The data-obsessed advertising industry loves to study itself, but this year’s crop of papers provided conflicting narratives. A YouGov survey released in March surprised many by revealing that 61 percent of Americans actually like the advertising they see. But don’t break out the champagne yet, because six months later, a Morning Consult survey found that 75 percent of Americans grumble that those same ads are intrusive.
Where does that leave the average marketing executive? Maybe to follow a rule that stays true no matter what the surveys say: the work had better be honest, interesting and engaging, or nobody will pay attention. So what does that kind of work look like? You’ll find 10 superlative examples in the following section (just click below).
Each year (and for the past 28 years), Adweek’s Brand Genius Awards have spotlighted the head-turning efforts of the most accomplished marketers in the business and their portfolios of work from the preceding 18 months that exemplify the varied and endlessly innovative ways to grow a brand and win the hearts and minds of consumers—regardless of how they respond to surveys.
If you’re under the age of 30, chances are that the Instagram brand is synonymous with social media. The company’s name is even thrown around as a verb to describe the act of taking mobile photos and videos—millions per day, collectively—and posting them. Gen Z-ers might even consider Instagram old news compared to apps like Musical.ly and Snapchat.
Instagram is only 7 years old, but that’s an eternity in the tech world—and also a challenge for the Facebook-owned app. After all, word-of-mouth marketing can only go so far. To truly stand the test of time, companies eventually have to invest in traditional marketing. It calls for a deft mix of industry experience and digital savvy. And, in Instagram’s case, it called for Taj Alavi.
Alavi joined Instagram two years ago as the company’s first head of brand marketing, and her remit was a tricky one: align the marketing behind the app’s mission and values while also listening to its huge and diverse community of users to keep it ahead of competitors.
“I became a very performance, data-oriented marketer with a strong foundation in brand equity,” Alavi says.
Tapping into her years of experience from working at inveterate brands like Clorox, Neutrogena and Intuit, Alavi built out the basics at a Silicon Valley company that moves at warp speed, pushing out new features and products.
Take Instagram’s famous icon, for example. Last year, the app redesigned its logo from one that resembled an old Polaroid Instamatic to a rainbow-colored abstract icon that better reflected Instagram’s evolution from a retro-oriented photo app to a highly influential platform used by advertisers and, of course, hundreds of millions of people. Taj’s team amped up the marketing message to reflect that new spirit.
“I came in with a long-term vision and a short-term plan to balance how you build a function—the fundamentals of brand strategy, brand architecture—and … effectively market a company full of excitement,” Alavi says. “I wanted to balance those two things.”
The strategy appears to be working, particularly in keeping rival Snapchat at bay. Instagram now has 800 million monthly users, with 500 million of them scrolling through their feeds on a daily basis. (By contrast, Snapchat’s daily user base stands at an estimated 173 million.) Since launching Stories last year—a Snapchat clone that lets users post vertical-oriented content with a 24-hour lifespan—Instagram now counts 250 million accounts using the feature.
In fact, Stories is as much a feature for Instagram as it is a window into Alavi’s work. She is just as concerned with marketing as she is with explaining Instagram as a marketing platform to other brands and content creators. When Alavi tapped Wieden + Kennedy and media agency Mindshare to launch the first global campaign to showcase Stories, W+K used Stories itself to shoot the creative content. “We wanted to make sure that … everything we showed was something that someone could do themselves,” Alavi says.
W+K not only used Stories to market Stories, it set up a private account for brainstorming between the brand and agency. “All our team members … regularly posted photos and Stories from behind the scenes of the creative process in the lead-up to our presentations,” explains Blake Harrop, managing director of W+K Amsterdam. “This felt like a good way to help the clients get a feel for W+K.”
Two years into the gig, Instagram doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, and neither does Alavi. “We don’t have 100 years of history—we have seven,” she says. “So I try to learn from the best brands in the world—fortunately I’ve worked on a few of them. What I take is my ability to flex in any situation but bring along those fundamentals that were learned in a company like Clorox. That’s how you endure for years to come so that you are a brand that lasts for 100 years.”
It’s called housework for a reason: those never-ending chores—the Sisyphean tasks of cooking, cleaning, sorting and washing—probably aren’t most people’s idea of a good time.
