5 Companies That Really Need a Super Bowl Ad

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Why does it seem as if every big brand gets a Super Bowl ad except those that need one the most?

Super Bowl XLVIII broadcaster Fox has sold out its inventory of commercial time for about $4 million per 30-second spot. Perennial NFL sponsors such as General Motors, Anheuser-Busch InBev and halftime-show patron Pepsi buying up huge blocks and mainstays such as GoDaddy and Coca-Cola also eating up ad time.

The space for newcomers is shrinking, however, as commercials get longer and prices rise. The amount of Super Bowl commercial time has decreased from 83 ads at 40 minutes, 35 seconds in 2003 to 78 ads at 47 minutes, 25 seconds in 2012 after peaking at 104 spots at 47 minutes, 50 seconds in 2010, according to Kantar Media. The 2012 commercial space also featured 15 ads of 60 seconds or more, which took up about 20% of all ad time and made things a lot more expensive for newcomers looking to stake their claim. Still, first-timers expanded from four companies and 14% of Super Bowl commercial buyers in 2011 to 10 that made up 30% of big game ad sales last year.

Super Bowl newbies tend to have a whole lot more riding on these spots than the regulars do, though. The fresh faces tend to be among the 15% of Super Bowl ad buyers in the past decade that dedicated more than 10% of their annual advertising budget to spots aired during the game. The 30% of advertisers that wagered a big chunk of their media budget on Super Bowl commercials in 2010 and 2011 took a huge leap, but made it count.

Jaguar is among the new arrivals to this year's Super Bowl party, but they should have far more company. Given what a tough year some companies have had, we took a look around and found five that could use a Super Bowl-sized boost in business. Whether it's just been a slow season or a continued slide into irrelevance, we think a well-placed Super Bowl ad could be a great reminder of what these companies do right and what the U.S. consumer is missing:

Mitsubishi

We recommended that Mitsubishi do this last year, but maybe it was just paralyzed with grief after watching one of its good friends leave the U.S. market.

Suzuki sold its last 6,000 cars here in 2013 and ceded its 0.1% share of the market after none of its vehicles really caught on. That came just after Isuzu, another Japanese automaker and former partner in General Motors' Geo program, vacated the market just a few years ago.

Mitsubishi, meanwhile, has been watching its sales slide and its presence fade for more than a decade. The former Mitsubishi Motors North America partnership between Chrysler and Mitsubishi once produced vehicles such as the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Sebring at its plant in Normal, Ill. Mitsubishi Motors North America has since been reduced to producing only the Outlander Sport crossover SUV, roughly 60% of which are exported to other countries.

Mitsubishi has killed off its Eclipse, Endeavor and Galant vehicles in recent years and sells only three models in the U.S.: The Lancer compact, the Outlander crossover SUV and new Mirage subcompact. That said, this is a company with something to crow about. The Mirage gets 44 miles per gallon on the highway and is the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid sold. In spring, Mitsubishi is reintroducing its newly retooled MiEV electric vehicle that was the cheapest electric car sold in the U.S. when it debuted in 2012. With a 112-miles-per-gallon equivalency, the MiEV seems like a strong low-budget challenge to Tesla and Nissan's Leaf.

The good news for Mitsubishi is that its 7.7% uptick in U.S. sales last year is a huge step in the right direction. The bad news? It still only has a 0.4% share of the U.S. market, tied with Volvo and Mini and ahead of only Porsche (0.3%), Land Rover (0.3%) and Jaguar (0.1). Since it doesn't fetch the premium price of any of the above, it needs a whole lot more exposure if it intends to reach a broader array of drivers.

Red Lobster

How bad was 2013 for Red Lobster? It had to spend the latter portion of the year assuring potential customers it wasn't dead.

