A generation ago if you asked a marketing chief to describe effective branding, he or she might have talked about a good TV spot or in-store promo. But ask winners of the 2013 Adweek Brand Genius Awards, and here's some of what you'll hear: "an authentic, compelling social experiment," "an approach that's a bit disruptive," "being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable." Marketing has broken through the old boundaries, and one thing is certain: It took risk-taking, visionary individuals like these to get it there. The 10 Brand Genius honorees—plus this year's Brand Visionary, who is saluted for a career's worth of creating successful brands—represent stories and results that are real, and serve as evidence that the definition of marketing is limited only by the sharpest minds who practice it. —Robert Klara
Brand Visionary: Russell Simmons
One of Russell Simmons’ first stints at marketing involved him passing out fliers for college parties back in the ’70s. Things have changed a bit since then, of course. “Everything is different—the world moves faster,” he says. “When I started branding, there were no cellphones. You know, I’m old. I’ve been around for a minute, baby.”
At 55, Simmons isn’t exactly old, but he has come a long way from those fliers.
Some 30 years after starting out as a fast-talking club promoter from Queens, Simmons, this year’s Adweek Brand Visionary, has become a living legend in the spheres of media and marketing, a cynosure who’s created some of the world’s coolest brands—from Def Jam records to the Phat Farm clothing line. More recently, he launched the Web-video property All Def Digital. If urban culture has a godfather, then Russell Simmons is it.
“Russell’s great gift was to show that hip-hop was a true American art form,” according to Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. “Russell’s refusal to do anything but present this stuff the way it needed to be presented—that ignited the fire that this entire culture became.”
In other words, it’s one kind of challenge to market a single product—and quite another to market an entire lifestyle. In the early ’80s, when the zeitgeist required black artists to soften their sound, lyrics and appearance to get airplay on pop radio and MTV, Simmons instead insisted on packaging acts like Run-DMC using their real street clothes and sensibility—not as black music, but as teen music with broad appeal. It worked, and quickly. By 1984, The Wall Street Journal had dubbed Simmons “the mogul of rap.”
In the decades since, Simmons has proven to be a serial entrepreneur, building his own empire and paving the way for other moguls.
In 1999, Simmons and business partner Lyor Cohen sold their remaining 40 percent stake in Def Jam Recordings to Universal Music Group for a cool $135 million. In 2004, Simmons unloaded Phat Farm for $140 million. Today, he’s at the center of a whole constellation of companies—men’s fashion label ArgyleCulture, yoga apparel line Tantris, the prepaid Visa product RushCard, news site GlobalGrind, digital marketing company Narrative and All Def Digital, a YouTube network focused on urban music, comedy and the spoken word.
“ADD has been a constant exciting fun road,” says Simmons. “I can’t believe how much cool shit is coming through my office. It’s allowing me freedom to be like a super indie—shoot what I want, put out what I want and promote what I want.”
With partners like UMG and DreamWorks-owned AwesomenessTV, the new venture is an opportunity for Simmons to add to the list of talent that can thank him for helping launch their careers. That’s not limited to musicians: Def Comedy Jam, the popular HBO show Simmons produced in the ’90s, served as an early platform for actors like Chris Tucker and Martin Lawrence.
“I get into businesses where I have something to contribute, and that’s been my history,” says Simmons. “That’s what keeps me alive: giving.”
Simmons has given plenty—and that includes philanthropy. He’s an outspoken social activist whose causes range from ethnic understanding to animal rights. “I don’t want to be limited by the brand that the world makes me,” he says.
There seems to be little chance of that. —Gabriel Beltrone
Automotive: Kevin Mayer, VP, Marketing, Volkswagen of America
Jonathan Moses wrote in about trading his Mercedes for a Rabbit. Megan Closset penned a tribute to the Karmann Ghia. And Ryan McGuire sent a pic of the ’71 Beetle he turned into a foam and fiberglass dinosaur. It’s hard for any brand to bond with customers, but these and many other stories, part of the “Why VW” campaign, were how Volkswagen did it.
More specifically, it’s how Kevin Mayer did it. Charged with chumming up to a broader range of American consumers, Mayer has presided over some of the most inventive, successful auto marketing in the business. In the process, he not only reignited the hip factor of the brand, but helped introduce it to a new generation of drivers.