But what if the notion of domestic drudgery could be flipped on its head? What if a brand message could focus not on the heavy lifting involved in running a household but on the gratifying fruits of that labor?
Bill Beck, general manager of Whirlpool’s kitchen division, wanted to do just that, going against the grain of conventional appliance marketing that had for decades centered solely on the gadgets’ price points and newest features.
“There was richer emotional territory to mine,” explains Beck, a seven-year veteran of the company who was formerly Whirlpool’s vp, brand marketing. “We wanted to change perceptions of this work and the role our appliances played in it.”
The result, in collaboration with DigitasLBi, was a program called “Every Day, Care” that launched in 2014, defying “the sea of cold metal” in the product category and looking instead at how simple daily acts “can have a huge effect on our lives and society as a whole,” says Michael Frease, the agency’s evp, group creative director.
The campaign, which included intimate peeks into the struggles of single dads and the “sandwich” generation simultaneously caring for kids and aging parents, was as risky as it was groundbreaking.
It wasn’t surprising, though, that Beck championed such a bold approach, Frease says, since he’d already led a revamp of an Advertising Hall of Fame icon, the Maytag Repairman. (Renamed the Maytag Man, the character shed his lonely, idle persona of days gone by and turned into a vital, hunky pillar of the home.)
Through that process, Frease understood Beck’s “passion to be great and go big,” he says. “Bill wanted to win, and he wasn’t afraid to fail to do so.”
But there wasn’t even a stumble and, in fact, “Every Day, Care” boosted market share, brand preference and purchase intent and went on to win a gold Effie. It also laid the foundation for Beck’s follow-up project, which started percolating when his team came across statistics that linked truancy in U.S. schools to dirty clothes.
Thousands of kids were skipping class every day because they didn’t have clean clothes to wear and, in discussing the problem with educators in St. Louis, execs saw the opportunity to “stay true to the care theme,” Beck notes, and put it into “purpose-driven” action.
As with all of his marketing decisions, Beck says he “[went] with the gut” but backed up that instinct with in-depth research, consumer testing and data collection. The brand debuted a small pilot program, called “Care Counts,” that installed washers and dryers in a few schools so kids could do their laundry. In a year of tracking the participating students, their attendance and behavior, execs found that “it had an impact on the entire school community,” Beck says.
“Care Counts” expanded to 47 schools in 10 cities last year, with 93 percent of students increasing their attendance. The program, which now has a partnership with Teach for America and requests from nearly 1,000 schools, also significantly boosted the children’s participation in class and extracurricular activities. “Care Counts” also cleaned up, so to speak, at Cannes, winning a Grand Prix and gold Lion, and earned awards at The One Show, D&AD, the Effies, and Adweek’s Project Isaac and Media Plan of the Year.
The effort reinforced lessons about connecting with consumers (and tugging at heartstrings, when appropriate) that Beck learned during his 10-year stint at Pepperidge Farm working on brands like Milano cookies and Goldfish crackers.
“You want to tell your story and drive business results,” Beck advises, “but you need to elevate the brand to an emotional place. Find that great North Star and don’t take your eye off of it.”
When comedian and TV host Daniel Tosh agreed to show his genuine devotion for Subaru with a video, viewers expected it would be funny—and it was. What viewers didn’t expect was the kiss that Tosh planted on the lips of the guy in the passenger’s seat.
Even in the era of LGBT advancement, this was edgy stuff for an automotive brand. It was also a dose of the fresh thinking that Subaru’s svp, marketing Alan Bethke has brought to the nameplate. “We weren’t nervous,” says Bethke. “Subaru is an inclusive brand, with equal rights for all, so we thought Tosh’s humor for his audience was acceptable.”
In four and a half years at the wheel of the Japanese automaker’s domestic marketing machine, Bethke has learned to steer with his heart, working hard to evolve the brand’s long-standing “Love” mantra. “How that idea manifests itself, both in terms of strategy and execution, continues to develop,” he says.
Case in point: “Meet an Owner,” a platform launched this year that features a website where Subaru fans share their Subaru stories, complete with photos and video. There’s Kelly “Momster Mash” C., from Kansas City, for example, who uses her Impreza to compete in roller derbies, and Zach K., from Seal Beach, Calif., who posted a film of him showcasing all that can fit into his Outback, including camera equipment, scuba gear and a beekeeping suit. Visitors can also ask the Subaru fans questions, the theory being that there’s no better advocate for a Subaru than the driver who owns one.
