In less than five months, Super Bowl mania will descend upon the Twin Cities and give local businesses a home-turf advantage on the marketing blitz that surrounds one of the most popular sporting events of the year.
But while the event brings opportunities, the National Football League has been notoriously protective of its trademarks — especially the name “Super Bowl” — so companies also will need to flex their creativity in advertising everything from products to parties.
“One of the biggest challenges is creating [ads] and leveraging the Super Bowl without treading on the intellectual property of the NFL,” said Peter Nicholson, chief creative officer for Periscope, one of the largest advertising agencies in Minneapolis.
The NFL trademarked the phrase “Super Bowl” in 1969. It’s why many of the commercials aired during the championship game don’t normally refer to the event by name and just have a football theme. Other trademarks include the league’s shield logo, team names and uniform designs. The “Pro Bowl” is similarly trademarked.
From the NFL’s viewpoint, if businesses use the terms or other trademarks, it could appear like it is an official part of the Super Bowl or its related events, said Dolores DiBella, one of the lead intellectual property attorneys for the NFL.
“The NFL brand and the Super Bowl brand are incredibly valuable, but we are also working to protect our fans so they enjoy an authentic NFL experience and are not confused about the events and products they’re seeing,” DiBella said.
That means businesses from the mom-and-pop coffee shop that wants to put up a sign for “Super Bowl lattes” to a brewery with plans to host a viewing party need to be cognizant of trademark and copyright law, attorneys say.
Bars, restaurants and other establishments can legitimately show the Super Bowl, but they can’t charge an entrance fee or use NFL logos and they have to show the game on standard screens no larger than 55 inches, DiBella said. Failure to adhere to those rules could mean a corrective letter from the NFL.
The NFL in 2007 sent a warning overnight to an Indianapolis church that planned to have a large-screen viewing party to support the Colts. While the league has loosened its rules since then to allow for such parties, it still has specific guidelines for church events that don’t allow use of the trademarks.
“Because [the NFL] can reach some enormous sums from the licensing, if they weren’t out there policing their trademark rights and stopping the unauthorized uses, then the value of the ability to license an official sponsorship decreases dramatically,” said Jeff Cadwell, a partner at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm’s Minneapolis office who counsels clients on trademark and copyright issues. “Because they are going to say, ‘Well, you are letting anybody do it. Why do I have to pay millions of dollars for a commercial?’ ”
A shortlist of local companies are corporate partners for the local Super Bowl committee, allowing them more exclusive branding opportunities related to the Feb. 4 game at U.S. Bank Stadium. For example, Arden Hills-based Land O’Lakes will host the Land O’Lakes Farm Bowl, an agriculture-focused competition at the University of Minnesota between professional football players and farmers.
John Pickerill, a trademark and advertising attorney for Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron, said the NFL, similar to the NCAA with its “March Madness” brand, can be aggressive, so he recommends businesses play it safe.
Businesses might use the phrase “Big Game” instead of “Super Bowl,” for example.
“It just comes down to how you execute it and being smart about how to avoid those kind of things that the NFL doesn’t like,” Pickerill said.
Cadwell also warned businesses to stick to the conservative side. Pictures of players cannot be used without facing legal action from the NFL and potentially the players themselves. There are still some gray areas of what is pushing the line or not like sharing the score of the game and other statistics on Twitter, Cadwell said.
“If you are a business, you are going to have more scrutiny paid to what you are doing, and you have a little bit more of a target on your back … as opposed to me just retweeting the score because it’s newsworthy, and we’re not in the business of selling anything,” Cadwell said.
In recent years, businesses have done more to engage with consumers online in real time during large events. During the last Super Bowl, Golden Valley-based Buffalo Wild Wings live tweeted the game including when it went into overtime. The chicken chain tweeted a shrug emoticon with the hashtags #HitTheButton and #SB51 and “It Wasn’t Us” GIF.
That can include small local businesses as well, which shouldn’t be discouraged by the rules, marketing executives say.
Michael Hunter, chief marketing officer for leading Minneapolis ad agency ICF Olson, said it’s more important that businesses evaluate how the Super Bowl advertising might help their businesses, just as they would with any other opportunity.
To many companies, the Super Bowl is advertising’s biggest playing field. According to industry magazine Ad Age, a total of $4.9 billion has been spent on ads for the first 51 years of the game. For the Super Bowl played earlier this year in Houston, a 30-second ad spot cost a record $5 million. This past Super Bowl had more than 111 million viewers. An estimated 1 million visitors are expected to flock to the Twin Cities for the Super Bowl next year.
“I think the best thing for a business to do if they know they are not going to be authorized or get a license from the NFL is to come up with a creative campaign where they can be part of the conversation, be part of the hoopla but not do so in a way that is going to make the NFL or anybody else upset,” Cadwell said.