“We’re using lifestyle marketing to be more engaged in new customers’ lifestyles and passions,” says the vp, marketing for Volkswagen of America. The goal is to “ultimately connect with, and explain our products to them.”
That he’s done. Launched in fall 2012, “Why VW” used stories and photos from drivers to preach the VW gospel on social media, scoring 1 million uniques in its first month. The campaign built off other youth-skewing efforts, including the now-famous “Young Vader” spot from the 2011 Super Bowl and 2012’s Think Blue tour, an interactive mobile display demonstrating the brand’s fuel-efficient technologies. Under Mayer, VW has upped its digital spend and taken the sort of creative risks heritage brands normally shy away from. In a memorable tie-in with Discovery’s Shark Week last summer, VW built a shark cage in the shape of a Beetle and tossed it in with the great whites. The resulting video bit off 1.8 million Facebook views and helped sell 3,400 cars in August alone.
“[Mayer] has been associated with great work in the past and came into the job setting a high bar for creativity,” says Michael Kadin, evp, cd at VW agency Deutsch LA. “But he understands balance. He knows what the sales goals are and we have to achieve that to do the great work.”
Speaking of sales, VW moved 483,133 cars in the U.S. in Mayer’s first year, up 49 percent over 2011. And the Beetle, the proverbial “chick car,” now boasts a 40 percent male ownership. Mayer’s on track to deliver on VW’s goal of hitting U.S. sales of 800,000 units by 2018, keeping his eye out for drivers he can convert to the brand. “Our demographics are broadening,” he says, “but we’re still staying true to our core.” —Noreen O’Leary
Retail: Lauren Hobart, Chief Marketing Officer, Dick’s Sporting Goods
It’s a challenge for any player to set itself apart in the world of retail sporting goods where the stores tend to look the same, the big sale is in Aisle 2, and top athletes promote the sneakers. But thanks to CMO Lauren Hobart, Dick’s has rewritten the marketing playbook, selling the retailer not only as a place to buy a tennis racquet but also as a lifestyle brand.
“Our approach, I think, from a marketing standpoint is a bit disruptive in the category, in that we really focus on driving an emotional, authentic connection with our customers,” says Hobart, who joined Dick’s in February 2011 after 14 years at PepsiCo.
That was apparent in the “Untouchable” campaign, launched in March of last year with agency Anomaly.
As Hobart explains, Dick’s customers are obsessed with perfecting their game, and that’s what the spots depicted: amateur athletes giving their all. The inaugural spot featured the theme from the 1993 film Rudy, about a high-school kid who dreams of playing football at Notre Dame. The beautiful, affecting ads were “really trying to demonstrate that we understand that journey,” Hobart says, “and that we at Dick’s can play a critical role in helping that athlete become ‘untouchable.’”
“Most retailers are very repetitive—they did it last year, they’re going to do it this year. They may tinker with it a little bit,” says Marshal Cohen, retail analyst at NPD Group. “[Dick’s is] one of the few retailers who is looking into the future and seeing and trying new things,” Cohen adds, crediting Hobart’s willingness to “push the envelope a little bit.”
Recently, Dick’s partnered with ESPN on Hell Week, a documentary that follows a Tennessee high school football team during preseason training.
The chain’s efforts are clearly working. Net sales for fiscal year 2012 grew 12 percent, growth that CEO Edward Stack has attributed in part to the brand’s “new marketing strategies.” Dick’s is on a brick-and-mortar expansion, with seven new locations in Q2 alone. E-commerce is also on fire, accounting for more than 5 percent of total sales. Dick’s partners with eBay Enterprise to host and operate its e-commerce site.
Piper Jaffray analyst Sean Naughton lauds Hobart’s contributions: “She’s clearly come in and [focused] on trying to create a more emotional connection with Dick’s Sporting Goods.” —David Taintor
Spirits: Mark Bacon, Managing Director, Southern Comfort
After four years of net sales declines in the U.S., Mark Bacon, managing director of Southern Comfort, knew that a conventional approach to marketing would fail. That’s what spurred the Louisville, Ky., native to tap a new creative agency last year, Wieden + Kennedy, New York, which cooked up an unusual idea—and Bacon had the nerve to run with it.