Which brings us back to Tosh. The popular Comedy Central host is a well-known Subaru advocate, having plugged the Outback on his show as far back as 2012 and even gave away a Subaru two years later. But the video took his advocacy to a new level. In the clip, which takes place at the beach, Tosh climbs into the wrong Outback and kisses a woman sitting in the passenger seat. Realizing his mistake, he hops into his own, identical Outback parked nearby, smooching a dude who’s waiting inside. Oh, and there are cute doggies in the back seat that Tosh calls his “babies”—a cheeky nod to the brand’s popularity with gay and lesbian consumers.
“Since Subaru’s personality is a bit quirky to begin with, the Daniel Tosh material makes a lot of sense,” says Michael Solomon, professor of marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “They have to punch above their weight class to compete with the titan automakers.” Ranking among the year’s most offbeat and widely discussed automotive promos, the viral video generated more than 8 million impressions.
Under the auspices of agency Carmichael Lynch, another memorable manifestation of the love theme was a 2016 campaign featuring people who’d benefited from the Subaru’s “Share the Love” program singing Jackie DeShannon’s 1969 hit “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” The brand’s decade-long effort has donated more than $90 million to a host of local and national charities, including the ASPCA, Make-A-Wish, Meals on Wheels and the National Park Foundation.
Bethke is proud of that initiative, one of the many game changers he’s helped shape since arriving at the marque 14 years ago, working his way up from a district sales manager to the image-shaping position he has today. Carmichael executive creative director Randy Hughes says he values Bethke’s willingness to embrace his shop as a true strategic partner. “He will listen to a presentation then say, ‘Let’s think out loud,’ and he will start talking and processing things,” Hughes says. “It’s an open invitation to push, debate and challenge”—one that leads to “better strategies and better work.”
In turn, campaigns stemming from such sessions have really helped Subaru move the needle. It’s notched 69 consecutive months of year-over-year U.S. sales growth, including a record performance of 63,215 vehicles sold in August. So far in 2017, domestic sales are up more than 8 percent despite a 2.7 percent decline in the U.S. market overall.
In other words, that’s a whole lotta love.
If you’re old enough to remember General Electric’s classic “We Bring Good Things to Life” TV spots, you can probably conjure images of the multiple products that wore the GE badge: aircraft engines, refrigerators, even Christmas lights.
But that was your father’s GE, and the task of showing the world the cutting-edge, digital leader that the company has become is the job of Linda Boff, who in just two years as CMO has revitalized the industrial company’s profile into something that feels more like a nimble, freethinking startup than one of America’s oldest corporations.
“Invention is our whole game,” says Boff. “Every time we’re putting a campaign or a piece of content into the world, it’s an opportunity to remind everyone that we invent.”
Under Boff’s leadership, her team has created pieces of content that rely on strong storytelling messages and new formats that others may be tentative to try. If a marketer “relies on what used to work,” Boff proclaims, “they’re just dreaming.”
For example, instead of “making a TV commercial break into a check-your-phone break,” GE worked with influencers to create exclusive content for social media platforms, in particular YouTube’s popular science and technology duo, the Slow Mo Guys, who visited a GE global research center. Boff’s team also created a new season of its successful Droneweek online series. Meanwhile, GE partnered with Panoply Media and BBDO New York to create LifeAfter, a new sci-fi thriller for its Podcast Theater. Together with 2015’s The Message, the podcasts have notched more than 10 million downloads.
BBDO New York executive creative director Michael Aimette relishes the chance to work with Boff because “her and her team’s standards are so high, which is exciting and sometimes terrifying. She’s interrogative and curious, and believes in the exponential power of collaboration.” He adds, “If it’s been done before, GE isn’t interested.”
Boff encourages her team with a quote from Back to the Future (the 1985 classic that debuted before many of today’s creatives were even born): “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” It’s a challenge to find the balance between fun and fascinating to truly speak to today’s audiences. The objective takes Boff’s team into the field to show potential customers—and the merely curious—not just the company’s new technology, but how it’s applied in the real world.
