Brand wins, losses, and the virtues of bold marketing campaigns

Embracing creativity and designing bold marketing campaigns can end in rewards or regret. However, in a world of marketing saturation, companies should honor their creative side and take a chance on a big idea.

Media saturation is real, and for brands, this means consumer attention is at a historically high premium. As AdAge has reported, Millennials are not inspired by a brand’s clout in the marketplace. They need a better reason to engage with a company, such as a unique value proposition, or a compelling corporate culture. As a result, brands are looking to communicate these elements through bolder and gutsier marketing campaigns.

An old adage asserts “the bigger the risk, the greater the reward”, which can certainly be true. But when a company’s efforts fall on the other side of the spectrum, they may find themselves looking at a bigger backlash instead. Should this risk discourage creative, or even bullish, behavior by marketers? We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the answer is an unequivocal no.

This year, April Fools’ Day saw a slew of creative, provocative, and, in some cases, high-risk prankster ads. This has reignited our position that we love when brands accept inherent risk and embrace a crazy idea. For some of these campaigns, their message will resonate, and the campaign hailed as a stroke of genius. Others will be disasters – and that’s fine. Let’s give them a nod for taking a leap and take lessons where we can.

3 Big fails – campaigns that missed the mark

1. Warby Parker’s ill-conceived joke has people wondering if it “lost its cool”

Warby Parker, since its start, has embraced an urban, educated, and sophisticated brand identity. Their target is a young, Millennial-led audience. Even the name of the company itself comes from a Jack Kerouac journal, providing the brand with a cultural pedigree that speaks for itself.

But the company’s recent April Fools’ Day stunt did not do much to reinforce this persona. In conjunction with fast-food chain Arby’s, on April 1st Warby Parker announced a fake partnership between the two companies, dubbed WArby’s. Many in both the traditional media as well as social media found the campaign to be as irrelevant as it was humorless. As Fast Company summarized, an “ill-conceived joke like this one will only alienate Warby Parker’s existing fans, and it isn’t likely to win over the Arby’s crowd.” While the intention clearly wanted to show a light-hearted, silly side of the company, this bold marketing campaign resulted in more recoiling than rewards.

Warby Parker and Arby's bold marketing campaign for april fools - WArbys

2. McDonald’s ‘dead dad’ ad fail has them down, but not out

Last year, McDonald’s faced a strong backlash related to an ad that was aired in the UK. In the ad, a boy and his mother reminisced about his father, who had passed away. The company was accused by several people of using this “dead dad ad” to “inappropriately and insensitively (use) bereavement and grief to sell fast food.” After hundreds of complaints, the company pulled the ad and apologized.

Although a McDonald’s spokesperson said that the company “wanted to highlight the role McDonald’s has played in our customers’ everyday lives – both in good and difficult times,” working in this sensitive space was not successful. A year later, McDonald’s CEO Paul Pomroy spoke about the misstep at an Oystercatchers event. Here he reiterated the company’s commitment to its team and partner agencies, making it known that the company felt that, “to foster innovative and creative ideas you have to allow people to fail without fear of losing their jobs.”

3. Heineken stumbles into uncomfortable territory with “lighter is better” ad

Even when companies aren’t trying to push boundaries, sometimes a campaign can be derailed in ways the brand never saw coming. This happened recently to Heineken with the launch of their “lighter is better” ad campaign. In the ads, “a bartender slides a bottle of Heineken Light past several black people before it lands with a paler-skinned woman with the tagline ‘Sometimes lighter is better.’” Several publications called the ad “tone deaf,” while other public figures, such as Chance the Rapper, believed the ad to be “terribly racist.”

This issue highlights the fact that even the most innocent campaigns (Heineken asserted that the “lighter” remark only applies to its light color and calorie content), can result in unintended consequences. And while the team behind these ads may have had one intention, they didn’t notice the unintended implication that seemed obvious to everyone else. Moral of the story? Getting feedback from a diverse audience can be a big benefit.

3 Big wins – campaigns that made a mark

1. Samsung’s Ostrich ad encourages people to #dowhatyoucant

When it comes to perceived risk, producing an ad that features a cast of ostriches could be at the top of the list. On face value, the concept seems odd. An ostrich stumbles upon a VR headset, happens to figure out how to put it on, and through experiencing its flight simulator learns how to fly. But, in this case for Samsung, the risk payed off in spades.

Last year the ad won a number of Cannes Lion awards, three gold, two silver, and two bronze. The ad/short film is a part of Samsung’s #dowhatyoucant campaign, which encourages a spirit of innovation and rule-breaking. While the ad itself stands on its own as an endearing show of the power of imagination and perseverance, the brand strategy is two years in the making. In this case, Samsung’s ability to marry creativity with a relevant and compelling message makes the campaign a big win.

Samsung Ostrich for april fools day marketing

2. Intuit uses a Pixar-inspired animated short to market its business tools to grown-ups – and it works

Software company Intuit is behind industry household names that many professionals are familiar with. In fact, as of 2015, one of its biggest brands, QuickBooks, enjoyed 80% market share amongst small businesses. Surprisingly, however, according to Intuit CMO Lucas Watson, corporate brand recognition wasn’t where it should be. From an AdWeek interview, Watson said that “even among people who use our products, only four out of every thousand use two or more.” The company’s goal was to promote the value of integrating their products, which according to the company “function better when used together.”

Considering the company’s audience of professionals and small business owners, the choice to develop an animated ad campaign to communicate their value proposition was unexpected. Yet, the animated short, reminiscent of Pixar hits like Big Hero 6 and Inside Out, delivered. Set in a future that was far enough ahead to be inspirational, but not so far that it was irrelevant, Intuit’s story of two small business owners offered a narrative that communicated the products’ value in a compelling and unique way.

3. ESSC campaign shows that leading by compassion is an effective strategy

Easterseals of Southern California (ESSC) have a clear focus: “to ensure that all people with disabilities or other special needs and their families have equal opportunities to live, learn, work and play in their communities.” The organization recently launched a campaign aimed at “changing the way you see disability.” The campaign features print, internet, and outdoor components, as well as a social media push. The organization’s message puts the people that it serves front and center, highlighting their skills, interests, and elements that make them unique outside of their disability.

The ESSC campaign shows that challenging stereotypes and confronting biases should be rooted in exposure and education. From the compelling visuals to the incorporation of a grassroots call to action to #celebratedontseparate, this beautiful and thought-provoking campaign succeeds in its mission.

In conclusion

As we look back at these success stories and lost opportunities, we see quite a few valuable lessons that brands can take and apply to their marketing campaigns:

  • There is a time and place: Brands should consider the current political and cultural environment when taking an editorial eye to campaign ideation. Unintended consequences can be avoided with an outside look from a diverse audience.
  • Emotion can be your friend or greatest enemy: Loss is one of our greatest human fears, so tread lightly. Using emotions that lean toward empowerment, joy, and compassion will most often be successful.
  • Humor must be tasteful and on-brand: Silly is not effective on its own. If your brand decides to pull a prank, make sure it stays relevant to your brand identity, core audience, and business goals.