Sponsor Activations: Who Scored the Touchdowns at Super Bowl LI?

Houston was the center of the sporting world as the host of Super Bowl LI, and the center of numerous physical, virtual, and social experiences for fans to enjoy. As with any experiential event, there were some standout experiences that left a great impression, and those that were essentially identical to others and didn't quite score with consumers for their attention or enthusiasm.

Some were tied into the Super Bowl app, which allowed consumers to track their interactions, aggregate social experiences, win prizes, and learn more about Super Bowl-related events and the host city.

The fan events at Super Bowl LIVE and the NFL Experience generated a lot of excitement. Located at Houston’s Discovery Green and George R. Brown Convention Center, these experiential events highlighted the local culture and provided space for sponsors and organizations to engage with consumers. There are many reasons why an experience can be memorable for the right reasons and these proved that thinking through the basics of experiential strategy can make or break what a brand is trying to convey to audiences.



Super Bowl Live exposed visitors to local offerings, with brands and organizations providing insights as to why Houston is the “City of the Future.” Through the NFL Experience, many national and global brands illustrated where they intersect with the football community.

Technology and experiential

Virtual reality (VR) has become a staple of the experiential events industry. The challenge becomes, if all brands have the latest and greatest in VR experiences, how do you stand out? It was clear that NASA took this to heart, creating a unique application of consumer-facing VR.

By pairing a VR headset with a carnival-style drop ride, “Journey to Mars” transported consumers from their comfort zone on Earth deep into outer space and back, just in time for kick off. By comparison, other brands had a very simple activation that placed consumers in seats with headsets to explore their virtual environments. While this method can be effective if the content is amazing, it is a fine line to walk in a crowded marketplace.

The same can be said for the NFL Experience’s physical activations; in some cases, consumers were left wondering which version of the same activation was worth their time to line up for and participate in.

Experiences that are memorable create a one-of-a-kind environment from start to finish. The NFL Combine Experience is a great example that used technology in an integral role to deliver a virtual football activation in partnership with Under Armour, a leader in this space. Digital timers and LED displays brought a real-life look and feel to the activation in which consumers participated in a 40-yard dash, standing jump, catching drills, and more. The addition of live commentating from an emcee made it all the more fun.

Social gets in the game

While digital and physical experiences are the main show point for these events, social sharing activations were another big hit with advertisers and sponsors—and fans in many cases. Several opportunities were available to snap a photograph, make a GIF, or create a shareable video. As was the case with the VR and the physical activations, attendees found themselves looking for the best of the bunch. 

Papa John’s stayed on brand with an inventive photo station that had consumers throwing fake pizzas in the air like chefs; those souvenir images were sent to the consumer via the Super Bowl app or by email. Skittles had the most creative approach to generating shareable moments by putting consumers in playful poses with the candy itself. Watching those who took a seat in the Skittles bath or holding a large dumbbell full of Skittles was quite fun.

In addition, many brands encouraged consumers to post to their networks for a chance to win prizes or participate in something fun. Again, the Skittles brand showed some ingenuity and creativity: Anyone who posted an image taken in their activation with a specific hashtag to Twitter or Instagram got a chance to win a prize. Participants lined up for prizes and upon reaching the front of the line, they selected a key that corresponded with a lock on a set of lockers stuffed with different prizes. No digital display, no virtual or augmented experience, just a simple opening of a locker and someone behind placing random prizes throughout.

An experiential activation has the potential to connect brand and consumer, and there are simple ways to turn an event into a meaningful, interactive experience that sets you apart. It’s not always about the latest and greatest technology or trend; it’s about ensuring the fundamentals of what you are trying to achieve are partnered with the fundamentals of experiential advertising—enabling consumers to create their own brand story.

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