Take, for example, last year’s “Connected Volcano” project. With a field assist from digital-expedition company Qwake, GE planted sensors deep inside a volcano in Nicaragua—sharing the dangerous descent on Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook Live—and used the data to try to predict the next eruption. By taking viewers into the volcano’s throat, Boff wanted viewers to understand the implications of “the industrial internet for big things.”
On safer ground, GE returned to New York’s Grand Central Terminal last month to take over the barrel-vault constellation ceiling for a four-day showcase called “Unseen Stars.” To represent the women in science and technology that have gotten the world to where it is today, GE created a projected presentation featuring a dozen new “constellations” across the sky of those groundbreaking women. The event drove multiple attendees to tears, including some of the honorees who were there in person to see themselves projected 12 stories high.
The event was part of GE’s Balance the Equation initiative, which aims to inspire companies to consider the issue of gender equality in their workplaces. “It’s important to the world, and to me as a woman, that we drive the conversation about how much better it is to have a diverse workforce,” Boff says.
To Boff, being a marketer means not getting in the way of a consumer’s media experience. Her events and initiatives aim to be additive to their lives instead of interruptive. “Maybe you should be in fewer or different places than you have been traditionally,” she notes. “We just don’t want to be a pothole in the road that people have to get around.”
Though many of today’s consumers are too young to remember it, IBM was the company that started the home computing revolution. IBM gave us the term “PC.” And it was IBM that had a laptop on the market as early as 1986. But with its sale of its personal computing division to Lenovo in 2005, Big Blue has spent the last decade as a business services giant.
Well, mostly. The coming of IBM’s artificial intelligence division has given the company not just an opportunity for growth and trend setting—it has again put Big Blue in the consumer spotlight, returning it to the intersection of technology and culture, and showing how the dawn of AI can transform entire industries even as Watson helps transform IBM itself. That effort has been masterminded and led by svp and chief brand officer Jon Iwata.
“When you think about the IBM brand, it’s tied up or synonymous with transformation and change,” Iwata says. “And I think the investments we make in building the brand and positioning the brand has to do with how things are changing in business and technology.”
Ever since Watson’s very public debut on Jeopardy! in 2011—sending the TV quiz show’s two winningest champions home in defeat—IBM’s marketing department has publicized the 80-teraflop supercomputer (named for IBM founder Thomas Watson) as a jack of all trades for business. But the need to portray AI as something friendly to humans has also led the b-to-b giant back to consumer-first campaigns. Having spent the past decade managing the company’s marketing, Iwata has seen the shift firsthand, explaining the marketing of something foreign like AI requires helping people understand what’s next.
That’s led to a series of unconventional campaigns that use culture to explain technology. On the heels of a memorable spot with Bob Dylan that demonstrated how Watson could ingest all of the iconic songwriter’s lyrics to analyze themes, Watson created a Met Gala gown with Marchesa in 2016, analyzing images of past dresses to come up with a new design that lit up various colors based on social media sentiment about the dress. Around that same time, Watson became the first AI product to develop a movie trailer when it created one for the horror/thriller Morgan. And this spring, it analyzed thousands of photos of architect Antoni Gaudi’s work, creating a sculpture on display in Gaudi’s hometown of Barcelona during Mobile World Congress.
“Jon was also the person who personally architected how the Watson brand came to be,” says Lou Aversano, CEO of Ogilvy & Mather USA, IBM’s agency. “Some of the subtlety, the personality, a lot of that goes to Jon’s credit. Because he had the foresight to understand how Watson shows up when he meets the world will be just as important as what Watson does.”
SYPartners chairman Keith Yamashita, who at one point led IBM’s brand efforts, described Iwata as a “very rare combination of logician, historian, statesman.”
Adds Yamashita: “Jon views brand and culture as inseparable—a company’s uniqueness resides in its unique corporate character. And his career has been in service of defining what is unique about IBM’s character, and how the culture of the company evolves to deliver it, era to era.”
While IBM has struggled with falling revenue overall, many believe its cognitive solutions division (of which Watson is a part) can make the difference. Its revenue hit $4.1 billion—up 2.1 percent—in the first quarter, though it has since slipped.
