Michael Jackson

Innovation came to the Super Bowl with the first halftime show, featuring Michael Jackson.

Probably like you and 112 million other people, I watched the Super Bowl Sunday between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. I think most people would agree: while the game was so-so, once again the Super Bowl halftime show was a smash. Here are pictures from halftime.

It brought back fantastic memories of when I signed on the NFL and NBC to launch the first and only Super Bowl halftime show with none other than Michael Jackson, back in January 1993. It’s amazing to see how the halftime show has grown, why it’s progressed and how it’s become almost as big a news event as the Super Bowl itself.

I still recall vividly the career-defining moment when I proposed to do the first halftime show at the Super Bowl. That experience offers some fantastic lessons about innovation, risk taking and driving change, which may be worthwhile to share right now.

What did I learn about innovation from Michael Jackson and the Super Bowl? Let’s say the first thing is one of the phrases I love the most – getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Imagine a relatively young marketing vice president for Frito-Lay’s Established Brands, as it was called then. The company included all the brands we grew up loving like Lay’s®, Doritos®, Cheetos®, Fritos® and Tostitos® chips. I recall marching in to Roger Enrico, who at the time was Frito-Lay’s chief executive officer, and saying, “Hey Roger, my team and I have this crazy idea. We would like to disrupt the Super Bowl halftime.”

Up until then, if you recall, the Super Bowl halftime show pretty much consisted of the announcers doing first-half game analysis. At the stadium, the local High School Marching Band or College Marching Band played. The halftime show might be circus acts, it could be all kinds of things, but certainly nothing worthy of being broadcast. It usually played in the background as you heard the announcers talking about the game.

A couple of things are true about any major sporting event. Historically it’s played for the fans, and the fans only. Think about the audience that watched the football game. When I was growing up, the audience certainly would have included me, my Dad and my Dad’s friends. Then, as I progressed into college and adulthood, me and my other male friends.

Halftime usually meant the time when you would run to the snack bar and the bathroom, thinking, “OK, there’s nothing worth seeing until the game comes back on.” If you tracked TV ratings at that time, it was pretty obvious that viewership fell off a cliff at halftime. It only started to creep back as the third quarter progressed, and then only if the game itself was interesting. Full stop – here was a time for opportunity!

What did that teach me about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable? I found out, talking with my team, that guess what: Being comfortable with being uncomfortable meant marching into a big-time CEO, Roger Enrico, who was known as an incredible marketing genius from his Pepsi days. (Eventually, of course, Enrico would become CEO of all of PepsiCo.)

I said, “Hey, Roger, can you imagine, we would like to spend millions of dollars on one day. Only it’s not one day, it’s millions of dollars for an event that’s going to start and conclude in under 20 minutes. Here’s why it’s such a great idea. We are looking to launch a new product called Wavy Lay’s Potato Chips (which you can still buy), and we want to make a big splash on the introduction. Here are a few things that we put together.”

The second lesson was, “Go big or go home.” Go big, that’s the Super Bowl, the most watched TV event of the year, which is certainly dominated by males, but we’ll come back to that later. If you’re going to go big or go home, why not do something completely different, completely out of the box, and try to make a big difference? We said, “If we’re going to introduce this new product and we have a limited budget, why don’t we do whatever we can to make it as big as we can?”

What really happened behind the scenes of the first Super Bowl halftime show? The idea came together though a group of us meeting with an agent who said, “You know what? I have access to the biggest star of all, Michael Jackson, who’s looking to do something to get his Heal the World Foundation launched in a big way. Do you have any ideas on how you might be able to do that?”

We had already been talking about disrupting the Super Bowl halftime show and making some noise. I’ll admit we did probably less planning than we should have.

I still recall going into Roger Enrico at PepsiCo headquarters in Purchase, New York. That day, he only had about 20 minutes to see me, because he was on his way to Europe. In I go with sweaty hands, a tightened chest, thinking, “Oh my God, he is going to rip me up, chew me to pieces, and throw me out of here.”

Then I presented my idea. All I can remember is him saying, “Gee, not bad. Sounds good. OK, thanks.”

Not only did he say, “OK, thanks,” he said, “Sounds good!” Then he grabbed his papers, stuck them in his briefcase, shook my hand and headed out of the room.

I had spent days, weeks, actually months, to tell you the truth, sweating and thinking about pulling this together. Pulled it together, and the boss was like, “Go for it.”

That was lesson number two, go big or go home. We then, of course, proceeded to do public announcements. We did press conferences. We plastered this all over the place. We did in-store displays of Frito-Lay products like never before.

“Go big” meant going with everything – the sales force, the launch of Wavy Lay’s, press conferences with Michael Jackson up on stage saying that he loved working with Frito-Lay and Lay’s Potato Chips. We were all over the news. In fact, we exceeded the value of the halftime show itself with the PR we generated.

Third lesson: help your customers. Why on earth would I say that? Who did we help in the Super Bowl with this new halftime show concept?

Not only did we help the entertainers who turned up on the Super Bowl, we helped families in America and even all around the world. Traditionally, Super Bowls were an all-male or heavily male affair. Most families weren’t into watching the games. I can remember in my household growing up, if we had a Super Bowl party, the ladies, and a lot of times the kids, would go someplace else – enjoying whatever snacks we had, but highly unlikely to ever step foot near the TV to watch the game. And, yes, we sold tons of new Wavy Lay’s.

You know what else? I think it’s fair to say that the halftime shows made the Super Bowl into an all-family affair. Now the buzz is as much about, “Hey, it’s going to be Coldplay with Beyoncé and Bruno Mars,” as it is that the Denver Broncos are playing the Carolina Panthers.

You might say the halftime show is a smash hit. Every year the news is, “Hey, who’s going to play halftime in the Super Bowl?” Advertisers like it, the NFL likes it, the entertainers like it, and families across the world like it.

How did we help the customers? By getting everyone involved in what’s truly become a fantastic holiday, certainly for Americans, and also for a lot of people all around the world. And our direct customers – retailers – loved us for the incremental business we brought them.

In hindsight, what did Michael Jackson and the Super Bowl teach me about innovation? It taught me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It taught me to go big or go home. And it taught me to really listen to how you can help your customers. If you think you can pull those 3 threads together, you’ve got pretty good chance of sticking with it, and becoming a big-time innovator yourself.

Until next time, I’m Steve Liguori.