INDIANAPOLIS ( MainStreet) -- Super Bowl commercial time is sold out, but there are still some companies out there that could benefit from some big-game ad spending.Earlier this month, well before the final matchup was decided, Super Bowl XLVI broadcaster NBC ( CMCSA) announced that all of this year's game day ad space had been bought up. The network claims it fetched $3.5 million per 30-second ad this year, with NFL sponsors such as Pepsi ( PEP), General Motors ( GM) and Anheuser-Busch InBev ( BUD) buying up huge blocks and mainstays such as GoDaddy and halftime show sponsor Bridgestone returning to the fold. That didn't mean there wasn't room for newcomers this year. The amount of Super Bowl commercial time has increased from 74 ads at 36 minutes, 45 seconds in 2002 to 96 ads at 46 minutes, 10 seconds last year after peaking at 104 spots at 47 minutes, 50 seconds in 2010, according to Kantar Media. The number of first-timers willing to take that expensive plunge in tough economic times has dwindled from seven companies and 23% of Super Bowl commercial buyers in 2007 to just four ( Best Buy ( BBY), CarMax ( KMX), Groupon ( GRPN) and Salesforce.com ( CRM)) that made up 14% of big game ad sales last year. Considering that more than 30% of Super Bowl ad buyers during the past two years dedicated more than 10% of their annual advertising budget to spots aired during the game, newcomers are taking a huge leap by plunking down that $3.5 million per ad. If they follow the example of companies that splurged on the 10 to 13 60-second ads that have run during the game in each of the past four years, they're just doubling down on that risk. Only three companies are taking the plunge for the first time this year. Well-established brands such as yogurt-peddling Dannon and home seller Century 21 make their first appearance on the big stage, while movie studio Relativity Media made perhaps the biggest splash by buying four 30-second spots for its upcoming war film Act of Valor. They shouldn't be alone. We took a look around the marketplace and found 10 companies that could use a Super Bowl-sized boost in business:
For years, few eateries beyond the local pub could get the combination of football, beer and wings just right. Those simple core elements were either relegated to sideshows by servers in three-sizes-too-small uniforms, just part of the scenery amid sports memorabilia or sports network-inspired arcade games or considered just minor touches of an overall slow-casual concept. It didn't take long for Buffalo Wild Wings to make all of those models seem overthought and downright wrong. Since 2007, the Columbus, Ohio-based chain's overall restaurant count has spiked from 439 right around the time Peyton Manning was guiding the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl XLI win over the Chicago Bears to 776 at the start of the 2011 NFL season. As a result, total revenue by the third quarter of last year was up nearly 31% from the same period in 2010, to $197.8 million. Combined same-store sales were up nearly 5% during the same stretch and Chief Executive Sally Smith was forecasting 7.5% growth in same-store sales in the fourth quarter, noting that "Football fans are filling our restaurants and our fourth-quarter marketing plans are stronger than ever." This is a chain with huge plans for 2012 that include 12% unit growth, 20% net earnings growth and overall expansion that will bring it to more than 1,000 locations by the start of 2013. What it doesn't have, however, is a partnership with the NFL that allows it to refer to the on-screen excitement as anything but an ambiguous "The Playoffs" in its ads. The NFL and its product are just as important to Buffalo Wild Wings' success as its spicy chicken or pints of suds. Its continued growth is impressive, but solidifying its football cred with a Super Bowl commercial could make consumers associate Buffalo Wild Wings with NFL action as easily as they associate hot wings with tears, sweat and buckets of bleu cheese.
Wait, didn't Pizza Hut put Jessica Simpson and Miss Piggy in an ad during that Seattle Seahawks-Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl back in 2006? Yes, but even Piggy has a higher profile than Simpson these days and the pizza landscape has changed just a bit since the days of the Cheesy Bites pizza. For one, Papa John's ( PZZA) is now the NFL's pizza purveyor of choice and has held tight to the league's official pizza sponsorship for a few years now. That means it can give away a free pizza every 46 seconds until the Super Bowl and splatter Super Bowl XLVI logos over its site all it wants while Pizza Hut has to allude to "the big game" and time its $10 pizza promotions just so. It's also no longer competing against the cardboard crust, plastic gratin cheese and brownish-red marinara that Domino's ( DPZ) used to crank out before 2010. Since Domino's basically called it formula garbage that year and revamped its pizzas, the company's share price soared to an all-time high of nearly $35 in December. Pizza Hut knows it needs to make a move to preserve or cut a bigger slice of the game-day pie. Papa John's, Pizza Hut and Domino's all see a roughly 50% sales spike on Super Bowl. Pizza Hut, however, sends out 1.7 million pizzas that day, compared with 1.2 million for Domino's and little more than 750,000 for Papa John's. At one point, Pizza Hut thought it would be a good idea to guard the throne and run a $3 million ad during last year's Super Bowl. It pulled out at the last minute, claiming it wanted to focus on pre-game marketing instead. We realize Pizza Hut may be feeling on top of its game right now, Jessica Simpson's on-screen career and Domino's resurgent success are just a few examples of the fickle consumer base it's dealing with. Splurge for that pizza ad while viewers are still hungry for it.
