Member Exclusive   //   February 6, 2024

DTC Briefing: How startups are trying to get in on Super Bowl marketing

This is the latest installment of the DTC Briefing, a weekly Modern Retail+ column about the biggest challenges and trends facing the volatile direct-to-consumer startup world. More from the series →

Most startups can’t afford to drop millions of dollars on a commercial during Super Bowl Sunday. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get into the spirit for this year’s Super Bowl LVIII, taking place on February 11. 

As young startups, DTC brands often have to find scrappy ways to participate in big media moments like the Super Bowl. Legally, companies are not allowed to use the term “Super Bowl” in their advertisements because the NFL owns the trademark. And for things like giveaways and promos, brands have to obtain the necessary licenses to avoid infringing on the NFL’s rights.

Many businesses of all sizes, however, get around that by using related terms to invoke the yearly event in their marketing messaging. For instance, brands can refer to it as “the big game” or “game day.” Finding ways to tap into Super Bowl enthusiasm requires DTC brands to get creative, a muscle that they have to tap on many other occasions. This month, brands like dog food company Ollie and flower delivery service UrbanStems are some of the brands that are running Super Bowl-related social media campaigns or giveaways. With so many eyes on the game’s coverage, brands are mainly hoping to capitalize on web traffic to generate awareness, which they hope will later turn into sales.  

Ollie’s brand director, Nicole Sumner, told me that this year the brand is running its “Supper Bowl Extravaganza,” a social media campaign centered around a dog adoption drive with a product giveaway component. Ollie first tested the concept during last year’s big game. “We were talking about how some of our competitors were going to have Super Bowl ads, and for the size of business we are, that doesn’t make sense for us,” Sumner said. Dog food startup The Farmer’s Dog reportedly spent $7 million on its 60-second spot during the second quarter of last year’s Super Bowl. Sumner said Ollie wanted to go about it on a smaller, more organic scale. 

Starting from January 31 until Super Bowl Sunday on February 11, Ollie is sponsoring rescue dog adoption in partnership with the animal rescue Marley’s Mutts, with Ollie donating a meal for every share the post gets. During its first attempt at the charity campaign last year, Sumner said the brand didn’t have a lot of time to plan. “We did the show by uploading live reels of the dogs during the game, which made it more complicated and didn’t drive a ton of value,” she said. 

This year, the company decided on one big splashy post to generate as much traffic as possible for its owned channels. Ollie is sponsoring the adoption of 11 Marley’s Mutts hard-to-adopt pups, which includes giving the new parents a year’s worth of Ollie meals and contributing to travel expenses for out-of-state adopters. 

Overall, Sumner said, the Ollie team hopes that millions of people thinking about football will create a halo effect for the brand’s related campaigns. “Even if people don’t adopt during the adoption window, hopefully, we stay top of mind and people search for us later,” Sumner said.

Due to the high costs associated with the event, few direct-to-consumer startups have run official Super Bowl ads to-date. Ad Age reports that a 30-second spot will cost about $7 million this year. So the DTC startups that are able to run Super Bowl ads have become seriously established businesses — often seeing revenues in the nine figures. The Farmer’s Dog, for instance, reportedly generated $800 million in sales in 2023, a 60% increase over 2022. In 2021, DTC soap Dr. Squatch also bet big on a splashy Super Bowl ad, which resulted in the brand becoming one of the top searched terms on Amazon during the game. 

Many of the DTC brands that are attempting to capitalize on the Super Bowl this year are in categories that have important sales days that fall close to the big game. Valentine’s Day’s proximity to the Super Bowl gave flower delivery service UrbanStems the idea to build a campaign leading up to the sporting event, which the company hopes will translate into more sales come Valentine’s Day.

UrbanStems’ vp of brand marketing, Megan Bailey Darmody, said that when Valentine’s Day falls this close to the Super Bowl, “we’ve seen more people ordering at the last minute,” many of whom tend to be men scrambling to buy a gift for their partner.

“Our core audience is 75% female, so this is a time for us to branch out and expand our reach,” Darmody explained, adding that male customers tend to order flowers last minute. Last year UrbanStems did a promotion geared toward male shoppers in partnership with Budweiser, called “This Bud’s For You.” 

This year, the company unveiled its “Biggest Fumble” promotion, in partnership with former 49ers tight end Vernon Davis to capitalize on the Super Bowl excitement. For each fumble during the AFC and NFC Championship games on January 28, UrbanStems offered a $5 discount on its Valentine’s Day collection the next day; The company extended the deal through Tuesday, January 29, and plans to transition to more Valentine’s Day-specific promotions in the coming week.

The result was $15 off to represent three fumbles made during the playoff games. One of the fumbles made during the Ravens and Chiefs game was by wide receiver Zay Flowers, Darmody said. “Obviously we didn’t plan that but it was a nice nod to the campaign.” As part of the promotion, Davis helped spread the word about UrbanStems’ football-themed deal on his Instagram, in addition to the company’s own mix of digital ads. 

While it can be difficult to measure the effectiveness of a multi-day promotion, but both Ollie and UrbanStems are using a combination of site traffic and correlated conversions to rate the respective campaigns’ success.

For Ollie, the 2023 adoption campaign reached 5 million people and 3,000 shares, which equated to 3,000 donated meals. “This year we’re tracking direct and organic traffic to our site, with conversion increase being a secondary goal,” Sumner said. “If all 11 dogs get adopted and we get over 5,000 shares, I would be so pleased.”

So far, the “Biggest Fumble” campaign has paid off, UrbanStems said. “We saw a 25% increase in direct traffic to the site, which is also attributed to Vernon’s social media posts and press we did around the promotion,” Darmody said. The company also experienced a 24% spike in sales conversion during the 24-hour promo, while email marketing saw a 44% conversion rate increase week-over-week. “We also saw an increase in branded search terms by 20% to 30%,” she said. Another benefit from kicking off the Valentine’s Day sale early is to encourage people to order arrangements ahead of time, to allow UrbanStems to spread out its delivery fulfillment. 

Without major dollars and resources going into these promotions, DTC brands are looking for an accessible avenue into Super Bowl coverage. “We wanted to be part of the conversation,” Sumner said. “But by doing something that was more aligned with our brand values and making it a give-back angle.” 

What I’m reading

  • Vogue Business highlights the way beauty brands like Rhode and Naturium are helping reinvent the lip gloss category.
  • Skincare company Curology is expanding into haircare with a hair regrowth product. 
  • With plant-based milks like Oatly dominating grocery shelves, WSJ reports on America’s dairy producers pushing to eliminate the word “milk” from alt milk labels.

What we’ve covered

  • Forum Brands, an aggregator focused on Amazon, quietly acquired period care brand Lola at the end of last year for an undisclosed amount.
  • Ahead of the Olympics, Hoka launches new shoes for professional and amateur runners.
  • Austria-based hydration brand Waterdrop plots its micro-retail strategy in the U.S.