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What budding storytellers can learn from this year’s top 6 Super Bowl ads

by Ana Lopez
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The Super Bowl of football is also the Super Bowl of advertising. The greatest storytellers in the advertising world – like the best NFL players – want to compete on this playing field. So startup founders hoping to sharpen their pitch can learn a thing or two from these creators. The USA Today Super Bowl ad meter has been the source for the best advertisements for years. A number of storytelling lessons emerge from this list.

Tell a story – Your audience won’t always remember a list of facts, but they will remember a story. Brain science confirms that we are much more likely to remember information when it is presented in a story. The number 1 ad according to the ad meter was “Forever” by The Farmer’s Dog, a company that makes real food fresh and delivers it to dog owners. The spot opens with a young girl whispering to her black lab puppy, “I’ll always take care of you.” We watch her grow up with her black Lab beside her for every milestone along the way – her first heartbreak, going to college, meeting her partner and having a child. If you had been the founder of The Farmer’s Dog, you probably wouldn’t have been able to air a Super Bowl commercial when you first started the company. But you could have told investors the story of growing up with your dog, why she meant so much to you, and why she deserves the very best.

Tap emotion – “Forever” won because it taps into emotion and so did the #3 ad on the list, “Saving Sawyer,” by Amazon. A story takes us on a journey and has a beginning, middle and end. The ad opens during the pandemic and Sawyer, the family’s dog, is living the high life. The family is always nearby. In the middle of the story, the family goes back to work and school, leaving the lone Sawyer to wreak havoc in the house. As we approach the end of the story, the family realizes they have to do something and buys a dog kennel on Amazon. At the end of this little story (pun intended), the family introduces Sawyer to the coffin, but it turns out it’s not for him. Instead, they used the kennel to transport a small puppy to their home to be Sawyer’s companion. As a founder telling a startup story about your client, remember to share your client’s backstory so that the audience begins to empathize with them. That is the beginning of the customer journey. Then tell your audience what challenges your customer is facing. Your fantastic new solution should then provide a well-deserved, happy ending to your story.

Use humour – Tugging at the heart is one way to tap into emotion (see “Forever” and “Saving Sawyer”), but so is humor. A primary goal of the storyteller is to get your audience to remember what you told them and “funny” can work just as well as “tears” to tap into emotion and evoke memory. Take ad No. 4 of the ad meter, Dunkin’s “Drive-in” (desk, Deviation) starring Ben Affleck. Affleck, in a chic Dunkin’ visor, takes orders with a thick Boston accent at the drive-thru window of a real Dunkins in Medford (Mefuh), just outside Boston. Real customers drive up and have different reactions when they see one of America’s most famous Bostonians at the window. The spot ends with Affleck’s real-life partner, Jennifer Lopez, driving up to the window and berating him, “Is this what you do when you say you’re going to work?” Unsatisfied, he packs up to leave, and she says sharply, “Get me a glass.” Humor can often be found in a startup story if you know where to look for it. For example, a terrible customer experience can make for a hilarious story and a great opening for your pitch. Don’t be afraid to use humor to make your story memorable.

Grab your audience – The #2 Ad Meter spot, “Run With It”, of the NFL (and advertising agency 72 and Sunny) know that a good story grabs you from the moment it starts. The commercial begins with Fox’s play-by-play man Kevin Burkhardt saying, “Let’s go to Erin Andrews with the MVP of the Flag Football World Games.” Fox’s well-known sideline reporter asks Diana Flores, “You’re so elusive, is there anyone who can pull your flags?” Before Diana can finish a sentence, Erin grabs the flag on her right hip and it is on. Flores embarks on a wild chase sequence similar to most Bond film opening action sequences. Flores eludes a string of would-be flag grabbers, including a string of NFL stars. It’s a wild ride, one that aims to invite more women to follow the sport. As a starting storyteller, you have little time to grab the attention of your audience. Make sure to do this with a striking opening and your audience will follow you the rest of the way.

Make the product the hero – The product cannot save the day if it is not celebrated in the story. Popcorns”Break badSpoof – and #5 ad meter ad – is all about the product. Brian Cranston reprises his iconic character, Walter White, creating his latest sensation: Pop corners. White’s former student and assistant, Jesse, is blown away by the taste. So does the drug kingpin’s character, Tuco Salamanca, when he asks for a snack. When Jesse says they come in six signature flavors, Salamanca yells “You’re making seven!” As the Pop Corners title card appears, Walter White says, “Seven works.” The product is central. The budding storyteller should always lay out the basics of why their product is needed, but that doesn’t mean skimping on the product description. Celebrate the product when you get to that part of your story.

Make use of human insight – The best stories are rooted in rich insights about human behavior, one of which the agency Anomaly turned up in Bud Light’s “Delay” ad (#6 on ad meter). It’s a simple observation. One of our greatest fears is not being in control. There’s no better illustration than being stuck on a customer service line. Bud turns this pain – which everyone can relate to – into joy. The ad begins with Kaleigh Sperry, the wife of Top Gun star Miles Teller, who has been on a customer service call for 56 minutes. Miles takes a few Bud Lights from the refrigerator, it cracks open and they dance together to the music of the hold. Simple story. Based on human insight. Completely recognizable. So find that deeply human thing in your startup story that lies at the root of your customer problem and bring it to life in your story.

If you want to tell a winning story about your startup, save the money on the Super Bowl ad and borrow some of these winning storytellers’ techniques.

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