Q&A with Kellogg School’s Brand Expert Tim Calkins



Yes, we know that at this point, the giant sugar rush we all experienced around this year’s Super Bowl ads has subsided, but when we got the opportunity to “talk shop” with a fellow Super Bowl ad “junkie” especially one with the acumen in brand and marketing strategy that Tim Calkins possesses, we weren’t about to pass it up.

Tim is clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and co-academic director of Kellogg’s branding program. He has studied and analyzed the strategies employed by Super Bowl advertisers for almost two decades and leads the Kellogg Super Bowl Advertising Review. We crossed paths with Tim as both he and Dialsmith CEO David Paull participated in this market research panel which discussed and dissected the spots that ran during this year’s Big Game. Tim had some great insights during the panel discussion so we asked (and he graciously agreed) to dive deeper with us on his research approach and what he’s learned from his years of studying these ads and the companies that invest in them.

Q: Where did your interest in the Super Bowl ads come from?

Tim: I have been studying Super Bowl ads for almost two decades. Before joining the Kellogg School of Management, I spent 11 years at Kraft Foods. While at Kraft I regularly reviewed the Super Bowl spots as a learning exercise with my team. I began the Kellogg Super Bowl Advertising Review in 2006.

Q: How have brands changed their approach to Super Bowl advertising since you first began studying them?

Tim: Two things have changed significantly for Super Bowl advertisers. First, the stakes have gone up. The price of a Super Bowl ad has increased dramatically. Viewership is also up. This puts enormous pressure on the advertisers. Second, the growth of digital communication has transformed the Super Bowl marketing opportunity. Ten years ago most Super Bowl advertisers would create a Super Bowl spot and run it. Now almost every advertiser uses the spot along with a website, social media effort and PR campaign.

Q: How has your methodology for studying the ads changed from when you first began studying them?

Tim: We have formalized our process over the years. In particular we embraced the ADPLAN framework to use when evaluating the ads. This framework involves six different factors. Each is important: attention, distinction, positioning, linkage, amplification and net equity.

The event has grown in size and scope. This year we had almost 100 people gathered at the Kellogg School of Management to watch the Super Bowl spots.

Q: What do you feel are the most important factors in determining whether a Super Bowl ad is successful or not?

Tim: There isn’t one critical factor. To be successful, a spot has to succeed on a number of different dimensions. Each part of the ADPLAN framework matters.

Linkage is a factor that many companies struggle with; they create captivating spots but there isn’t much linkage to the brand. As a result, people remember the creative but not the brand. This year, for example, Toyota ran a campaign saluting fathers. The advertising was heart-warming but didn’t connect to the brand.

Q: Are there bigger lessons learned for brands and advertisers from the results of your Super Bowl ad studies?

Tim: You can learn an enormous about advertising and marketing by studying the Super Bowl. Each advertiser on the game is working exceptionally hard to break through the clutter. As a result, on the Super Bowl you see the latest in marketing techniques.

People sometimes say the Super Bowl is a completely unique event when it comes to marketing. I disagree; the Super Bowl gets a lot of attention, but the fundamentals of good communication apply to the Super Bowl just as they apply to every other event.

Q: The brands that you gave high scores to this year, what did they do right?

Tim: The top advertisers on the Super Bowl this year according to the Kellogg Super Bowl Advertising Review panel were McDonalds, Coke, Fiat, Clash of Clans, Always and Bud/Bud Light.

There wasn’t one formula for success. McDonalds, Coke, Bud and Bud Light all benefitted from exceptionally strong branding. It was very clear who the ad was from. Fiat and Budweiser told engaging stories that really drew people in; this helped with attention. Always ran a very unique spot and excelled on distinction; there was nothing else like it on the Super Bowl. All the best spots attracted attention and had solid brand linkage.

Q: The brands that scored low, what did they do wrong?

Tim: There were several advertisers that received low scores this year. The list includes: Squarespace, Lexus and Nissan. Lexus simply didn’t break through. The brand ran two spots featuring cars driving in a dynamic fashion. This just isn’t enough to stand out on the game.

Squarespace developed an ad featuring Jeff Bridges chanting “ommmmm.” This ad scored poorly largely due to a positioning program. People on our panel weren’t clear what was being advertised or why they should buy it.

Q: What will we be talking about next year at this time in regards to the Super Bowl ads?

Tim: Next year we will be marveling at the new, record high price for a Super Bowl spot. This year the Super Bowl set a record in terms of viewership. In a world of fragmenting audiences, the Super Bowl has unique reach. Networks understand this and will keep increasing the fee to participate.

Great stuff Tim! If you want to follow’s Tim’s work, check out his Blog or follow him on Twitter.

If you want to revisit our results from this year’s Super Bowl ad ratings, click here.