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Why Tech Rebels Like Uber, Jet and Fitbit Are Embracing Traditional Advertising

Creative agencies are helping them go mainstream

Those who follow tech startups may have noticed a peculiar trend lately: traditional ads created by traditional agencies to promote some of Silicon Valley's favorite "unicorns."

In May, wearables pioneer Fitbit launched a campaign from San Francisco's Argonaut just weeks before filing its IPO. Over the summer, Airbnb's "Is Mankind?" from TBWA\Chiat\Day brought its first wide-scale TV effort, while retail site Jet.com launched not one but three distinct campaigns from Circus Maximus, SS+K and R/GA, one featuring Kumail Nanjiani of HBO's Silicon Valley. Even entrepreneurial darling Uber stepped into the fray with a PSA-style missive railing against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to cap the number of drivers it has on the streets. 

Each produced within the span of a few months, these campaigns lead to one obvious conclusion: The disrupters have gone mainstream, and the tech rebels, with the aid of traditional creative agencies, have begun marketing themselves like the status quo.

Digital disrupters are moving out of the startup phase.

"Companies like Airbnb and Uber have graduated from startups to major players and now the disrupters are pressing their advantage," said Howard Belk, co-CEO and creative chief of branding agency Siegel+Gale.

"These online-born startups are reaching the point of maturity, looking for new audiences and reaching the point of diminishing returns," said Natalie Monbiot, managing partner and svp, digital at media agency UM.

To maximize those returns, these marketers are turning to TV to reach consumers on a global scale. "TV says that the brand is part of the larger culture, and that's the statement that these startups want to make: We're huge; we're on TV," added Monbiot.

Expect to see more up-and-coming brands going wide with their marketing efforts, including TV buys. "The entry level for TV is going to be lower because you're going to be able to spend less and target your audience" via software-driven media buying strategies, said Monbiot. TV could experience a "little mini-revival" driven by capital-rich tech companies, she suggested.

Uber depended on TV to make the case for its very survival. "Uber used a rifle-shot approach with a very specific goal and a sense of urgency" with its anti-de Blasio push, said Belk. "TV was and is the most effective way to get the message to the broadest number of people."

Still, most startups aren't creating political-advocacy messages—they are responding to pressure from investors. Said Belk: "They hear the clock ticking on the speed with which they scale, so they feel like they have to make hay while the sun shines." Jet.com has many enthusiastic backers, yet must use a highly visible medium like TV to ensure that "people understand the value proposition and how it differs from that of Amazon," Belk added.

Marketing to international consumers is also a concern. Regarding its recent Argonaut campaign, Fitbit vp of global marketing Tim Rosa tells Adweek, "All of our global campaigns from digital to TV are localized and tailored to the market with relatable talent and fitness experiences in the featured vignette segments—so what a consumer sees in the North Asia Pacific region is going to be different than what is seen in the South Asia Pacific region, and different in France than in Canada."

Brand awareness is the ultimate goal for any company, but Belk thinks the tech brands have another common interest: "simple messages to achieve easily measurable results." As Monbiot put it: "The brief for Airbnb was to get people talking beyond those who actually use Airbnb."

According to Belk, the campaign delivered. "They've gone beyond the youth hostel demographic," he said.

Uber has relied less on traditional marketing than many other tech startups because the media buzz behind the brand has been deafening. But Belk sees Uber as an anomaly, arguing that "more startups will turn toward traditional ad agencies, especially if they have patient investors. It's all about customer acquisition; they have to go for mass appeal in some way."

And the agencies they choose will not necessarily be the biggest or most obvious.

"If I were going to guess, they will gravitate toward the most creative agencies," said Belk. "They're going to go where the work is great and they see some sort of alignment between their own brand and the work coming out of those agencies."

As Belk put it: "Airbnb and Uber are still disrupters; they're just not startups."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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