This year’s crop of Super Bowl ads includes plenty of the usual suspects: expensive cars, cheap beers, big tech. But among the companies coughing up a reported $5.6 million for 30 seconds of Big Game glory is one name most people have never heard of, selling a product that many don’t know exists: Dashlane, an app that manages your passwords.
It’s not that password management is entirely novel. Dashlane has been around since 2012; its leading competitors, 1Password and LastPass, are even older. And security experts have long urged the use of a dedicated app to create and keep track of secure passwords for you. Still, Dashlane’s not exactly Budweiser. It does, though, want to be something like the Budweiser of internet safety.
No one enjoys having to remember their passwords, and nearly everyone has had at least one of them compromised; data breach repository Have I Been Pwnd counts over 9 billion exposed accounts. “It’s a universal problem, but the category’s still very small and niche,” says Dashlane chief marketing officer Joy Howard. “So we set out to create a category-defining brand in the space.”
Dashlane already has password management credibility; it’s one of WIRED’s favorites. For now, that’s still something like being a big shot in a regional bowling league. But with each new corporate breach, and each so-called credential stuffing attack that punishes password reuse, the general sense that there must be a better way continues to grow. And so Dashlane’s Super Bowl ad isn’t just a bet on Dashlane. It’s a bet that something as arcane as password management is poised to go mainstream.
“That is what we set out to do, take it out of this dark wonky space and into something that’s a no-brainer,” Howard says. “It’s a different time now. People are much more receptive to this kind of solution than they were before.”
Investors certainly think so. Dashlane can afford a Super Bowl spot thanks to a $110 million funding round last spring. Last fall, 1Password took in $200 million of outside money. And in December, two private equity companies acquired LastPass developer LogMeIn for $4.3 billion. One last big number: In 2018, research firm Grand View Research estimated that password management would be a $2 billion-a-year market by 2025. Password management is also what you might call a sticky business: Once you’re locked into one company, there’s not much incentive to switch. In fact, doing so can be a real hassle, since it requires resetting all those passwords all over again.
Those high-flying numbers might sound suspect given that so many of these services, including Dashlane, offer a version of their product for free. But Howard says the company has a high conversion rate; the $5 Dashlane plan includes a VPN and “dark web monitoring” for identity-theft protection. Besides, if there’s a chance for your brand to become the one that's synonymous with the entire product category—the Google or the Kleenex or the Taser of web security—a Super Bowl ad starts to make perfect sense.
“You can see why a brand like this would go to the Super Bowl. You’re going for the biggest punch in terms of audience. Often we’re looking at 100 million-plus” viewers, says Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Northwestern University and co-instructor of the annual Kellogg Super Bowl Ad Review. “If you’re trying to get a lot of people familiar with the category or a brand you don’t know, the Super Bowl has a tremendous tactical advantage in doing that.”
The Dashlane ad accomplishes that, at least in the 60-second cut that the company released online ahead of the game. All that stands behind a moderately scruffy guy and heaven is remembering the answers to a series of password question prompts. It’s funny! And more important, it’s relatable, tidily conveying both the pain point and the solution.
The danger is that everyone will have forgotten all about Dashlane by Monday afternoon. “You’re surrounded by the top talent—both in terms of brands and agencies—there is,” says Rucker. “There’s only a handful of ads that really win.” While Rucker gives Dashlane’s rookie outing high marks, he also cautions that a lot can get lost in cutting the ad’s runtime in half to fit a Super Bowl slot. “It remains to be seen whether in that 30 seconds they retain that strong linkage to the brand,” Rucker says, “versus putting more emphasis on the creative content.”
At the very least, this won’t be one-and-done for Dashlane. The company will continue to run the ad after the Lombardi Trophy presentation is through, part of a broader marketing push that includes a design overhaul that went live this week. Dashlane also footed the bill for Unnamed Temporary Sports Blog, where former Deadspin writers are spending the weekend writing after severe mismanagement led to the beloved site’s implosion last fall. (Disclosure time: WIRED.com editor Megan Greenwell was previously editor in chief of Deadspin, and I'm the former EIC of Deadspin sister site Gizmodo.) “We want the internet to be good again,” reads the Dashlane sidebar ad. “We’re tired of big companies ruining good websites.”
Dashlane’s marketing push may seem excessive. Category leaders like 1Password and LastPass don’t appear to have run even a single television ad. But remember that those companies aren’t just competing against one another; they’re also competing against Google and Apple, whose browsers automatically suggest strong passwords and offer to store them on your behalf. (Don’t do that.)
“Some of our competitors, especially [Apple] Keychain and [Google] Chrome, have gotten really grabby with your passwords, because they want to lock you into their hardware ecosystem or their operating system,” says Dashlane’s Howard. “We don’t want to let that happen.” Apps like Dashlane, 1Password, and LastPass are platform agnostic; unlike first-party options, they don't care what smartphone or browser you use.
The point of all this isn’t to say that Dashlane will win the password management wars, or even that it spent such an eye-popping sum on its opening salvo. The point is that, finally, enough people are aware that this problem needs solving that it’s a fight worth having in the first place.