Though it may not look like it, Super Bowl commercials are the perfect case study for your small business marketing efforts. Each year, multi-billion dollar companies shell out millions of dollars just for the chance to reach more than 113 million riveted viewers. This year, a single 30-second ad cost $5 million. It doesn’t look like there is anything “small business” about it on the surface. But let’s dissect this.

The Best of the Best

Even companies with multi-million dollar marketing budgets can’t afford to blow $5 million on just any ad. That’s why nearly every company uses a creative agency to develop their Super Bowl commercials. Some companies use two agencies. Scores of people have input on these commercials and everyone is expected to put forth their best work, from the cameraman to the Chief Marketing Officer.

With the best-of-the-best marketing on display, small business owners can see what works and what doesn’t from their living room without spending a dime. Each year, USA Today publishes its Ad Meter, which ranks Super Bowl commercials according to what fans online said was the best one. The Ad Meter is one way companies see if they moved the needle or wasted their money, but the reality is that the Ad Meter only gets you halfway there.

Metrics That Matter

The overall likeability of an ad is important, but it doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t grow your brand. The Ad Meter rankings supposedly determine the best and worst ads, but let’s dig deeper. Let’s add in the total number of YouTube views for each commercial and divide that by the brand’s following on Facebook and YouTube – two of the largest video sharing platforms. This number will help us get an idea of the commercial’s shareability beyond the brand’s existing audience. This “share multiplier” represents how many times each existing fan on Facebook and YouTube would need to share the video to reach the same number of YouTube views the brand has 24 hours after the Super Bowl.

To even the playing field a little more, let’s also give credit to the brands that spent their money the most efficiently. Awareness is easier if you have the money to dominate an entire commercial break. We’ll divide the estimated cost of airing their Super Bowl ad by the total YouTube views. This can help us get some idea of which company netted the best dollar-per-share return.

These metrics aren’t perfect representations since some companies promoted their ads online as well as before and after the Super Bowl. However, this will give us an idea of who came out ahead and help us identify the successful trends we can use to not waste our small business marketing dollars.

Highest Overall Performers

84 Lumber

  • Share multiplier: 111.111
  • Dollar-per-Share: $2.34


  • Share Multiplier: 9.154
  • Dollar per Share: $1.09


  • Share Multiplier: 6.614
  • Dollar per Share: $2.00


  • Share Multiplier: 1.923
  • Cost per Share: $0.37


  • Share Multiplier: 1.681
  • Cost per Share: $1.32


  • Share Multiplier: 1.161
  • Cost per Share: $0.93

Lowest Overall Performers


  • Share Multiplier: 0.681
  • Cost per Share: $2.22

World of Tanks

  • Share Multiplier: 0.308
  • Cost per Share: $3.64

Mobile Strike

  • Share Multiplier: 0.450
  • Cost per Share: $14.97


  • Share Multiplier: 0.140
  • Cost per Share: $11.01


  • Share Multiplier: 0.084
  • Cost per Share: $0.68

American Petroleum Institute

  • Share Multiplier: 0.375
  • Cost per Share: $1,827.82

Small Business Marketing Lessons

Looking at that list, it’s easy to see that there are clear winners and losers. However, there is also a lot to learn that can elevate your small business marketing efforts. There are a few trends that differentiate the top performers from the bottom. I’ve noticed five things entrepreneurs can learn about small business marketing from the Super Bowl 51 commercials.

1. Product Integration Beats Product Introduction

Small business marketing has to be about more than just pushing your product. The companies that succeeded during the Super Bowl worked to integrate their brand into a larger message. They used emotion to build a bridge from their product to their customer. Kia used a funny take on environmentalism to highlight their hybrid. Watch it below.

In contrast, the lowest performing ads all focused on introducing a product without a larger message. Most of the commercials lacked any type of emotional connection. All of the brands failed to reach the audience they already have. In fact, KFC reached only 8 percent of their current fans. When you don’t connect with your audience, even the people that like you won’t care what you have to say. Watch their ad below.