Amid a landscape of predictable liquor ads featuring trim, beautiful people sipping drinks in sleek downtown bars, Southern Comfort introduced a complete antithesis: a middle-aged man, hairier than Robin Williams, strolling the beach in a Speedo. Other characters included a mustachioed dude practicing karate moves in a hair salon. The tagline, “Whatever’s comfortable,” echoed a seldom voiced view in liquor marketing: Whoever you are, you’re cool. The characters, says Bacon, “really own what they’re doing, whatever it is. That’s the attitude Southern Comfort is trying to champion.”
It’s an attitude that’s long overdue, and just to hammer it home, the Brown-Forman brand dispensed with another staple of liquor advertising: the obligatory bottle shot. Instead, a red flag bearing the tagline sprouts from a half-filled tumbler.
“It basically represents a kind of fly your own flag, a kind of independent spirit,” says Wieden co-ecd Scott Vitrone.
Bacon’s unconventionality also extended to how the campaign was tested before its launch (it wasn’t) and how it broke (not on national TV but YouTube).
The dramatic zag rejuvenated the brand, turning a 4 percent U.S. net sales slide in 2012 into a 1 percent gain this year. Southern Comfort also generated plenty of social buzz, thanks chiefly to the popularity of the sly, initial “Beach” ad, which generated nearly 1.6 million YouTube views (and many parodies).
While the repositioning took more than a year to unfold (Bacon, a Brown-Forman lifer, assumed his current role in March 2011), the secret to its success was relatively simple: find a central brand truth for Wieden leaders like Vitrone and managing director Neal Arthur to riff on. “We were really aligned on the challenge of the brand and on the insights going into this,” Bacon said. “So, it really made it easier to trust their creative process. I remember a line that they said: ‘Hopefully, you guys will be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.’ And so we did. It was a step change for us, and it paid off.” —Andrew McMains
Fashion: Neil Blumenthal and David Gilboa, Co-Founders and Co-CEOs, Warby Parker
In 2010, eyeglasses startup Warby Parker debuted to glowing features in GQ and Vogue, hit its first-year sales target within just three weeks and amassed a waiting list of more than 20,000 consumers. Flash-forward three years, and the buzz hasn’t let up.
By now, it seems as if every stylish millennial is familiar with the brand—that is, if they don’t already own a pair. But that’s not the surprising part. What is? The fact that co-founders and co-CEOs Neil Blumenthal and David Gilboa managed to achieve such success with barely any traditional marketing.
At launch, Warby Parker, the brainchild of four Wharton students who secured a $2,500 seed investment through the school’s Venture Initiation Program, was a lean operation. “We were working out of our apartments,” Gilboa recalls, “and only spent money on getting our website up, getting our initial inventory and hiring a fashion publicist.” In the early days, Gilboa and Blumenthal personally replied to each wait-listed customer via email—but that created a customer-service experience worth talking about.
The product also helped to sell itself. WP’s frames are based on vintage designs, priced to sell at $95, and come with a no-obligation, five-day try-on plan.
Then there’s the brand’s well-publicized social mission—for every pair of glasses sold, it provides a free pair to a person in need—which is equally attractive to consumers and employees (there are now 300).
That millennial-friendly branding helped turn customers into brand ambassadors. “I know it sounds super trite,” says Blumenthal, “but I think we’ve been successful because we’ve treated others the way that we want to be treated.”
In recent months, the brand’s innovative marketing tactics, encompassing everything from “class trip” publicity tours to “annual reports” that offer fun facts about the company and its employees, have been augmented by some unexpectedly traditional plays, like opening a handful of brick-and-mortar stores and even TV spots.
But at the end of the day, Warby Parker still relies on the same core tenets that made it successful in the first place.
“Our marketing strategy is to introduce the brand through credible sources and to create amazing customer experiences,” as Blumenthal puts it. “It’s that simple.” —Emma Bazilian
Sports: Mark Waller, Chief Marketing Officer, National Football League
As the nation’s preeminent sports league and the organization that provides TV networks and marketers with one of the last remaining reach vehicles, the National Football League isn’t exactly plagued by obscurity. Recent polls suggest that as many as 185 million Americans self-identify as NFL fans (that’s a hair under 60 percent of the total population), and if early Nielsen ratings are anything to go by, that number only continues to grow.