Reed Hastings should apologize. Or be able to laugh at his own mistakes. Or at least offer consumers a consolation prize. Either way, a Super Bowl ad this year would have been a great way to curry some favor with consumers again after splitting up its disc mailing and streaming services, jacking up prices as a result and chasing away roughly 800,000 subscribers in the third quarter alone. Coupled with Netflix's failure to keep Liberty Starz on as a partner, the price hike seriously angered a lot of folks who otherwise may have stuck around to see Netflix revive Arrested Development and add streaming partners. The company and its shareholders have been paying the price. Share prices fell by roughly two-thirds and management warned that the company would report a loss in some quarters of 2012 and later revised the outlook saying it will lose money for all of the year. The shareholders didn't like that one bit and sued Netflix earlier this month, alleging that the company's management withheld information. While the share price has recovered by more than 40% and the company has yet to report its fourth-quarter numbers, Netflix is missing a big goodwill opportunity by sitting on the sidelines and admitting nothing while Super Bowl commercials roll by. Doesn't it concern Netflix that Amazon ( AMZN) seems dead serious about bulking up its Amazon Prime streaming offerings that already come with shipping incentives for the online superstore's customers? Isn't it concerned that Hulu is also rolling out original content and taking a share of potential subscribers? Either of the teams playing in this year's Super Bowl could probably tell Netflix about the perils of sitting on a lead and going into the "prevent" defense. Sometimes, it just prevents you from winning. Going on offense, taking out a Super Bowl ad showing even a shred of humility and using it as an opportunity to reward customers who stayed while recruiting new ones could have been a winning strategy. It's too bad Netflix is just trying to run out the clock until DVDs die.
So maybe 2011 wasn't the best year for the normally jovial gaming giant. Its new 3DS handheld console needed a price drop right out of the gate to get sales going. Its Wii sales faltered despite the release of long-awaited titles such as Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. More troubling, however, was that its market share among both mobile devices and consoles dwindled as Apple ( AAPL) iOS and Google ( GOOG) Android smartphones and tablets stole its thunder while Microsoft ( MSFT) and Sony ( SNE) co-opted its motion controls. That all contributed to nearly $1 billion in losses for Nintendo worldwide last year. But it's a new year: a mushroom-powered big year for Mario and company. Nintendo will release its first new console in six years when the Wii U arrives in late 2012. It has touchscreen controllers that turn into portable devices when the TV is off, high-definition graphics finally worthy of the HDTVs they're being played on and downloadable content and third-party support previously unheard of for a Nintendo product. It's the kind of event that could get dormant casual gamers excited about playing Mario Kart again. It's the kind of event that could vault Nintendo back into the lead among game manufacturers and help the company fend off both hard-core gamer critics and competition from devices such as Sony's upcoming Vita handheld. It's the kind of event that screams for Super Bowl commercials -- perhaps for both the Wii U and 3DS. But those commercials aren't coming, which is as frustrating as someone nailing your kart with a blue shell just as you're about to eke out a win. The competition is only getting more intense as game manufacturers face pressure from cheaper games and more integrated devices. A Super Bowl commercial would have been an easy way to generate big excitement and remind people why consoles matter. Instead, as other companies draw traffic to their sites or attention to their iPhone apps, Nintendo hides under a Koopa shell hoping consumer nostalgia will be enough to float its newest console. C'mon, Nintendo, get in the game.
"Imports" from Detroit and endorsements from Eminem are great and all, but the all-American game Chrysler's playing with its football ads isn't going to do a thing to sell tiny Fiat 500s. Chrysler sales were up 26% in 2011 as the company emerged from bankruptcy, retooled its lines and discarded what wasn't working. Unfortunately, Fiat sales slid below expectations as the Fiat 500 managed to outsell only the dying Dodge Dakota, Chrysler Sebring and Jeep Commander. We'll admit this is a bit of a tall order at this stage. Fiat's offering exactly one car and at very few dealerships in the U.S. compared with Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep. However, Fiat for some reason uncorked its Fiat 500 ad featuring J-Lo last fall instead of waiting for a more high-powered, high-profile Super Bowl ad in January. We're not sure what kind of demographic game Fiat is trying to play with its ad strategy, but 111 million Americans watched the Super Bowl last year. You can't ask for a bigger audience than Chrysler got for its own spots. If Fiat wants to get serious and remind everyone of its more than 58% stake in Chrysler, it needs to start taking its Super Bowl ad time a lot more seriously. Audi, Cadillac, Chevy, Honda, Hyundai/Kia, Toyota ( TM) and Volkswagen are all going to be making appearances during the Super Bowl this year and throwing their own cute cars and luxury offerings into the mix. Last year, car companies alone spent $77.5 million on Super Bowl ads, a big boost from the previous high of $29.7 million in 2010 and a dramatic increase from just $8.8 million in 2002. If Fiat wants to bury "Fix It Again Tony" once and for all and put its vehicle in the same league as the Mini, Ford's ( F) Fiesta, Chevy's Sonic, Toyota's reworked Yaris or any of the other mighty-mite vehicles out there, it has to start taking chances. Even if that means revealing the Italian behind the Chrysler's red-while-and-blue curtain.
