Adweek’s 2012 Brand Genius Awards


Banking and Finance: Leslie Berland, Amex

Leslie Berland was betting the farm that American Express’ just-launched Twitter feed—which had precisely zero followers—was going to pay off.

It was November 2009 and the company was running a promo to offer card members dibs on access to a special Bon Jovi concert. Not long before, AmEx would have used email or newsletters to publicize an event this big, but Berland, svp of digital partnerships and development, insisted Twitter carry the whole thing.

“We were trying to identify an unmet need and do something with technology that was truly unique and differentiated,” she says. “We realized quickly that this platform would be meaningful to us.”

That it was. The concert sold out in less than a day. The promotional effort—a kind of trial balloon—was more than just proof that an old-guard financial services brand could gain a toehold with a young, affluent and media-savvy crowd, but also a validation of Berland’s digital vision, one that she has been tirelessly expanding ever since.

Cut to this past spring and another AmEx-Twitter program Berland hoped would redefine the term “social currency.” A few months earlier, Berland had taken the wraps off Sync, a program launched with Foursquare and Facebook in which shoppers earned deals by checking in at partner retailers and by “liking” certain brands.

But Sync’s big moment would arrive when it partnered with Twitter at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, where AmEx staged a Jay-Z concert.

The integration, wherein cardholders got discounts at major retailers in exchange for tweets with brand-specific hashtags, triggered 155,216 tweets in the first nine days and generated some $7 million in sales.

The result is that AmEx has become a fully integrated social media brand, linking with YouTube, Zynga and Google+ to name a few. In the process, @AmericanExpress has achieved nearly 582,000 followers, while the brand has attracted some 2.7 million Facebook fans.

And it’s all because of Berland’s vision.

Adam Bain, president of revenue at Twitter, calls Berland an executive with “boundless imagination and the ability to get stuff done. It’s not just that she’s got this incredible power to create ideas—she creates outcomes. It’s a rare quality.” —T.L. Stanley


Automotive: Olivier Francois, Chrysler

Just as Chrysler was set to film its spot for this year’s Super Bowl, Olivier Francois received a call. “Hi,” said the sandpaper voice on the other end. “This is Clint.”

The Chrysler CMO had relentlessly pursued the Hollywood legend known as Eastwood, normally out of reach to marketers. But listening to Francois’ pitch, the star began to warm to Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” concept and eventually agreed to it—if it could be told in his own words.

Francois is a marketer with a strong creative point of view, and one who doesn’t hesitate to be hands-on.

Last year, Chrysler’s in-house marketing team wanted Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” for another Super Bowl spot, even though the rapper was famous for rejecting the use of his music in ads. So Francois personally intervened, getting not only the music but Eminem himself for the ad. The Chrysler chief even managed to get the music slightly altered.

As for that iconic “Imported from Detroit” catchphrase? It came from a speech Francois delivered at the Los Angeles Auto Show. “That started as kind of a joke, but then we thought it would be a very good marketing brief, not just a line,” he says.

The marketing professional, who’s also a poet and songwriter, clearly enjoys the melding of art and commerce.

“I never order a commercial the way you would something off a menu,” says the proudly iconoclastic Francois. “I see agencies as partners to bounce ideas off of. It’s about chemistry between my own creative views, sense and instincts and these guys.”

But he’s also all business, and by any measure, consumer response to Wieden + Kennedy’s two award-winning Super Bowl spots for Chrysler has been off the charts.

For an automaker close to liquidation just three years ago, Chrysler, thanks in large part to Francois’ efforts, is the Detroit comeback story. U.S. sales climbed 12 percent in September of this year, the 30th straight month of growth. Compare that to October 2009, when Francois joined the brand and sales crashed 30 percent.

“At that time, America was questioning its own industry,” Francois recalls. “We wanted to not only put Chrysler on the map—we wanted to remind everyone that this is a country like no other, a country that can be proud of building quality products.”

Mission accomplished—Noreen O’Leary


Retail: Kensuke Suwa, Uniqlo

In the world of fast fashion where teens flock to mega chains like H&M and Forever 21 for flashy, inexpensive outfits they’ll end up wearing all of four weeks, any newcomer would have its work cut out for it.