But as CMO Mark Waller says, success is no excuse for complacency. “I suspect if you look at the Fortune 500 ranks from even just a few years ago, you’d find a lot of companies have fallen off their game,” he says. “We’re not going to let that happen.” As such, the league has thrown its not-inconsiderable weight behind building and diversifying its fan base.
Youth is particular priority. NFL Rush Zone, a multiplatform media property, includes an animated Nicktoons series (Season of the Guardians) and a site devoted to gaming and fantasy football. According to Nielsen, approximately 725,000 kids watched all or part of an episode of Season of the Guardians on Sept. 1. On the day before last year’s Super Bowl, the show topped 1.85 million viewers across two episodes.
Meanwhile, the NFL has jettisoned the perfunctory “pink it and shrink it” approach to marketing to women, teaming up with brands like Victoria’s Secret to offer fans of all 32 teams officially licensed gear designed expressly for the ladies—who, by the way, now make up some 44 percent of fans. “I would hope we get to a point in certain parts of our business where the female fan base is actually bigger than the male,” Waller says. “It’s an extraordinary demographic because it holds so much together for us. And the avidity of female fans is equal to that of male fans.”
In the run-up to the 2013 season, the NFL deepened its reach out to women by sponsoring an insert in the September issue of Marie Claire. Six of the 16 pages were devoted to the league’s women’s apparel line. Women’s jerseys have become the NFL’s fastest-growing consumer product. “I’m in three fantasy leagues, and in at least two of them half of the participants are women,” Waller says. “It’s really extraordinary.”
Another extraordinary thing: The British-born Waller has created an unlikely fan base in the U.K., where thus far every game played has been a sellout (despite the dominance of that other football). —Anthony Crupi
Consumer Electronics: Omar Johnson, VP of Marketing, Beats by Dr. Dre
If you happened to catch any of the 2012 Olympics, you might have noticed that athletes from some 20 countries all had a curious thing in common: They were spotted wearing Beats by Dr. Dre. The colorful, curvilinear headphones wasn’t one of brands that plunked down $100 million to be an official sponsor, but that didn’t stop Beats. More to the point, it didn’t stop Omar Johnson, Beats' svp of marketing.
“We don’t look at marketing from a very traditional perspective,” he says.
Beats rented out London hipster den Soho House and turned it into a media-safe zone for the Olympic athletes, who came inside to chill. There, they discovered their own customized pair of Beats headphones.
Johnson calls such stunts “moments with content velocity,” but really it’s putting the idea of earned media in overdrive—getting Beats on as many famous heads as possible, and letting the culture of imitation do the rest. “We use the celebrities to invite the kids in, and the kids invite everyone in,” says Johnson. And thanks to connections fostered by company founders Dr. Dre (who cut his teeth with hip-hop group NWA in the late 1980s) and Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine, Beats has enjoyed effortless entree to the music and sports worlds. Lebron James, Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne and Kobe Bryant are just a few of the stars seen wearing Beats.
Eminem previewed his new tune “Berzerk” on a Beats TV spot, while Serena Williams applied a flamethrower to cheap earbuds as part of the Destroy Bad Sound initiative—a convincing plea to buy high-end headphones as a way of respecting the music.
Johnson’s small army of twentysomething marketers keeps the social media machinery well oiled, pumping out a seemingly endless stream of tweets, posts and videos. “Unlike a lot of brands, Beats speaks like a real person on social channels, inspiring its fans to join the conversation,” says Drew Neisser, CEO of social media consultancy Renegade.
Fans are listening—and buying. Privately held Beats’ revenue reportedly hit $1 billion last year, up from $200 million in 2010. From its small beginnings in 2006, it now controls 59 percent of the premium headphone market. And as Beats diversifies into the speaker segment, Johnson sees only opportunity.
“How cool is it,” says Johnson, “that 90 percent of the people you know love music?” —Robert Klara
Health & Beauty: Steve Miles and Fernando Machado Global, SVP and Global VP, Dove and Dove Skin
Steve Miles and Fernando Machado had their work cut out for them.
