Ad of the Day: Capital One Makes 150 Ads for Small Businesses Starring Their Biggest Fans

Mullen Lowe tries a fresh approach to testimonials

Capital One delivers a big campaign for small business with its “Spark Plug” initiative, shining a spotlight on 125 entrepreneurial companies in a whopping 150 advertisements created by Mullen Lowe.

The work, which launches today, includes print, out-of-home, digital and video ads. In a novel twist, the campaign’s 11 commercials employ fans of 11 small businesses—nominated by the companies themselves—as spokespeople.

“We simply wanted to capture the excitement and passion that comes from a fan’s voice, as opposed to the often calculated, more logical message that might come from an owner,” Sue DeSilva, creative director at Mullen Lowe, tells Adweek.

Director Alex Fendrich employs a bright, breezy style that makes the 30-second testimonials instantly accessible. His sparse, assured visual approach—a few well-placed props against white or gray backdrops, establishing a mood or theme for each spot—stems from his improv background. That style really lets the stories shine.

In the ad for Capitol Tap, the youth dance ensemble’s biggest booster, Yvonne, 81, demonstrates fancy footwork atop a platform emblazoned with the company logo. “It’s just a wonderful organization,” she says. “You walk in, and you tap out.”

Twentysomething Morgan praises her sister’s Dolci Gelati Truck. “It’s a cool truck, and it’s a cute truck, and I love showing it to people,” she says. Morgan delivers her pitch in an airy studio, with the vehicle in question—along with an ice-cream vendor’s cart and chalkboard menu—positioned nearby.

David Miller, an exuberant middle-aged dude with an impressive waxed mustache, really brings it for Wonder Lee 123, exploring racks of the store’s extremely funky bow-ties (created from discarded objects). “The ties are art,” he says. “It makes me smile. It makes everybody else smile.”

“It was amazing to watch business owners listen to their customers sing their praises,” says Keri Gohman, head of the Small Business Bank at Capital One. “It was heartwarming and 100 percent authentic.”

Indeed, with this sort of campaign, authenticity is key, and the ads pass with flying colors. These folks really do seem like the biggest fans of the companies they’re representing.

Were there concerns that featuring fans, and not owners, might be confusing?

“We were committed to keeping this campaign ‘from the voice of the fans,’ so to prevent it from being confusing, we spent a lot of time working on the construct of the ads,” says DeSilva. “We put in a lot of time to ensure we kept the message as clear as possible.”

Capital One branding is reserved for the closing seconds of each spot. Agency and client strove to celebrate the vibrancy and success of small businesses, while subtly informing entrepreneurs that Spark is available to provide financial solutions, mentorship opportunities and marketing dollars.

Plus, the ads serve as real-world examples of marketing programs prospective clients might undertake with Spark’s assistance. “From our research we know most small-business owners wish they could spend more on marketing, or wish they knew more about marketing, so we really felt like we were responding to a need,” DeSilva says.

Capital One received 400 submissions from businesses in four markets—Washington D.C., New York, New Orleans and Houston—for the chance to receive custom ads with their biggest fans. Along with the videos, Mullen Lowe made custom print, out-of-home and digital ads for many of the 125 companies that were chosen—some 150 ads in all.

“We started with a simple question: What could we do to support as many customers as possible, show our thanks, and amplify their stories?” Gohman says. “We kept the complexity on our side, supporting many businesses versus narrowing to a single winner.”

She adds, “Each business and fan had a powerful story and experience. The owner of Wonder Lee summed up the goal of our campaign. When she heard her biggest fan talk about her business, she looked up with tears in her eyes and said, ‘He really gets it.’ “

Here are the eight other videos from the campaign:

Client: Capital One
Senior Director, Small Business Brand Strategy: Kristi Hebner
Business Director, Small Business Bank Marketing: Rohit Saroop
Senior Business Director, Small Business Bank Marketing: Matt Lattman
Brand Strategy Consultant, Small Business Brand Strategy : Heather Leonard
Marketing Project Management, Small Business Banking: Megan Givens

Agency: Mullen Lowe, Boston
Executive Creative Director: Dave Weist
Executive Creative Director: Tim Vaccarino
VP Creative Director: Sue DeSilva
VP Associate Creative Director: Andy Schneider
Associate Creative Director: Tony Frusciante
Senior Broadcast Producer: Ken Kingdon
SVP, Group Account Director: Rebekah Pagis
VP, Account Director: Jesse Brandt
Account Supervisor: Corie McNeil
Assistant Account Executive: Kate Chartier

Production Company: Fatking Films
Director: Alex Fendrich
Line Producer: Brooke Gaston Herstein

Editorial: Edit Bar
Editor: Michael Reuter
Assistant Editor: Jack LeMay
Colorist/On-Line Editor: Charlie Coffou
Executive Producer: Vanessa Macedo

Audio Post-Production: Soundtrack Boston
Engineer: Brian Mc Keever

@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.