That’s why Uniqlo’s arrival on U.S. shores six years ago, touting cotton basics and bargain-priced cashmere sweaters, barely registered in the adolescent shopping cortex.

After all, Uniqlo was essentially a Japanese version of the Gap.

Its mistake was marketing itself as such.

Then Kensuke Suwa took over as the retailer’s director of global marketing, and suddenly everything changed.

Suwa’s approach has brought much needed focus to what the Uniqlo brand is—and is not.

“We do not try to provide the latest trend of the season and say to the customer, this is what you should wear,” Suwa says. “However, we are a brand that makes the best effort to provide the perfect components to our customer’s everyday life.”

Under Suwa’s leadership, Uniqlo has managed to keep its central identity intact at the same time it has Americanized its offerings so they will grab consumers’ attention—but not so much that they look like something out of a Gap or Old Navy store. Uniqlo has kept its core offerings simple (“Made for All” is its egalitarian motto) but has also rolled out limited edition collections with designers like Jil Sander and Lulu Guinness.

Deploying some clever crowdsourcing, the chain has also tapped directly into the young-adult customization trend. Its Grand Prix platform lets customers create their own designs for T-shirts, with winning designs sold in stores globally.

Taking a cue from Starbucks, the brand also encourages customers to hang out in its stores (and with some locations in excess of 40,000 square feet, there’s room) and hosts celebrity appearances and art exhibitions to create a cultural connection with the public.

Suwa’s approach seems to be working. At a time when many retailers have put the brakes on expansion as they wait for the economy to heat up, Uniqlo is moving ahead with plans to open 20 to 30 new locations per year.

The payoff: Sales in the company’s international division soared 68 percent to $1.07 billion in the first half of fiscal year 2012 while Suwa projects that global sales will hit $10 billion by 2020. —Emma Bazilian


Consumer Packaged Goods: Lisa Mann

Last year, when Lisa Mann was promoted to oversee Oreo at Kraft Foods/Mondelēz International, her immediate objective was planning a birthday party.

Why was a Harvard MBA who had reached the executive suite of one of the leading CPG companies (Mann’s title is, irresistibly, vice president of cookies) bothering with something so seemingly trivial?

This was to be no ordinary party. A century earlier, the National Biscuit Co. introduced a chocolate sandwich cookie with a cream layer. By the time Mann was in the picture, the Oreo brand was racking up $2 billion in annual sales. Now, it was Mann’s job to mark the centennial.

Rather than overthink it, Mann tried the most literal approach imaginable. She staged a kid’s birthday party in the conference room, just to see what ideas would turn up. The “lightbulb moment” was when one of her team asked, “What if we threw a birthday party in every grocery store in America?”

Mann wound up doing just that—and more. Employing the slogan “Celebrate the kid inside” for a campaign produced with agency Draftfcb, Mann’s team got 80 percent of the brand’s retail partners to put up helium balloons and streamers, constructing “cakes” out of boxes of limited-edition Birthday Cake Oreos. “In-store was the focus, and then everything emanated from there: TV, print, outdoor, digital, mobile, social, PR,” Mann explains. “Every step, we tried to capture the emotion of a birthday party.”

The important subtext was the reminder that Oreos have been an iconic part of American households and families for nearly half their existence.

Ads and in-store contests reminded consumers of the “twist, lick and dunk” method of eating Oreos with milk, while the 100-day “Daily Twist” promotion paired the brand with a different cultural image each day—including an Oreo resembling Elvis’ pompadour and a memorable gay-pride cookie with a six-layer filling in rainbow colors.

Social media ate it up. Oreo’s birthday page on Facebook racked up 25 million likes. Meanwhile, Oreo’s sales soared 25 percent.

All that from a birthday party staged in a corporate conference room.