Rumors of its demise weren't all that exaggerated. Parent company Darden Restaurants saw Red Lobster's same-store sales slip 4.5% last quarter and Darden and made noise about spinning off Red Lobster into its own entity. Red Lobster's prestige has faded in recent years, as even in a Darden portfolio that includes the Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and Yard House chains, Red Lobster falls somewhere beneath the Capital Grille in the pecking order. Darden issued warnings as early as 2012 that its 2-for-$25 meal deals were falling short of the 2-for-$20 deals offered by its competitors. It's been fairly disastrous since.

Even as Darden toyed with the restaurant's logo and uniforms and briefly considered ditching waiters and waitresses altogether, there wasn't much working in Red Lobster's favor. NPD Group noted that the number of restaurant visits driven by deals rose between 3% and 5% at the height of the recession in 2008 and 2009, but slumped 3% last year. What casual-dining establishments are learning quickly is that nobody's going to buy their reheated food or pre-fabricated atmosphere if they don't feel it's a value. The cost of dinners out rose nearly 3% over the [ast year, according to the Consumer Price Index. That's more than the 2.2% overall rate of inflation and isn't helped when a $10 promotional meal jumps to $12 or $14, jacking up the price 20% to 40%.

Meanwhile, as Outback Steakhouse and Carraba's Italian owner Bloomin' Brands added the Bonefish Grill seafood chain to its family more than a decade ago and even lower-tier casual-dining chains such as DineEquity's Applebee's added seafood to their menus at reduced prices, Red Lobster's appeal diminished. On the more casual end, it lost ground to Buffalo Wild Wings. That chain's emphasis on beer, wings, sports and lots of big televisions helped it grow from 340 restaurants in 2008 to more than 500 by 2010 and boosted its revenue by 6.6% that year alone.

The Super Bowl aims ads directly at consumers who were once Red Lobster's core constituents. They were the folks who paid for fancy seafood dinners in landlocked states and saw the chain as destination dining. Now they see it as an overpriced strip mall stop with decent cheddar biscuits. A Super Bowl ad could have helped not only give the company a pep talk as it reinvents itself, but could have helped reintroduce it to U.S. diners who've since sought other options. Now, it's just a fading seafood chain set adrift.

MillerCoors

Back in 2010, MillerCoors and the NFL were as tight as a can of Coors Light and a plate of hot wings. The SABMiller/MolsonCoors joint venture had the NFL's official beer sponsorship, its frost-brewed Coors Light frozen bullet train was chugging through every NFL broadcast and the view from MolsonCoors' U.S. headquarters in Golden, Colo., was rosy -- even if the recession had skunked its sales numbers a bit.

Flash forward to 2014 and the results are a bit more muddled. Though a surging Coors Light wrested the No. 2 spot among U.S. beer brands away from Budweiser in 2011, MillerCoors' fortunes were flattening out. Mainstay brands including Miller Lite and Miller High Life lost sales and market share every year.

In the first six months of 2013, MillerCoors saw shipments fall 4% from the year before. That dropped revenue by $60 million and sank operating income by $31 million. Beer Marketer's Insights predicts MillerCoors shipments will drop 3% for all of 2013, but none of that justifies a Super Bowl commercial.

MillerCoors successes would, and it has more than a few of those to point to. Its Blue Moon brand is growing at a faster pace than Coors Light and is already produced in quantities rivaling Boston Beer's entire Samuel Adams output. It's also making inroads with its Third Shift, Redd's and Leinenkugel's shandy brands that are upsetting craft beer folks but improving MillerCoors' products and introducing them to a new audience.

A-B InBev has exclusive rights to Super Bowl beer ads through 2015, but MillerCoors has plenty of reason to get into the game. If it doesn't have ads for its niche beers ready to come off the bench by 2016, it may as well forfeit any Super Bowl dreams it once harbored.

Sears

Sears seems more interested in playing photo tag with our Rocco Pendola and Brian Sozzi than in getting anyone to shop at its stores, which explains a lot about its current state of affairs.