But mastering AI technology means playing a long game, and Iwata knows that better than anyone. “It’s the role of marketing for a company that’s a technology company to pave the way,” he says. “You are creating markets. You are shaping the way people think about the new. And in that regard, we absolutely showed some conviction that in the future, data [will] be your greatest competitive advantage.”
It’s hard to believe baseball gloves and Coach handbags have anything in common. It’s even harder to believe that commonality could help manifest one of the most impressive brand turnarounds in the last decade.
Founded in a Manhattan loft in 1941, Coach started as a family-run leather accessories house whose early handbags were made with glove-tanned cowhide. The specificity is important. The same leather was used in baseball gloves—at least, in terms of “suppleness, durability and quality,” says Victor Luis, CEO of Coach Inc. (to become Tapestry Inc., effective Oct. 31). Here’s why that history matters: it was that rugged but beautiful leather that made Coach the first “it” bag in New York, and it’s been Luis’s mission to return the brand to those halcyon days.
That hasn’t been easy. Until recently, Coach was an overproduced, logo-centric, ubiquitous mall brand. Luis has achieved the near impossible by getting the brand’s target demographic (women between 25 and 40) to understand the brand’s heritage and, by extension, see it as a top-notch modern, design-focused luxury brand.
But reinvigorating a 76-year-old brand by convincing consumers to pay more (Luis has taken the brand out of department stores and eliminated its more affordable collections) is delicate business. “While elevating image, changing the perception in the minds of the customer and making the Coach brand more relevant, it was never about increasing prices,” Luis explains. “It’s really been about making the brand more relevant to today’s cultural fashion context.”
To achieve that relevancy for Coach, Luis focused instead on shaking off the reputation of promotions and discounting and instead focusing on quality and authenticity. Thanks to a design revival led by creative director Stuart Vevers, Coach slipped effortlessly into New York Fashion Week, where it debuted its acclaimed new clothing line and garnered 1.4 billion impressions in the process.
Another important tool in Luis’s bag has been extremely effective marketing. For example, Coach partnered with actress and singer Selena Gomez, who not only stars in the brand’s fall campaign but designed a line of handbags and accessories. Her fans paid attention: since the brand campaign with Gomez launched in August, it has scored 6.1 billion impressions.
“We’ve never had numbers like that for a campaign,” says Luis. “It speaks not just to the media we bought and the advertising we bought but, of course, the coverage we’ve received digitally, in print, on TV and other channels from the campaign and Selena being a partner and brand ambassador.”
Actor James Franco is also a new ambassador for the fashion brand, one of many ways Luis is hoping to woo men into considering the brand. (Currently, Coach skews 80 percent female, 20 percent male.)
“Victor’s relentless drive, strategic vision and understanding of our history and heritage were vital to Coach’s transformation from a specialty retailer to a global, modern, luxury lifestyle brand,” says Joshua Schulman, president and CEO of the Coach brand itself, which is one of three famous names in the Coach Inc. stable. Since taking the corner office in 2014, Luis has made strategic acquisitions including Stuart Weitzman and Coach’s former competitor Kate Spade, which Luis scooped up for a cool $2.4 billion to better allow the parent brand to court millennial women.
Luis’s derring-do has begun to pay off. Coach’s comparable-store sales were up 4 percent in the fourth quarter, and the company is projecting revenue increases of about 30 percent for fiscal 2018 versus fiscal 2017 to $5.8 billion to $5.9 billion. The Kate Spade acquisition is expected to add “low-single-digit organic growth” of $1.2 billion in revenue.
“No single action is going to be the one that unlocks the brand’s renaissance” and “nothing goes perfectly all the time,” says Luis. “But the key is consistency.”
Three years ago, when Alegra O’Hare took the reins of adidas Originals, the seminal German brand’s line of casual sportswear, she did what most senior-level marketers would: she decided to change everything. At least, that was her plan. Early on, she was in a focus group and, on a whim, asked the moderator to ask a participant, “What pisses you off about brands?” The man responded, “I hate it when they get stuck in their own paradigm.”
“I listened to him,” O’Hare remembers, “and I was thinking, ‘I’m frickin’ stuck in my own paradigm.’”
