Op-Ed: “Billionaire” Splurge: Temu’s Super Bowl Debut
The Chinese e-commerce juggernaut Pinduoduo's overseas e-commerce platform bought "one minute of fame."
Super Bowl, the culmination of America's favorite sport, had an unexpected advertiser this year. Temu, Chinese e-commerce juggernaut Pinduoduo's overseas e-commerce platform, ran two 30-second commercials during the Super Bowl with the theme "Shop Like a Billionaire." This year a 30-second ad costs roughly $7 million. What exactly did Temu want and get from this costly "one minute of fame"?
Early Results Are In: Temu's Super Bowl ROI
Looking at the preliminary results, the Super Bowl gave Temu a short-lived boost in Google search results and lackluster app downloads. While people were trying to figure out what Temu was after the commercial aired on social media and Google searches, the ad inadvertently generated a small wave of traffic for Temu's competitor SHEIN. Moreover, Temu bought not one but two spots at the Super Bowl and repeated the same video for both spots. That's spending a lot of dry powder to get in front of American consumers. However, the ad spot created by the agency Saatchi & Saatchi missed the mark on not only the aesthetics, cinematography, and content of the ad itself but also the contextual awareness of what Temu stands for in the U.S. market.
Temu's "Shop Like a Billionaire" Strategy
The ad, a Bollywood-style song and dance skit, follows a Temu shopper's journey with the "shop like a billionaire" jingle as background music. This is likely Temu paying homage to its parent company Pinduoduo's successful "jingle strategy" in China. Pinduoduo's rise to the mainstream was partly thanks to the viral "Pinduoduo Jingle," like the viral sensation that is the Baby Shark song, which became part of the collective public consciousness, to the chagrin of many. In the Super Bowl commercial, Temu's lyrics go like this: "I feel so rich, I feel like a billionaire, I am shopping like a billionaire." The commercial's premise and the "more is more" call to action were subsequently criticized in U.S. media outlets for encouraging overconsumption.
This message is also an outdated one. In the eyes of young western consumers and those who prioritize social responsibility and environmental sustainability in purchasing decisions, acquiring more "stuff" does not equate to the joy of being a billionaire. Temu's messaging contradicts the emergent "less is more" trend many now gravitate toward. The high-profile debut at a major media event such as the Super Bowl not only draws attention to Temu but also spotlights other Chinese cross-border e-commerce companies such as SHEIN and Alibaba's AliExpress, which also focus on low prices and bulk buying. Temu has singlehandedly brought unwanted attention to a small but mighty group of newcomers that will likely face more public and regulatory pressures.
Why did Temu choose the Super Bowl?
The Super Bowl is one of the most significant sporting events in the U.S. and one of the most-watched TV events in the world. This year's Super Bowl amassed a combined 183 million viewers (at any given time) from online and TV broadcasting channels. No other media event has the reach and mass appeal of the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl advertisements began in 1967 when NBC charged $37,500 per 30-second ad. 57 Super Bowls later, today's ad prices have increased 186-fold. Super Bowl ads are undoubtedly the benchmark for the advertising industry, with many historic brand-defining and iconic ads making their mark over the years. Preparations often begin a year before game day, and success is defined by the ramp-up campaign prior to the game and the post-game media exposure and conversion. Therefore, the success of the ad requires a comprehensive strategy. And that doesn't seem to be Temu's approach.
Temu's Super Bowl Campaign
Temu began posting Super Bowl-related tweets on Twitter in early February. Given Temu's current shipment model (from multiple warehouses in China, consolidated and shipped to the U.S consumers), even if the orders of football-themed interior decor and baking accessories were placed as soon as the tweet went out, they probably could not be delivered in time for the big game. Fox Sports said in an interview that 95 percent of the advertising slots for this year's Super Bowl were sold out as early as September of last year. But a few "black swan" events this year, such as higher-than-expected inflation and, in December, the catastrophic shakedown of cryptocurrency advertisers like FTX and other anchor crypto advertisers last year, stalled the remaining 5% of ad sales. The ad inventory completely sold out on Jan. 23, and we can only guess if Temu got the opportunity to advertise because of the last-minute reshuffling of buyers. After all, Temu wasn't even in the North American market a year ago.