Charged with putting a fresh face on Dove’s nine-year-old “Campaign for Real Beauty,” the Unilever brand’s global svp and global vp, skin, respectively, could have gone the safe route. Instead, they took on one of the most delicate topics around: the fact that women, when it comes to appraising how attractive they are, are often their own worst critics.
The brand, as Miles puts it, was inspired to create “an authentic, compelling social experiment.” Armed with the insight that just 4 percent of women consider themselves beautiful, Dove worked with Ogilvy & Mather Brazil to create “Real Beauty Sketches,” a six-minute video that delivers an on-brand message and emotional sway with equal force. “We knew that the idea was compelling,” says Machado, “but until we saw [it] come to life, we had no idea how powerful it would be.”
Working behind a curtain, FBI-trained forensic artist Gil Zamora created two images of each participant—one based on how another woman described her, the other on how the subject described herself. When women were asked to talk about themselves, they tended to focus on their imperfections. When subjects were asked to compare the portraits—which tended to look nothing alike—most came away shocked. A few were even in tears.
In just the first 10 days, the video racked up 660,000 Facebook shares. To date, a three-minute version has had some 60 million YouTube views in the U.S., with global views estimated at 170 million. The work earned a Titanium Grand Prix at Cannes as well. “The film uncovered a powerful human truth that seems to me to lie at the heart of all the best campaigns, which truly build brands for the long term,” says Miles.
“Dove developed a story that has a deep resonance with its audience,” says Catharine Hays, executive director of the Future of Advertising program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “And it resonates equally with the trust already built with the brand, so it didn’t come out of left field. It fit naturally.”
Michael Solomon, marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and an expert on consumer behavior, calls it “a brilliant concept … because many people, especially women, have distorted self-image, and this opportunity to see oneself as others see you is transformational.” —David Gianatasio
Entertainment: Tim Ellis, Chief Marketing Officer, Activision Publishing
Video game marketing has been compared to movie advertising mainly because that’s the only way to make people understand the staggering amounts of money a single game can bring in. (The most recent Call of Duty, Black Ops 2, did $1 billion in sales in its first 15 days.)
But Activision CMO Tim Ellis suggests that the analogy is only partially sound.
“The follow-up is equally important because you have to keep up the business and the brand momentum,” he says. “That’s where the movie analogy really falls apart. It’s more like sports marketing. We have to keep people engaged throughout the year.”
Ellis has been doing that since joining Activision in 2011, fresh off a stint at Volkswagen where he learned a thing or two about memorable campaigns. Ellis hasn’t just signed off on hiring high-wattage stars like Robert Downey Jr. (for Black Ops 2) and Eminem (for the upcoming Ghosts) in its ads. (The spot for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 starring Sam Worthington and Jonah Hill snared a 2013 Grand Effie for North America.) In the lead-up to a video game release, the company also teases fans with months’ worth of YouTube content, behind-the-scenes interviews and, finally, a full-blown, New Year’s Eve-style countdown.
In partnership with agency 72andSunny, Ellis has also sought out culty figures like J.B. Smoove and Peter Stormare to keep Call of Duty hip with fans who like to think of themselves as cutting edge.
While Activision under Ellis has begun offering fresh content on a monthly basis, these tent-pole launches still remain key. For the new, highest-of-tech releases, he says, “It’s about creating an actual day of launch, a sense of cultural inevitability. It’s so big and it’s so ubiquitous.”
Industry partners are counting on that ubiquity. Call of Duty: Ghosts is a launch title for PlayStation4 and Xbox One, new consoles on which Sony and Microsoft, respectively, are betting the farm. It seems to be a pretty good bet. Analyst Doug Creutz of research firm Cowen and Co. calls the game the most anticipated new release.
In the meantime, Ellis’ record on behalf of the company is a solid one. In 2012, Activision grabbed close to 20 percent of the entire video game market. The company’s revenue in Q1 2013 hit $1.23 billion, a 13 percent increase versus last year.