It was then that the vp of global brand communications realized that changing everything just to leave your mark—instead of truly considering what was right for the brand—wasn’t going to achieve the growth she’d had in mind. “OK,” O’Hare told herself. “We’re starting over.”
That aha moment led O’Hare to create a strategy built around making sure adidas Originals never gets stuck in its own paradigm. But what does that mean?
It’s opening up the brand to different creators, like designer Alexander Wang, to totally reimagine what the brand looks like. In September 2016, Wang collaborated with adidas Originals for a line where he flipped the logo upside down and inverted the signature stripes. It’s also meant disrupting the status quo, such as how that collection would be sold. Instead of stores, adidas Originals launched the Wang collection in New York with trucks parked outside luxury retailers and its product in trash bags.
It’s taking a tired Frank Sinatra tune and finding a way to remix it so that it feels fresh and new again for an anthem spot, “My Way,” by creative shop Johannes Leonardo, that’s an ode to creativity and reinvention. And it seems to be working. Adidas reported 19.3 billion euros in sales in 2016 (that includes all of Adidas’ categories, of which Originals is a part), and the Originals category grew more than 80 percent in the U.S. in 2016 compared to 2015. This amid Adidas’ continued ascendancy in the U.S. market, becoming the second-most popular sneaker brand atop Jordan and now closing in on Nike.
Adidas is aware of its competitors, but not preoccupied with them—another of O’Hare’s leadership innovations. “We had to reinvent the way that we really wanted to connect with the consumers and break a little bit that mechanism of also looking and benchmarking the competition,” she says. “The biggest change, at least from a brand marketing side, is that we know who the competition is—we watch them—but we don’t benchmark them. That was the biggest mindset shift of wanting to do things our way and really carving our own path.”
The work produced under O’Hare is also swelling adidas Originals’ online audience. Over the past 18 months its Instagram community has grown by 139 percent, generating 151 million interactions while YouTube viewership of the seasonal brand campaigns has more than doubled since 2016. And it’s resonating with the ad world: adidas Originals won the Grand Prix in the music category of the Entertainment Lions at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in June.
“As [the product design team was] reinventing product, we had to also reinvent communication,” says O’Hare, who noted that roughly 90 percent of the brand marketing team came to the company under her tenure, which has also included setting up a lead-agency model out of New York with Johannes Leonardo.
“Communication ideas are successful only as far as they are embraced by an organization and its leaders—Alegra is exactly that,” says Johannes Leonardo co-founder Leo Premutico. “She runs at problems, is never afraid to break with precedent and has the confidence to commit to an idea in a big way—each year pushing it further so that the brand stays relevant and leads culture rather than just being part of it.”
Back in August, The Spotted Cheetah roared into town and briefly reigned as one of New York’s hottest bistros. The place was booked solid just six hours after it began taking reservations, shunting a thousand disappointed diners onto the waiting list. Celebrity chef Anne Burrell created the menu, which boasted 11 items priced from $8 to $22, and included Chicken Milanese, fried green tomatoes and apple crepe desserts.
Oh, did we mention that everything was made with Cheetos?
The three-day pop-up restaurant—which drew glitterati like Mariah Carey and wound up generating 4 billion media impressions globally—was proof that the old days of snack-food marketing were truly over. It was also a sign that Jennifer Saenz was in charge.
Saenz is the force behind a series of headline-grabbing initiatives (including The Spotted Cheetah) created in her quest to bake Frito-Lay snacks even deeper into popular culture. “Because of the transformative nature not only of our marketplace, but of how our consumers engage with us, we have evolved our approach to marketing,” Saenz explains. “Our programming strives to reflect the moods and interests of our consumers—the full range of those interests.”
Since becoming North American marketing chief at PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay in early 2016, Saenz has earned a reputation for bold strokes across the company’s $14 billion brand portfolio. Previously, the Wharton MBA—during a tenure that began with a summer internship 13 years ago—oversaw Frito-Lay’s innovation and strategy pipeline. Earlier, she served in Deloitte’s consumer business and retail strategy group. Now, she leverages her deep business background and applies sharp analytical insights to develop advertising stunts and experiences feted for their reach, resonance and relevancy, especially among Frito-Lay’s core young-adult constituency.