Was advertising during the Super Bowl the right move for Temu?
Companies tend to place their best ads during the Super Bowl because of the high price tag and visibility. Super Bowl advertising is also a risky investment for most companies. Therefore, it's unusual for Temu, a recent entrant in a new market, to buy ad time during the Super Bowl. Super Bowl is not a platform for new brands to educate the market but a channel for established brands to expand their reach and deepen consumer impressions. Most advertisers are time-honored brands with high brand awareness, such as Coca-Cola, Google, Budweiser, and Mercedes-Benz. In contrast, the immediate reaction on Twitter after the Temu commercial aired was along the lines, "What is Temu, and why is a brand I had no idea existed advertising in the Super Bowl? After all, Temu has only been in the U.S. for four months, and large segments of the American public have yet to learn, let alone use the platform.
Temu's debut at the Super Bowl is a daring one, but one that may have unintended consequences. Although the campaign's goal is to market the platform and sell more goods, as a subsidiary of a NASDAQ-listed Chinese company, Temu's precipitous rise to fame will also invite more scrutiny on its business model and platform policy for intellectual property and brand protection. Since launching in the U.S., Temu has been downgraded to a C rating by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and is not an accredited business.
Temu's Customer Acquisition Strategy
In addition to an aggressive advertising push on social media, the more cost-effective way for Temu to acquire customers is through the "team-up social buying" strategy, which lets existing users invite their social circle to join and get coupons together. This was Pinduoduo's initial strategy to acquire customers inexpensively and quickly grow its user base in China. Despite the mixed results, the exposure uplifted Temu's brand awareness. But Temu may also have alienated the initial user base who were the early adopters of the "team-up" model. As more people learn about and join the platform through alternative channels, fewer contacts will be eligible to participate in the word-of-mouth recommendation model, which is the more cost-effective and "stickier" customer acquisition strategy than serving traditional ads. Ultimately, the value per acquired customer must be justified by the revenue generated. But just how many discounted $4.99 blonde wigs does Temu have to sell to make back $14 million?
Temu's Overseas Ambitions: To be Continued
Temu's determination to succeed in the U.S. market is indisputable. Temu's parent company Pinduoduo, which has a market cap of over $100 billion, is ready and eager to pour money into the endeavor. After all, Temu's decisive advantages are Pinduoduo's treasure chest, its strong logistics network, and 11 million suppliers and partners in China—they form Temu's sourcing model for quality products at low prices. But is Temu playing the game in a way these games are meant to be played in the U.S. market?
Ultimately, the key performance indicator is whether the Super Bowl ad materially drove up the app download rate and achieved customer conversion and repurchases. From publicly available Google search data, the top three regions that searched for Temu during the Super Bowl were Mississippi, West Virginia, and Alabama. These cities are the approximate equivalent of China's second and third-tier cities, where Pinduoduo successfully captured a significant market share. Can Temu replicate the success from China to the U.S.?
Early results of the public reception of the Temu are in. In the Annual USA TODAY and Ad Meter ranking of all 51 Super Bowl ads, Temu came in a sobering second to last place. But regardless of the ROI of the Super Bowl ads, the silver lining is this: American consumers now finally know the correct pronunciation of Temu (Tee-Moo) from the "Shop Like a Billionaire" jingle. (Enditem)
About the author
Ivy Yang is a seasoned communication executive and has been working at the intersection of public relations and reputation management between the United States and China for over a decade, including two years at Alibaba Group.
She writes opinion pieces for The China Project and the Chinese-language site of the Financial Times about Chinese technology and e-commerce companies, the semiconductor industry, and more. Ivy was born in Wuhan and grew up in Los Angeles. She graduated from New York University and Columbia Business School and now lives in New York. She tweets at @ivylala
The Chinese-language version of this op-ed was first published on FT中文网, the Chinese-language site of the Financial Times. It doesn’t necessarily represent the views of Pekingnology.
Thanks for the explanation. I was wondering what this was. It seemed odd since I'd never heard of it