Even with 2,500 Sears and Kmart outlets and $40 billion in annual sales, Sears Holdings' revenue has plunged by 13.5% in the past four years. In early January, Sears gave analysts the heads-up that it was expecting a $1.4 billion loss for 2013. For the full year, Sears Holdings is projecting an adjusted loss of between $308 million and $408 million, which is an improvement in Sears Fantasyland compared with earnings of $557 million last year.

Its same-store sales have fallen for seven straight years, along with its American Customer Satisfaction Index score. While the S&P 500 has risen by roughly 114% since 2009 and Wal-Mart's share price has jumped by 50% in that span, Sears' shares have sunk 28% -- including a 70.5% drop from its lofty $122-a-share high in 2010. Chairman and Chief Executive Eddie Lampert closed a third of the chain's locations in the past four years and sold assets including Orchard Supply Hardware Stores, Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores, Land's End and portions of Sears Canada. Its flagship Craftsman tools are now sold at Costco and Ace Hardware stores.

The S&P 500 booted it from the benchmark index, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average showed its ticker the door back in 1999. Meanwhile, Lampert has treated Sears' remaining flagship stores in downtown locations, stand-alone lots and old malls like real estate holdings. Sears even gleefully lists its available square footage on the company's "realty" site, and it's listening to offers to subdivide its remaining stores.

Those holdout stores look as if they've been encased in amber since the 1990s, as Sears and Kmart spend a scant $1 to $2 per square foot updating facilities, according to International Strategy & Investment Group. By comparison, competitors such as Target and Wal-Mart spend up to $8 per square foot painting, updating registers and replacing tiles.

Why should a company that spends so little on the basics spend $4 million on a 30-second Super Bowl commercial? To defend its thesis. Sears isn't afraid of spending on commercials and did so this holiday season to show that there's stuff worth buying inside that store everyone uses for easy mall parking. Granted, neither Sears numbers nor mall numbers support Sears' picture of untapped consumer potential, but shouldn't the company at least make an effort to tell its side of the story? If photos of disheveled clothes, empty rack and broken windows aren't doing Sears justice, shouldn't Sears bear the burden of proof and at least attempt to show a huge audience it's still alive and well? Shouldn't $4 million for 30 seconds now be considered a down payment on hours of shopping later?

It should, but that's not the game Sears is playing. It hasn't been for some time.

Microsoft

Its mobile share keeps shrinking, with only 3.1% of U.S. smartphone users and falling, according to ComScore. Its Surface devices disappointed. Its search engine and websites are a mess. Its blustery CEO isn't sticking around to see how it turns out and favored chief executive candidate Alan Mulally won't leave Ford to lead the Redmond Renaissance.

So where does this leave Microsoft? Nobody's 100% sure. Its all-in-one solution for Windows 8 and Office has been followed up by talk of Windows 9 -- which could either be the big fix everyone's been waiting for or the next step toward oblivion. Its Xbox One has sold more than 3 million consoles worldwide, but still lags behind the nearly 4.5 million Playstation 4 consoles sold by Sony and the nearly 5.5 million Wii U consoles Nintendo has unloaded in more than a year. The Xbox One is the dominant console in North America by a wide margin, but lacks similar traction elsewhere.

Meanwhile, television and online ad time is bombarded with that damned PS4 ad featuring Lou Reed's Perfect Day while the Xbox toils in relative obscurity.

It seems like the perfect time for Microsoft to pop in with a Super Bowl ad just to clear things up and give its supporters some hope, but the motivation just isn't there. The core Windows/Office business is keeping things afloat and despite its mobile missteps, the success of the Xbox branch has been enough to keep folks bullish. Share prices are up 77.5% in the last five years and run counter to any perception of Microsoft as a dying brand.

There's still reason for concern in the encroaching future and a Super Bowl ad could help bolster the company's image in the meantime. Nobody's pushing the $4 million panic button just yet, but with Google and Apple keeping the pressure on, nobody would blame them if they did.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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