2. Good Copywriting Beats A Big Name

It’s foolish to think that celebrity endorsements don’t work. They do. But a well-thought-out script will beat a poorly planned celebrity appearance any time. Two (84 Lumber and Budweiser) of the top five ads opted to not use a celebrity at all and one (Buick) merely referenced their celebrity appearances. The ad from Buick was particularly successful, with a 6.614 share multiplier and a $2.00 cost-per-share. That’s a full dollar below the average! Even with an appearance from celebrities, the ad used them in the context of the brand.

The opposite of that is an ad that places a celebrity front and center without any context. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a spokesman for the game Mobile Strike for quite some time. His appearance in a Super Bowl 51 commercial wasn’t terribly surprising. Instead, I was surprised with how ordinary the ad was in dialogue and creativity.  

3. It’s Better to Build Buzz

I watch a lot of commercials, which means that most of the ads that played on Super Bowl Sunday weren’t a surprise to me. This also means that I was the guy at the party telling everyone to be quiet and watch the commercials that I knew were really good. With the exception of 84 Lumber, all of the top brands released their ads at least 4 days in advance of the Super Bowl. This allowed them to gain press for their ads and encourage their fans to share them. Budweiser released its commercial on January 31 and received a lot of news coverage. Watch the ad below.

It pays to create buzz. Budweiser was able to almost double its reach from a fan base of more than 14 million. When that commercial came on, I quieted the room and looked at my friends’ reactions as they saw it for the first time. Small businesses can do the same thing by releasing bits of content in advance of major events. Building buzz takes time, but it is worth the investment.

4. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

Honda had a great way of telling us all to believe in ourselves. Their ad with celebrities in high school presented a positive message that didn’t sound preachy. When you don’t take yourself too seriously, your marketing will reflect that approachable spirit. Take a look at the ad.

Audi is another top performing ad, but it is also the anomaly that shows why it can be dangerous to get too serious. Audi developed a commercial reinforcing their commitment to equal pay for women. The commercial was in the top 5 on the Ad Meter and its reach only slightly topped its fan base in our poll. (To be fair, Audi has a ridiculously large Facebook presence with 9 million fans compared to Honda’s 4 million.)

With more than 10 million views, you’d think this ad would be a success. However, more than 50 percent of YouTube viewers have given the ad a thumbs down. The comments rejecting the message go on for pages. A serious ad can pay off, but it takes careful planning.

5. Tell Your Story

Being in a Super Bowl commercial automatically gives you awareness. One second you are virtually unknown, and the next you are a trending hashtag. It’s great to give your brand awareness, but you should never lose sight of your end goal.  That awareness has to have a goal.

The commercial for 84 Lumber was designed to help them with recruiting. The final product was so controversial that FOX refused to air it in its entirety. Instead of changing the ad, they invited customers who were interested in the company to finish the story on their website. This led potential future employees to a commercial that let them know their hard work is welcome at 84 Lumber. The technique combined with moving content gave them a reach that was 111 times their customer base for just $2.34 per share.

Contrast that with what I believe was the worst ad of the night. American Petroleum Institute’s commercial is 30 seconds of flashy lights, upbeat music, and no story. This incoherent spattering reached about 25 percent of their current audience and I’m sure most viewers have already forgotten it. It literally would have been cheaper for the company to give each of their Facebook and YouTube fans $1,000 to share their ad. Want to see how to waste $5 million? Check it out below.

Small Business Awareness

Money will always be a roadblock for small businesses marketing. Those that want to build their awareness usually have to have cash on hand to make a dent. However, these $5 million Super Bowl lessons can provide a framework for how you can spend yours wisely. Did you notice something else about the commercials? Leave a comment below. If you are struggling with building awareness for your business, download our 15-minute guide to help improve brand awareness. I promise it will help you reach a new level in your business.