Mann “never spouted research or asked how something would test,” recalls Draftfcb group creative director Jill Applebaum. “She has a passion for ideas—she’s the client that every creative person wants.” —T.L. Stanley


Travel and Tourism: Chris Gabaldon, Ritz-Carlton

A random act of kindness? Not in New York. As it turns out, the man and his sons were guests of the Ritz-Carlton downtown, and the night manager just wanted to make sure they were comfortable although they were on a sidewalk four miles from the hotel.

That is one of many true stories submitted by customers as part of the hotel and resort chain’s marketing blueprint known as “Let Us Stay With You,” its mantra and the brainchild of CMO Chris Gabaldon.

Like many other hoteliers, Gabaldon was aware that the industry had taken to fishing for customers by way of discounts and customer relationship management programs. But Gabaldon says hotels employing such strategies have it all backward.

“Travel should not be thought of as a race to the bottom or just a place to sleep,” he says. “So we had to change the conversation.”

“Let Us Stay With You” does just that, showcasing how Ritz-Carlton’s employees bend over backward to create a stay worth remembering. It includes videos that spotlight the small but significant ways that employees customize the guest experience (including the shoe shine man in Istanbul who mixes his polish by hand).

Other features include “Stories That Stay With You,” reader-submitted items on the brand’s homepage (which is where the blanket story comes from). It also includes the social media realm, where “World Concierge,” a Foursquare-enabled sightseeing and dining guide, lets travelers enjoy the insider knowledge of Ritz-Carlton concierges anywhere on the planet.

And it’s working. Over the past two years, revenues per available room have risen by 20 percent, and Ritz-Carlton forecasts that by next year business will return to pre-recession levels. “Let Us Stay With You,” says company president Herve Humler, “isn’t just a marketing campaign, but an operating platform. Chris is a great thinker, a strong leader, and he’s contributed significantly to our success.” —Robert Klara


Restaurants: Brian Niccol, Taco Bell

Any chain restaurant that survives for half a century learns that business won’t always be great. But this time last year, Taco Bell was truly facing crunch time.

Same-store sales in the third quarter were down 5 percent and franchisees were grumbling about headquarters’ value-pricing strategy. Worst of all, a California woman had filed a false-advertising suit over the chain’s ground beef, and late-night hosts had already trotted out the mystery-meat jokes.

Few would have blamed marketing and innovation chief Brian Niccol—all of six months on the job—if he’d ended up changing his name and moving to Mexico.

Fortunately for Yum! Brands’ Taco Bell, Niccol decided it was time to change something else: the brand’s entire positioning.

By introducing fresh new products, a new slogan and a new attitude overall, Niccol pushed Taco Bell up a notch into the “fast-casual” category, a move that muted accusations of low quality even as it put the brand in contention for guests at higher-end chains like Chipotle.

Says CEO Greg Creed: “I give Brian a huge amount of credit for taking what we knew were really good ideas and executing them really well.”

Niccol signed celeb chef Lorena Garcia to infuse offerings with fresh, authentic ingredients—cilantro rice, citrus-herb marinated chicken—that formed the core of the Cantina Bell menu. Working with Draftfcb, he also abandoned the chain’s worn and confusing slogan “Think Outside the Bun” in favor of “Live Mas” (“Live More”), signaling the chain’s ascent from convenience food to the fast-casual segment.

“We’ve really flipped the switch to a company that’s focused on experience and engagement versus one that just markets products,” says Niccol. “The brand is moving from food as fuel to food as experience.”

Still, Niccol has been careful not to abandon Taco Bell’s core customers—for whom he introduced the Doritos Locos Taco, the chain’s staple beef taco jazzed up with a shell made of Doritos chips.

That wasn’t just a coup of co-branding—it fast became one of the most popular products in the chain’s history. Within 10 weeks of its debut, Taco Bell rang up $100 million in U.S. sales, and is well on its way to surpassing $300 million by year’s end. In fact, Niccol’s menu shakeup has resulted in a 7 percent jump in Q3 sales overall. —Noreen O’Leary


Entertainment: Tim Palen, Lionsgate

Tim Palen, CMO of entertainment company Lionsgate, had his work cut out for him with The Hunger Games.

