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Brands Turn to Digital in Super Bowl LV

Over the last year brands have been forced to revisit their marketing approaches, and Super Bowl LV proved to be no different. As business and marketing priorities changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, brands went back to the drawing board to adjust their strategy for the event.

Varying Brand Responses Shifted In-Game Ad Line Up

Many longstanding Super Bowl advertisers opted out of National TV Buys this year.

  • Pepsi skipped the in-game ad and focused marketing efforts on the Halftime Show sponsorship.1
  • Budweiser, who skipped the Super Bowl for the first time in 37 years, used the funds from its traditional TV buy to support a vaccine awareness campaign.2
  • Stella Artois, another one of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s brands, switched to smaller regional TV buys.2
  • Avocados from Mexico opted out of the TV buy, but still invested heavily in a digital Super Bowl campaign.3
  • Brands like Facebook and Olay decided to shift their focus to other events. Facebook will be heavying up around the 2021 Grammys, while Olay will lean into International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 2/11.4

With many of the traditional advertisers pulling out of their ad spots, the door was opened for new brands like Huggies, Scotts Miracle-Gro, and Chipotle.5 

Digital Remained An Important Investment Area

As we’ve seen in previous years, digital media remained a key marketing component for advertisers leading up to and during Super Bowl LV. For brands investing the $5.5 million in a 30-second national TV spot5, organic and paid social media was an important component in teasing excitement before the game and engaging consumers outside of the broadcast. Strong organic and paid search strategies were critical to capture the expected increase in search volume following the game, while audience retargeting opportunities opened up in display and paid social following the game to continue driving users through the purchase cycle. Each of these elements are critical to creating a strong full-funnel marketing campaign. 


Digital media also gave opportunities for brands that weren’t buying in-game TV spots to connect with consumers during the event. Avocados from Mexico, who historically ran a national TV spot, produced a robust digital campaign around their Guac Bowl.

Many brands also used the moment to connect with users in smaller ways like sharing game day recipes or running Super Bowl related sales.

Brands Found New Ways to Connect With Consumers

Amid the isolation of the pandemic, brands spanning many industries created and promoted new ways to bring people together, with some of the most popular avenues being TikTok, virtual events, and Augmented Reality (AR).


Last year, TurboTax stood out as one of the first Super Bowl advertisers to heavily invest in TikTok marketing. The brand went viral due to its #W2Step Hashtag Challenge (HTC) and generated over 100M views on its videos by the end of the game.7 Given its clear success, many other brands looked to the platform to support their Super Bowl LV campaign.

With the explosion of multigenerational viewership on TikTok during the pandemic6, there was no better place for advertisers to expand their reach and connect with consumers during Super Bowl LV. Brands like Amazon, Scotts Miracle-Gro, and Subway all leveraged the in-feed video format to reach users on their For You Page (FYP). In the days leading up to the Big Game, Pepsi and Doritos both sponsored highly visible HTCs with Branded Effects, generating over 1B views each by kickoff.

TurboTax continued their heavy investment in TikTok this year, sponsoring a TopView Takeover on Saturday & Sunday. On Sunday, the brand also kicked off the #TurboTaxLivePick6 HTC, which featured current and former NFL stars as the official creators. By kickoff of the game, the HTC had already generated over 200M views—more than double the prior year.

Amazon Turbotax

Virtual Events

With limited spectators allowed in Tampa and people being advised to skip Super Bowl parties this year, brands had a unique opportunity to host their own virtual events.

Weeks ahead of the Big Game, Avocados from Mexico launched an interactive online stadium, Guac Bowl Stadium, to bring the game day experience directly to consumers. Virtual visitors had access to five experiences that they could share for a chance to win prizes, including a $1MM grand prize.

Avocados from mexico

TikTok capitalized on its massive popularity and unique partnership with the NFL to host the first-ever TikTok Tailgate on game day. Headlining Miley Cyrus, the star-studded two-hour pre-game event was held in Tampa for the 7.5K vaccinated healthcare heroes who were invited to attend the Super Bowl.8 The event was live-streamed exclusively for the TikTok community, garnering over 254M views.

Miley tiktok

Virtual events weren’t just popular on TikTok. Verizon, who announced a number of initiatives to support the recovery of small businesses across the U.S., kicked off the new Citizen Verizon program with a Super Bowl after party —Big Concert for Small Businesses.

Verizon concert

The wide variety of virtual events gave consumers a fun and engaging alternative to the in-person events they’ve become accustomed to for Super Bowl Sunday.

Augmented Reality

Subdued game day activities opened an opportunity for brands to digitally engage with fans at home through augmented reality elements.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a handful of brands testing augmented reality technology in platforms like Snapchat. For Super Bowl LV, the number of advertisers adopting these features grew. Brands like Uber Eats, Verizon, Frito-Lay, and the NFL all sponsored Snapchat lenses, while brands like Pepsi and Doritos leveraged the Branded Effects unit in TikTok.Cheetos took their Snap lens to the next level, giving fans the opportunity to win a bag of Cheetos Crunch Pop Mix by pointing their camera at the TV and holding down on the screen. 

Verizon Cheetos

By sponsoring these augmented reality elements on social platforms, brands were able to seamlessly integrate and engage with consumers during their home viewing experience.

Looking Ahead to Super Bowl LVI

Although we expect a lot to change over the next year, we anticipate that many of these digital trends will continue to play an important role for Super Bowl LVI.

TikTok has proven that it is a key contender in the paid social space, both during and outside of the Super Bowl. As TikTok’s ad capabilities continue to evolve, we expect new brands to continue testing the platform.

From a user engagement perspective, consumers are more aware than ever of brands’ ability to deliver personalized and engaging virtual experiences. We expect consumer interest in these experiences to continue, even as social distancing measures are relaxed over time.

We’ll check back in next year to see how brands have continued to evolve!


  1. https://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/pepsi-banks-super-bowl-halftime-marketing-wont-run-separate-game-ad/2304086
  2. https://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/budweiser-skip-super-bowl-first-time-37-years/2308191
  3. https://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/how-cheetos-nike-facebook-and-others-plan-own-super-bowl-social-media-conversation/2311236
  4. https://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/super-bowl-alert-what-we-know-so-far-about-2021-big-game-ads/2303856
  5. https://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/viacomcbs-sells-out-super-bowl-lv-ad-inventory/2309166
  6. https://content-na1.emarketer.com/tiktok-users-around-world-2020
  7. 2020 Merkle Digital Bowl Report; https://www.merkle.com/thought-leadership/digital-bowl-report
  8. https://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/tiktok-taps-miley-cyrus-star-tailgate-super-bowl-show/2308266