This burgeoning burger chain is the worst-kept secret in the markets where it's succeeding, but it hasn't cooked into a household name. That's where a Super Bowl ad would come in handy. Without one -- or really any advertising, for that matter -- the chain built on big burgers, fresh ingredients and free peanuts grew from a local Washington, D.C., outfit back in 2002 to more than 900 locations in 46 states and Canada today. Another 1,500 are in development as sales grew more than 37%, to $625 million between 2010 and 2011. Fast-casual chains such as Panera Bread ( PNRA) and Chipotle ( CMG) don't get a whole lot of commercial play as it is, but fast-casual burgers have been booming. Fast-casual burger joints including Five Guys and In-N-Out Burgers saw sales grow 17% by the end of 2010 while fast-food burger sales put up modest 1.6% growth during the same period. As Burger King considers delivery, Wendy's ( WEN) becomes more burger-centric as it eyes the No. 2 spot in the U.S. and McDonald's ( MCD) grows by building beyond the burger, now is as a good a time as any for fast-casual and Five Guys to seize the spotlight. But that's just not going to happen. Five Guys and its cohorts have come this far by sticking to the formula and plowing profits back into the product instead of spending millions on marketing. That $3.5 million can go toward better beef, plumper pickles or pallets of regional potatoes. A Super Bowl ad could make Five Guys the next big thing in burgers, but you get the feeling it wants something better.
Makers of yellow water can tell drinkers to man up and breweries can teach Clydesdales new tricks, but none of the big beer advertisers are going to put an IPA, porter or holiday 12-pack on a Super Bowl screen any time soon. Boston Beer and its Samuel Adams brand are one of the few craft beer makers that can change all of that. Beer Marketer's Insights estimates that Boston Beer sold 2.4 million barrels of its beers last year, up from 2.26 million in 2010. The company hasn't released its fourth-quarter results yet, but sales are up 8% year-to-date and its share price reached an all-time high of more than $108.50 in December. So if it's growing, why go up against Big Beer with a Super Bowl ad when Anheuser-Busch InBev has spent $239 million on such ads within the last decade? Because even with the continued growth of craft beer, the segment still makes up only 5% of the overall U.S. beer market. Because of all the craft brewers, only Samuel Adams has had a national campaign before and has the cash to sink into a $3.5 million Super Bowl spot. Perhaps the best reason is that its biggest audience of potential new drinkers -- the more than 78% of beer buyers buying Anheuser-Busch InBev and MolsonCoors ( TAP) products -- will be enjoying a beer with its Super Bowl viewing. Show that audience a better beer and commercials that actually talk about the product instead of the packaging or pratfalls and there's a chance the beer they buy for the next big game won't come in can-filled cardboard briefcase.
So maybe the Facebook hatred wasn't as deep as it appeared. Google+ didn't quite take off as the social answer to Facebook or Twitter when it was released last year, but a ton of tweaks to Google's search algorithm and to the Google+ news feed are making it a very different product than it was at inception. Too bad a sizable target audience isn't getting that message. While the casual social media user may see a headline here or there about how Google+ changes are angering Twitter or how Google is changing everything about how you search for anything in the world ever, it's not prying them off of Facebook or hauling them into Google+ in any large numbers. If you're Google and you know you have a superior product that can do amazing things if people just give it a chance, why wouldn't you scream out its praises on the biggest stage possible? Apple isn't above it when introducing its iNextBigThing and Google shouldn't fear it if it really wants Google+ to become a standard instead of a social media also-ran. Analyst Paul Allen notes the site just passed 62 million members, which Facebook didn't hit until four years into its lifespan. Strong Android device sales are only making the site more integrated and accessible and Allen says it's not a stretch to say Google+ could have 400 million users -- or half of Facebook's current user base -- by the end of 2012. Adweek's already named Google's Dear Sophie one of the best ads of 2011. Nobody's saying Google has to produce another Apple 1984 piece, but if they're going to change the game in a big way, a big push wouldn't hurt.
Borders has been dead for almost a year, Sears ( SHLD) just announced that it's closing more than 100 stores and Best Buy ( BBY) couldn't even manage a sales bump during the holiday season. Where's everybody shopping? If Amazon wanted to make the leap from online convenience to retail icon, it would exclaim as loudly as it could on Super Bowl Sunday "They're shopping here." Amazon is all the convenience of the Sears catalog, all the selection of a big-box bookstore and offers a broader array of gadgets than the biggest electronics shop all in a consumer's desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Just think of how that would translate to a commercial filled with merchandise, Amazon Prime video streaming, its cloud drive, Kindle e-readers and tablets, its Android Appstore, game downloads and so on. It may seem counterproductive to shout about a company that's having no problem moving product and generating revenue, but this is a critical time for Amazon. Share prices have been slumping since October, Netflix is just starting to recover from its stumbles and Apple's e-textbook announcement just made low-end Kindles low-cost textbook alternatives to the iPad. Now is the time for Amazon to pounce instead of pretending that Super Bowl commercials are so last century.
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