners' Anomaly agency. The campaign pits the company's offerings against the traditional process of going to a dealership.
"There's really no bigger stage in the ad world than the Super Bowl," Scherr said. "We're excited to reach a mass audience."
Companies that execute well may very well launch themselves into the headspace of American consumers for good.
"Some of these are companies that have grown significantly during the pandemic, and they're looking to take that momentum and use this big Super Bowl moment as a launching point to get to the next level of brand awareness," said Lee Newman, CEO of Interpublic Group agency MullenLowe U.S. "Traditionally, the Super Bowl has been a vehicle to make that transition into becoming more of a household name, and this year will be no different."
Consumers may be watching more closely than ever for perceived insensitivity or acting too gleeful after a difficult year for the country. Many are likely to err on the side of showing how they have been, and can be, valuable at this time, said Anjali Bal, a marketing professor at Babson College.
Themes will involve "this idea of togetherness, how we're surviving the pandemic, kind of how technology has aided this us in the pandemic, those types of things," she said.
For those sitting out this year's Super Bowl, that decision can be a PR savvy one as brands try to draw attention even if they're not on the game.
Coke said last month it won't be running an in-game spot "to ensure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times" and as it reeled from the financial impact from the pandemic. Pepsi said it's replacing its traditional Super Bowl ad slot with a new campaign to lead in to its halftime show featuring The Weeknd. And Budweiser, which won't be running an in-game Super Bowl ad for the first time in 37 years, is focusing on promoting vaccine awareness and distribution efforts.
But PepsiCo sibling brands, including those in the Frito-Lay portfolio like Doritos and Cheetos, are still running spots. Likewise, other Anheuser-Busch InBev brands like Bud Light and Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade, will run spots.
"My perspective is that the headlines aren't as drastic as the reality," said Bill Wise, CEO of advertising software company Mediaocean. Budweiser, for instance, is getting plenty of attention for not running an ad, he said. Wise also said it appears Bud is upping its ad spending ahead of the game, including on digital channels.
"They're complementing that earned media with more paid media, just in other media types [outside] the Super Bowl," he said. "One could argue Budweiser is actually executing an omni channel campaign better than anyone right now."