The Year's Best Marketing

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(NOTE: This essay draws on a chapter in my new book, Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs, which identifies nine radical branding and marketing insights for innovative business leaders to watch in 2010).

Great branding and marketing happened all the time in 2009, only it often occurred in some less noticed and most unlikely places.

In fact, I’m not sure we possess the right criteria or language to agree on what "great" even means. So many things have changed − from our channels to our expectations − that much of what was celebrated in the media (and promptly resold to other clients) just left me flat. I had this sneaking suspicion that we were missing something all year long. 

A shared idea of purpose. Criteria for success. 

A program.

I wrote a number of Dim Bulb essays during the year on what I thought were home runs that you’d otherwise miss; when I reviewed them for my new book, I discovered an underlying consistency across all of them. A pattern of design and execution that I believe drove all of the successes, whether large or small. The best campaigns all exhibited novel thinking in one or more of what I’ve concluded are the six categories, or Six C’s of Success, which are: 

  1. Channel. "New" shouldn’t be a synonym for "digital" when it comes to media for reaching consumers. The truly inventive campaigns used new ways to communicate, like incorporating heaters in bus stops with ads, or newspapers that were written differently, not just reformatted to look like web pages. Every communications channel is "new" unless you choose to use it in old ways.
  2. Creativity. I’m a sucker for a good fart joke just like the next guy, but the really creative content in 2009 wasn’t focused on making people laugh as much as inventing new ways to talk about products and services. Who would have ever thought of giving life insurance as a gift, for instance? Successful campaigns redefined the mandate for creativity and put it against finding ways to engage with consumers thatwere relevant, meaningful, and had some utility beyond eliciting a chuckle. 
  3. Competitiveness. Some marketers rejected the babble of talking about "enhancements" or selling imaginary benefits, and got back to talking about real differences with competing offers, sometimes going so far as to invent their own competition to crowd a market. "Why we’re different/better" proved to be a far better basis for social conversations than whether folks thought an ad was good or not.
  4. Content. Home run messages had meaning and relevance, not just entertainment value. One of the key winning ideas was to pull campaigns back to the old-fashioned idea of sampling, which helped make a beer message very compelling.
  5. Clarity. The best ideas weren’t focused exclusively on marketing communications, but the business behind it. 2009 gave us examples of clients linking marketing efforts to results (holding agencies accountable for results…gasp!), which the media interpreted as punitive. It wasn’t. Could selling be emerging as the new marketing idea? It would be laughable if it weren’t possible.
  6. Call to Action. This was perhaps the most important quality of all. Home runs have objectively real actions attached to them, so they’re memorable for what happened (and not for what people thought about them). So, for instance, an emotional attachment was less important than the offer to "try our toilet paper." Beyond all the babble about conversation for the sake of conversation, the most successful campaigns provided something after the talk.

The Six C’s cut across the more common criteria by which brand and marketing strategies are discussed; I think that one of the biggest risks we run is when we try to do "a digital campaign," or look at a business challenge in terms of the marketing tools available to us. Home runs go above and beyond those common vendor definitions, and are assembled by sometimes unlikely (or unexpected) elements.

They can also be nothing more than scrappy singles, to push the baseball analogy perhaps too far. I’m convinced that some of the best strategies in 2009 were mistaken for tactics; doing "little" things really well was perhaps one of the year’s "big" ideas.

So you’ve got my recipe for success. Want to know which campaigns I thought were the home runs of 2009?  

Buy my book.  🙂

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