On the one hand, the last few years have proven it’s possible to parlay a series of young-adult novels into a billion-dollar payday, and Suzanne Collins’ trilogy was a major publishing phenomenon. On the other, the bargain bins are filled with the wreckage of movies that tried to ride the Harry Potter train.

Then, of course, there was the plot itself—“the idea,” as Palen puts it, “of kids killing kids.” The only way around it was to leave all of the game sequences out of the marketing plan. Palen still recalls being told, “You realize that means we’re not going to show half the movie, right?”

Despite these obstacles and a marketing budget of just $45 million, Palen created a campaign every bit as compelling—and successful—as the movie it promoted. “When we first started working on the project, the book was catching fire, no pun intended,” he recalls. “We knew intrinsically that the more we could encourage people to read the books, the more people we could get to see the movie.”

Indeed, the book’s fans were the nexus of everything that Palen’s team—21 marketers strong—wound up doing. Their efforts began a full year before the movie’s release, when theatrical publicity evp Julie Fontaine got the buzz going via Facebook. Digital marketing svp Danielle DePalma became ambassador to The Hunger Games fan blogs, luring them in with bits of information about the film.

Days before the movie’s release, Palen’s team created a poster for the film and cut it into 100 pieces, distributing each piece to a different website. Fans had to search Twitter to find the sources and “assemble” the puzzle.

What’s more, they cooked up a sweepstakes in which five winners got to visit the set of the film—a clip of which was leaked on That footage contained a Twitter prompt that in turn led to a website that let groupies apply for a digital ID mimicking the cards carried by citizens of the prison colony who populate heroine Katniss’s world.

Too “inside baseball”? Too dark? Tell that to the 800,000 fans who responded. Or the millions who flocked to theaters.

The Hunger Games made for the third-biggest opening weekend in history up to that time ($155 million in domestic box office) while it ended up banking $678.5 million worldwide. —Sam Thielman


Beverages: Tom Herbst, Captain Morgan

For the record, Captain Henry Morgan was a serious sonofabitch.

Hired by the British crown to rout the Spanish from the Caribbean, the gentleman buccaneer cut a terrifying streak across the 17th century world with his inimitable code of bravado, bravery and besotted justice. For the rum brand fortunate enough to carry his name, Morgan was a marketer’s dream. Too bad the captain was locked down in the hold.

For years, marketing for Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, part of spirits giant Diageo’s portfolio, revolved around a dude-ish “pirate” with a stick-on goatee, popping up in babe-packed TV spots with a voice more Weehawken than Welsh. By 2008, sales were flat and even the frat boys weren’t laughing.

It is a time brand director Tom Herbst remembers well—since it was his job to turn the ship around. As Herbst recalls, “We took a step back and asked: How do we change the conversation?”

The answer was holding his sword right under their noses. “The real Henry Morgan,” says Herbst, “is better than anything you could make up.”

Starting with a new slogan—“To life, love and loot”—Herbst and his band of marketing brigands set about restoring the captain to his rightful place at the brand’s helm. Herbst launched a highly realistic mobile video game that lets players captain their own ships. Working with agency Anomaly, he also rolled out a trio of TV spots in which British actor Joshua Burrow plays a swarthy captain who causes no end of mayhem, and who always gets the lass.

In a bid to attract older consumers, Herbst introduced Captain Morgan Black, a premium distillation that comes in a 17th century-style bottle with a double-printed parchment label featuring Captain Morgan’s skeleton on the reverse side.

Herbst’s quest for the authentic knows few bounds: He even underwrote a Caribbean expedition that raised the remains of one of Henry Morgan’s ships.

And on the subject of loot, sales of the brand have jumped 7 percent, while its Facebook community has grown fivefold to 1 million fans. Steering the brand back to its heritage, says veteran beverage consultant Arthur Shapiro, “is the right thing. The drinking public has become more mature and more discerning, and I really applaud what Captain Morgan’s doing.” —Robert Klara


Sports: Steve Phelps, Nascar

Fans of the CBS series Undercover Boss might recall a couple of years back a guy named Kevin Thomas who had been given a trial run on a Nascar pit crew.

