As celebrities go, it’s tough to think of a more popular, more of-this-moment personality than Zendaya. The young artist starred in the biggest box-office movie of 2021 (Spider-Man: No Way Home), and one of the buzziest TV shows of the new year (HBO’s Euphoria). It’s also difficult to find a young, insanely popular celebrity whom fans of movies, music, and fashion follow by the millions, who has done less advertising and brand work.
This is the magical formula Squarespace is aiming to bottle in its new Super Bowl commercial. Here we see Zendaya as Sally Seashells, of old-timey tongue-twister fame, trying to sell her wares down by . . . you guessed it . . . the seashore. Inevitably a certain e-commerce and website service helps her out.
Created by Squarespace’s in-house creative team, the spot is directed by Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Shaun of the Dead) and features narration and a short cameo by Andre 3000. Squarespace CCO David Lee, who’s been at the brand for nine years, says when it came to brainstorming who would star in this year’s commercial, the goal was to find someone who would be both unexpected and captivating.
“She just has an aura and charisma to her, and she’s one of the few people who could get the country’s attention in 30 seconds,” Lee says. “Not only is she a multifaceted actor who can go from blockbusters to indies to TV, she’s also a musician, an entrepreneur, and a fashion icon. And she just happens to be a longtime Squarespace customer.”
The unexpected-celebrity-plus-esoteric-e-commerce equation has been at the core of the brand’s Super Bowl campaigns since it teamed with Jeff Bridges back in 2015 for the Oscar winner’s sleep-aid recordings. Key and Peele did running game commentary in 2016. Next was John Malkovich’s fashion line in 2017, Keanu Reeves’s Zen custom motorbike business in 2018, and in 2020, Winona Ryder created a website for her namesake town. Last year the brand deviated slightly but stuck with an unexpected celeb when it got Dolly Parton to create a new version of her classic hit “9 to 5” to better reflect side-hustle culture.
While all of these celebrities are unexpected in that none are regulars in brand work, they all maintain an incredibly strong cultural cachet. It’s the perfect balance, especially during an event like the Super Bowl, when every brand is spending big money to get customers’ attention. Lee says that the brand always considers itself the underdog at the Super Bowl, which puts a bit of a chip on its shoulder and provides the motivation to consistently hit above its weight.
“We have a knack for pulling in people who have rarely or never been in advertising, or it’s their first Super Bowl ad,” Lee says. “If you’re going to partner with a celebrity, it should be someone you can’t just pull out and replace. They have to be baked into the idea.”
While the Zendaya work is stunning to look at, and she’s as captivating as Lee predicted, it’s not the brand’s absolute best. Out of all the ads featuring celeb-preneurs, this one is perhaps one in which the celebrity could, conceivably, be swapped out. Zendaya isn’t really a seashell merchant. Malkovich and Reeves worked best because they had in-real-life businesses, not just a story. Still, what this year’s spot lacks in real-life connection to the star it still ticks two major boxes in gaining Super Bowl attention: the unexpected nature of Zendaya making a game-time appearance, and the scarcity with which she grants that presence to a brand.
For Lee, it’s taking the big swing that counts most—and helps the brand maintain its reputation. “We’ve tried some brave things; some have worked out better than others, but we keep trying and we’re really aiming for ideas to have a surprise, a quirk, or a wink that will make people smile,” he says. “Influential people want to work on creative ideas, and I think that’s why we’ve been able to attract some iconic artists to work with. They look at our body of work and feel comfort that we’re a brand that will try the brave things. It’s the best recruitment tool we have. There are some things money can’t buy.”
That—and about $7 million—will get you 30 seconds in the Super Bowl.