As for Call of Duty, it has remained the industry’s sales leader for seven years straight, a record Ellis is committed to maintaining. And he’ll have to. After all, the fanboys are watching. —Sam Thielman
Technology: Todd Pendleton, Chief Marketing Officer, Samsung Telecommunications America
Ever since the late Steve Jobs took the wraps off the iPhone in 2007, Apple—already a chic cult brand—has been the act to beat. Say what you will about its high prices or the confusing flop that was Siri, for half a decade now iPhone acolytes have been willing to sleep on the sidewalks to get the sleek little phone.
Or at least they were until Samsung and CMO Todd Pendleton came along.
Since Pendleton was cherry-picked from Nike two years ago to lead U.S. mobile marketing, the South Korean smartphone seller has left Apple in the dust, grabbing 30 percent of global market share versus Apple’s 13 percent. Pendleton’s marketing savvy has also helped Samsung become the most profitable smartphone producer in the world this summer, besting Apple yet again.
Pendleton understood he had to match not just products with Apple but brand narratives. With a creative assist from agency 72andSunny, Pendleton developed the message that Samsung’s Galaxy S4 already had features the iPhone would boast down the road, distilling the selling point to a single line: “The next big thing is already here.” Deployed in broadcast and digital ads and in social media, the message began a mass conversion.
“Few leaders have been able to change the social conversation about a brand in such a short period,” said Lisa Donohue, CEO of Starcom, Samsung’s media agency. “Todd’s not afraid to own Samsung’s innovation story and share the brand with consumers in ways they’ve never experienced before.”
Donahue points to Pendleton’s decision to partner with NBA star LeBron James, who has appeared in a number of Galaxy S4 ads, including a popular Super Bowl spot.
Pendleton says the overall S4 pitch allowed for “the flexibility to tap into significant cultural moments and relevant conversations while showcasing our innovation.”
The CMO has plenty of fans when it comes to how he craftily pitted Galaxy against the Apple juggernaut. “Subtly creating that doubt about [which product is superior] is marketing magic in a category filled with consumer loyalists,” says Eric Holtzclaw, founder and CEO of marketing firm Laddering Works.
Michael Becker, marketing development adviser to the mobile agency Somo, says of Samsung’s campaigns: “They show the passion and excitement we have for what has become our most personal intimate possession: the mobile device.” —Christopher Heine
Consumer Packaged Goods: Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO, Chobani
“You could do better than this.”
On his father’s visit from Turkey to New York in 2002, Hamdi Ulukaya proudly served him the best feta cheese he could find. The elder Ulukaya, a dairy farmer back home, was unimpressed by the product but excited about the opportunity, urging his restless son to make better cheese and yogurt for the American market. “I laughed, saying that I certainly didn’t travel all this way to do exactly what I could do back home,” recalls Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani.
But the seed was planted, and a few years later Ulukaya would buy a shuttered yogurt factory in tiny New Berlin, N.Y. In 2007, he introduced his Greek yogurt to mainstream America and brilliantly promoted Chobani (based on the Greek word for shepherd). The result: more than $1 billion in sales in 2012, the nation’s top-selling Greek yogurt representing over half the total U.S. yogurt market.
“Chobani successfully identified and leveraged an underdeveloped market and then established brand leadership,” says Brannon Cashion, president of global branding consultancy Addison Whitney.
To get his product into stores, he persuaded ShopRite, the first large chain to carry Chobani, for shelf position, which he secured not with cash but in exchange for product. From there, word of mouth took off, nurtured by employees handing out samples as they toured the country in “ChoMobiles.”
Chobani’s customer-loyalty team answers more than 9,000 emails and calls per month, often sending customers samples, coupons and even handwritten notes. A social media group strives to acknowledge every mention of Chobani on Twitter and Facebook.
“We want each individual to feel a personal connection to our brand,” Ulukaya says.
Now the challenge is to maintain that connection as the brand faces copycats from Dannon and Yoplait. To that end, Chobani cafes are being planned around the country (one is already open in New York). Meanwhile, CMO Peter McGuinness, who came on board in July, promises to stop the revolving door of ad agencies with the September appointment of Droga5 following a review.
Ulukaya says he’ll hold tight to the ideal, prompted by his father, of a healthy, tasty everyman brand. “There’s a vibrant demand across this country for nutritious foods and natural ingredients. Our explosive growth proves it,” he says. —Joan Voight