Sunday's Super Bowl ads took an unexpected serious tone that bordered on depressing at times. The funny, in-your-face ads were noticeably few, as companies opted to pull on heartstrings or simply played it safe.
The lessons small businesses can pick up from the companies that paid $4.5 million for airtime are free and priceless.
Here are my top marketing takeaways for small businesses from the high-priced ads:
1. Be funny, emotional but balanced.
Super Bowl ads can be funny yet end up not being particularly memorable. They can evoke emotions but somehow fail to prompt viewers to recall a brand. Whether evoking humor or drama in marketing, don't distract from the company's brand image but reinforce it.
Coca-Cola did this well. Its "Make It Happy" spot showed unkind texts and social-media posts that morphed into positive messages once a bottle of Coke spilled into the wiring of servers.
Nissan and Toyota jumped on the fatherhood bandwagon in what looked like an attempt to replicate the emotional power in Hyundai’s "Dad’s Sixth Sense" commercial last year. That worked for Hyundai because the emotions conjured (showing how a father keeps his son from harm as he grows) had tied directly to a car’s new braking features (used by the son as a young driver).
One advertiser went overboard with drama. Nationwide’s "Make Safe Happen" spot depicted a boy explaining all the things he would miss in life since he died. Could Super Bowl partiers easily stomach such a thought-provoking ad?
Lesson: Focus first on communicating the right message to the right audience at the right time. To be effective, small businesses need to clearly tie the benefits that differentiate their products with emotions that make sense and evoke positive sentiment for their brands.
2. Engage with customers.
An in-store promotion will run through Valentine’s Day, giving the campaign additional life. McDonald’s brought this promotion to viewers' second screens and shared some "lovin'" for other companies: McDonald's gave away dozens of prizes to followers who retweeted flattering messages that the company posted about other advertisers' spots.
Lesson: Explore ways to extend marketing campaigns via social media to build buzz and increase reach. For a small investment, startups can test social-media campaigns and, if they prove effective, allocate more funds to them.
3. Stay true to your brand.
GoDaddy stood out only in its deviation from its shock-and-awe ads of years past. The advertiser scrapped its original ad after backlash from animal lovers about a spot that mentioned a puppy being sold.
A new GoDaddy’s ad depicted a small-business owner who missed the big game because building his company took priority. The message was on point but perhaps not on brand since GoDaddy has typically relied on humor in its advertising.
Lesson: It’s important that brands do not stray too far from their core in their advertising. Small businesses need to be consistent and deliver on customers’ expectations for their product and the brand.
4. Don’t spend everything in one place.
There were 15 newcomers among the Super Bowl advertisers. Loctite’s and Wix.com’s ads were amusing, while Mophie took a dramatic approach: It presented a dire moment supposedly when God's cellphone battery dies.
But did the newcomers’ $4.5 million spots deliver the expected return on investment?
Lesson: Small businesses with limited resources can't risk everything at once. Test different marketing methods, learn what works for you, what doesn't work and invest in the winning strategies.
5. Beware of celebrity.
Celebrities were all over the ads. Kim Kardashian West’s T-Mobile ad dripped with irony (she promised smartphone users they wouldn't miss out on any of her frequent posts). Whether you love or hate the reality star, the storyline clearly connected to T-Mobile’s message about customers being able to roll over unused data allocations.
The lesson: As valuable as a celebrity endorsement can be for generating brand awareness, this can be costly for small businesses. Startups should tread carefully and choose celebrities -- even local ones -- who are focused on their customers’ wants and needs. Use of celebrity personalities can run the risk of overshadowing the brand.
Related: Who Won the Social Super Bowl?