Thomas’ task? Changing a 70-pound tire on a stock car in just seconds.

Unfortunately for him, he could barely line the tire up with the lug bolts.

“If that was a Sprint Cup race,” barked the pit boss, “you’d be fired.”

Fortunately, this wasn’t an actual Sprint Cup race. As for Kevin Thomas? He was actually Steve Phelps, who happens to be the CMO of Nascar.

Phelps didn’t join the pit crew to help CBS’ ratings—he did it to help his brand.

“Working undercover with the people who make this sport run will give me insights on how to make this sport grow,” as the executive said on the show.

Phelps has been making good on that pledge ever since.

It’s a challenging job.

Though Nascar’s North American fan base stands at an impressive 75 million, the recession has been like water in the gas tank for racing, with everything from TV ratings to corporate sponsorships sputtering.

But undeterred, Phelps developed a five-year plan to attract the next generation of racing fans—especially multicultural audiences—which included a deal with the Spanish-language sports network Fox Deportes.

Phelps has also remade the brand’s digital identity, buying back all digital and social rights from Turner Broadcasting, partnering with Twitter to build a first-ever landing page that aggregates all racing-related tweets, and overhauling Nascar’s site to be a one-stop news and information portal for racing fans.

Meanwhile, Phelps also souped up the sponsorship side, setting up initiatives such as “Fuel for Business,” a program in which major sponsors rub elbows in the VIP area of various races and negotiate their own deals.

Nascar signed 24 new brand sponsors this year while it renewed deals with corporate partners including Kraft and UPS.

Thanks in large part to Phelps’ work, Nascar has shored up its young male fan base and enjoyed a rebound in TV ratings.

“This is a great sport with an amazing fan base,” Phelps says. “I have the best job on the planet.”

He’s just lucky it doesn’t involve changing tires. —Noreen O’Leary


Health and Beauty: Matthew McCarthy, Axe

It’s a packed house at New York’s B.B. King Blues Club during Advertising Week earlier this month, and Axe senior brand manager Josh Dean takes the stage—not for a solo, but to fess up to what happens when a brand milks the same marketing strategy for too long. “Axe has been around 10 years in the U.S., and we’d become pretty formulaic,” Dean admits. “Guy sprays Axe. [Guy] gets the girl.”

And consumers get bored. Those ubiquitous TV spots—packed with witless women whose lusts are awakened by a whiff of Axe—got plenty of attention, and helped Axe gain 74 percent market share. But Axe’s marketing also drew charges of sexism, and competition in the form of the irresistibly chivalrous Isaiah Mustafa in those spots for Old Spice.

Matthew McCarthy, senior director of brand development, decided it was time for Axe to grow up a bit.

“Keeping the conversation fresh is, quite frankly, about respecting our target, and respecting that they’re a pretty sophisticated group of people,” he says.

With a creative lift from agency BBH, McCarthy spearheaded the “Susan Glenn” campaign, humorous yet strangely moving spots featuring man’s man Kiefer Sutherland reflecting on the high school crush that got away. The theme has since been expanded to a series of webisodes, Finding Susan Glenn, in which terrified guys try to talk to their erstwhile crushes.

“The way guys and girls interact today is changing,” says vp Tamara Rogers, McCarthy’s boss. “It’s a much more equal game. It involves the girl much more. This is just reflecting that evolution.”

That thinking also led to the global launch of Anarchy for Her, Axe’s first women’s fragrance. As part of a U.S. push promoting the limited-edition scent—paired with Anarchy for Him, a permanent addition to the men’s line—McCarthy’s team crafted a smart if decidedly boyish graphic novel about Axe-inspired pandemonium, incorporating real-time input from the brand’s social media fans into the storyline.

In the first three months of the campaign, the brand’s Facebook page added 500,000 fans, helping it double its total count to more than 3.7 million over the past year, according to McCarthy. As he points out, “Q1 of this year, while Anarchy was launching, was our single biggest growth in fans in the history of the brand.” —Gabriel Beltrone