“We integrate things that are fun,” she says, “but we also comment on serious issues—voter registration, women’s rights, drinking and driving—in a way that feels approachable, and with a voice that is unique to each brand.” In addition to The Spotted Cheetah, Saenz has steered more high-profile brand-building campaigns in the past few years than most CMOs guide over the course of their entire careers.
With a creative assist from longtime agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Saenz created the Cheetos Museum, a consumer-contributed online repository for Cheetos that resemble real-world people and objects ranging from a flamingo to the Statue of Liberty. The museum has tallied close to 1.5 million visits.
Snack foods have long had a (largely earned) reputation for frivolity, but under Saenz’s leadership, Frito-Lay has taken on weighty social issues. “Doritos No Choice,” a tie-in with the 2016 election, stressed the importance of voting by dispensing bags of cardboard chips to college students who said they hadn’t registered to vote. Tostitos’ “Party Safe” bag, created for Super Bowl LI, came equipped with a sensor that allowed it to be used as a breathalyzer, and could even summon a ride from Uber. The anti-DUI initiative resulted in 30,000 rides taken on game day, and generated 2.6 billion media impressions. Meanwhile, for Women’s History Month, pita chip brand Stacy’s came out with specially designed bags that honored women who fight for their beliefs. This effort generated 1,700 news stories.
“We kick off the idea and then let consumers run with it,” says Margaret Johnson, creative chief at longtime Frito-Lay agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners. “You have to be comfortable with occasional failure to do that. And that’s what makes [Saenz] a good CMO.”
Judy Austin, a marketing professor at Boston University, credits Saenz with “satisfying some of our much more complex appetites—like our craving for irreverence and convention busting.”
Disruption, Saenz observes, is already the norm for so many brands. But for Frito-Lay, “keeping up with the disruption, and even outpacing it, is the goal,” she says.
If you’re among the suffering 60 million Americans who don’t sleep well, maybe you saw the Casper TV spot that aired at 2 a.m. this past March. If you did, you certainly wouldn’t have forgotten: the ad featured a surreal pair of videos (one showing a time-lapse of sprouts growing, another of salmon leaping upstream) below the come-on “Can’t Sleep?” and an invitation to call a toll-free number. That number led to a phone tree with peculiar options including “press 2 to listen to wind chimes” and “press 7 to learn the history of the cocktail wiener.” Then there was this: “press 9 to merge into a conference call with the marketing team that came up with this ridiculous idea.”
Ridiculous is indeed one adjective to describe Casper’s marketing, but there are others: funny, clever, edgy and (what matters most) effective. These qualities emanate from the vision of Casper co-founder and chief creative officer Luke Sherwin, whose youth (he’s 28) belies his accomplishments. In just three years, Casper has transformed an ossified category with a revolutionary product (Casper mattresses sandwich open-cell and latex foams), a no-fuss business model (home delivery in a box with a 100-day free trial)—and the marketing swagger to match.
Drawing momentum from what Sherwin calls “a cultural shift in the way people [are] perceiving sleep,” Casper aims to “create sleep as a lifestyle frontier”—not merely a product with a given set of attributes, but as a kind of cool new world you can live in each time you nod off.
Which explains why Casper’s millennial-scented marketing feels like it’s up to a bunch of things that don’t necessarily involve selling mattresses. There was the Insomnobot 3000, a chatbot to keep people company in the wee hours as they toss and turn. There was Staycation Story Hacks, a website loaded with glamorous videos intended for users to fool their friends into thinking they were shot on vacation—even though they were home in bed. And there was that “Can’t Sleep?” toll-free number, which was a funny ad even if it wasn’t an ad at all.
And, to hear Sherwin tell it, that’s actually the point. “If you, as a brand, want to stay in a world where you’re relatable and fun to be around … you have to invest in stuff that is pure generosity to people as a way to do it,” he says.
Meaning: distract them, amuse them and inform them (the content site Van Winkle “explore[s] the science, culture and curiosities of sleep”)—people are smart enough to get it. And since word of mouth is what brings most customers to Casper anyway, conversations are the currency.
