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What Startup Storytellers Can Learn From This Year’s Top 6 Super Bowl Ads

The Super Bowl of football is also the Super Bowl of advertising. The greatest storytellers in the ad biz — like the best NFL players — want to compete on this playing field. So startup founders who hope to hone their pitches can learn a thing or two from these creators. The USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter for years has been the go-to source for the top ads. 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 recall a story. Brain science confirms that we’re far more likely to remember information if it’s delivered in a narrative. The #1 ad, per the Ad Meter was “Forever” from The Farmer’s Dog, a company that makes real food, fresh and delivers it to dog owners. The spot begins 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 were 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 the story to investors of growing up with your dog, why she meant so much to you, and why she deserves the very best.

Tap Into Emotion – “Forever” won because it taps into emotion and so too did the #3 ad on the list, “Saving Sawyer,” from Amazon. A story takes us on a journey and has a beginning, middle, and end. The ad begins during the pandemic and Sawyer, the family dog, is living the good life. The family is always around. In the middle of the story, the family goes back to work and school leaving lonely Sawyer to create havoc in the house. As we approach the end of the story, the family realizes it has to do something and buys a dog kennel on Amazon. At the end of this little tale (pun intended), the family introduces Sawyer to the crate, but it turns out it’s not for him. Rather, they used the kennel to transport a little puppy to their home to be Sawyer’s companion. As a founder telling a startup story about your customer, you should remember to share your customer’s backstory so the audience begins to empathize with them. That’s the beginning of the customer’s journey. Then tell your audience what challenges your customer encounters. Your fabulous new solution should then provide a well-earned, happy ending to your story.

Use Humor – Pulling on heartstrings is one way to tap into emotion (see “Forever” and “Saving Sawyer”), but so too is humor. A primary goal of the storyteller is to have your audience remember what you told them and “funny” can work just as well as “teary” to tap into emotion and trigger memory. Take the #4 Ad Meter ad, Dunkin’s “Drive Thru” (agency, Anomaly) starring Ben Affleck. Affleck, in a smart-looking Dunkin’ visor, takes orders with a thick Boston accent at the drive-thru window of a real Dunkin’s in Medford (Mefuh), just outside of Boston. Actual customers drive up and have a variety of reactions at seeing one of America’s most famous Bostonian’s at the window. The spot ends with Affleck’s real-life partner, Jennifer Lopez, driving up to the window and scolding him, “Is this what you’re doing when you say you’re going to work?” Disgruntled, he packs up to leave, and she sharply says, “Grab me a glazed.” In a startup story, there’s often humor to be found if you know where to look for it. For example, a horrible customer experience can make for a hilarious story and a great opening to 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,” from the NFL (and ad agency 72andSunny) knows that a good story grabs you from the moment it starts. The commercial starts with Fox’s play-by-play man Kevin Burkhardt saying, “let’s go down to Erin Andrews with the MVP of the flag football world games.” Fox’s renowned sideline reporter asks Diana Flores, “You’re so elusive, is there anyone who can pull your flags?” Before Diana can complete a sentence, Erin grabs at the flag on her right hip and it’s on. Flores takes off on a wild chase scene rivaling most Bond film opening action sequences. Flores eludes an array of potential flag-grabbers including a series of NFL stars. It’s a wild ride, that is designed to invite more women to follow the sport. As a startup storyteller, you’ll have little time to gain your audience’s attention. Make sure you do so with an attention-grabbing opening and your audience will follow your every word the rest of the way.

Make The Product The Hero – The product can’t save the day if it’s not celebrated in the story. Pop Corner’s “Breaking Bad” spoof— and #5 ad meter ad — is all about the product. Brian Cranston reprises his iconic character, Walter White, who creates his latest sensation – Pop Corners. White’s former student and assistant, Jesse, is blown away by the taste. So too is the drug kingpin character, Tuco Salamanca, when he demands a bite. When Jesse says they come in six signature flavors, Salamanca screams “You make seven!” As the Pop Corners title card appears, Walter White says, “Seven works.” The product is front and center. The startup storyteller always must lay the groundwork for why their product is needed, but that doesn’t mean that you skimp on the product description. Celebrate the product when you get to that part of your story.

Tap Into A Human Insight – The best stories are rooted in rich insights about human behavior, one of which the agency Anomaly surfaced in Bud Light’s “Hold” 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 hold on a customer service line. Bud turns this agony – which anyone can relate to – into joy. The ad begins with Kaleigh Sperry, wife of Top Gun star Miles Teller, already 56 minutes into her wait time on a customer service call. Miles grabs a couple of Bud Lights from the fridge, cracks them open and the two of them dance around to the hold music. Simple story. Based on a human insight. Totally relatable. So, in your startup story, find that deeply human thing that is 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 just borrow some of the techniques of these winning storytellers.

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