Casper’s rapid growth ($1 million in sales its first month and $200 million last year) has fortified its coffers for more traditional marketing, too. Its “Better Beings” spots (via Partners & Spade) featured customer comments narrated by puppets, and its Nap Mobile (a camper equipped with sleeping pods) ventured into Canada this year. Then there are the New York City subway ads. Created by Red Antler and drawn by artist Tomi Um, they portray a colorful array of people (and not quite people) bedding down together on a Casper: new parents, actors, narcissists, artists, lovers, dinosaurs and furries (just Google it). The campaign, Sherwin says, “is a perfect mattress for everyone—and we took that literally.”
Which took guts, too, since not every brand is confident enough to presume the intelligence and sophistication of its audience the way Casper does. But according to Casper’s brand engagement vp Lindsay Kaplan, Sherwin brings the requisite nerve, smarts and idiosyncrasies to bear.
“Luke’s a lot like a centaur—part man, part horse, all creative genius,” she says. “By which I mean, you never know which Luke you may get: a creative, a strategist or a horse.”
Hundreds of fans rocked out to Imagine Dragons on a Friday night in September at the new Marriott Marquis in Bangkok, with a livestream capturing the mix of power pop from the stage and band worship from the crowd.
At a much more intimate, less decibel-heavy event in New York last month, a group of foodies cooked alongside French chef Daniel Boulud at his Michelin-starred eponymous eatery on the Upper East Side.
Those experiences, meant to make the kind of impression a consumer never forgets, come from Marriott International and the marketing machine led by global CMO Karin Timpone, where the goal is putting “the right ingredients together for members to have an amazing time,” she says, whether that’s surfing with Laird Hamilton or glamping at Coachella.
Those members Timpone describes are part of the Marriott rewards program, which has swelled to 100 million people worldwide during her tenure. It’s just one focus for the veteran entertainment, tech and packaged-goods exec who has spent four globe-trotting years at Marriott honing its outreach across television, digital, social, original content and live events.
The endgame is reaching adventurous travelers including millennials, she says, but not limited to that demo as Marriott tries to “hit passion points” and cultivate loyalists for life.
A music superfan herself (a recent getaway with friends revolved around a Bruno Mars concert at Madison Square Garden in New York), Timpone oversees the brand’s ongoing partnership with Universal Music Group.
The two marketers collaborate on live shows at Marriott properties and other VIP perks like meet and greets with artists and access to industry parties. They staged a “hotel takeover” at South by Southwest, with emerging bands playing in nearly every nook and cranny of the JW Marriott in Austin, Texas, and separately sent rewards members to pre-Grammy and post-VMA events.
“She really gets pop culture, and she likes to push boundaries,” says Mike Tunnicliffe, evp, Universal Music Group. “She knows what’s going to resonate with her customer base and what will drive social sharing.”
That instinct has helped propel M Live, the social media listening hub that won two Cannes Lions this summer. The round-the-clock command centers (four and counting) monitor consumers’ public posts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, giving Marriott’s social teams a way to start conversations and tap into zeitgeist-y topics. Geofencing allows the brand to see what’s being posted from its locations, which Timpone describes as “next-level focus” and coveted personalization made possible by technology.
It’s the type of advancement that Timpone has been waiting for since she was a Seagram’s marketer in the 1990s, screening branded shorts at the Sundance Film Festival and wishing she could broadcast them to a larger audience.
“Everything we’ve dreamed of as modern marketers, we can actually do now,” she notes. “And there’s an integration of art and science that’s really thrilling.”
Even Marriott’s more traditional advertising, like the “You Are Here” TV campaign from agency Grey, has a strong digital element that culls story fodder from guests’ journeys and involves consumers as co-creators. Her support for the campaign, touting the chain’s 30 brands in 110 countries since its merger with Starwood Hotels, shows that Timpone is “an innovator, a creative force and the type of CMO every advertising agency hopes to work with,” says Grey COO Christopher Ross.
Noting that in many ways she’s “just getting started,” Timpone says there’s a new content series in the works with a reveal planned at Art Basel in Miami Beach later this year. The digital episodes, which will follow artists around the world and examine their inspirations, could extend later to sports figures and culinary stars.
“It shows how travel is really a platform to talk about life,” explains Timpone, who calls herself a “card-carrying Sagittarius,” the zodiac sign that loves to travel. “It’s a peek into how people are personally fulfilled through travel. It connects us to our why.”