Opportunities Abound in 2024 to Push the Marketing Envelope

Bypass the industry’s copycat syndrome by truly innovating

Leaders from Glossier, Shopify, Mastercard and more will take the stage at Brandweek to share what strategies set them apart and how they incorporate the most valued emerging trends. Register to join us this September 23–26 in Phoenix, Arizona.

It’s been a year of economic uncertainty to say the least. An imminent then not-so-imminent recession. Layoffs. Return to office, if you dare—we have a DJ! (No child care though.)

In times like these, we can only be certain of one thing: Everyone is going to do the same damn ads and activations. Those tried-and-true methods that could quite possibly bore a small child to death. 

We know why it happens. When budgets are cut, there’s pressure to go with the proven solution, the celebrity spokesperson, the cute animal, the Coachella-inspired ferris wheel. These days, we don’t have the maximalist Mad Men-era budgets with millions to spend trying something new.

So how can we bypass the industry’s copycat syndrome? Walk with me.

Show me the money

Agencies have a responsibility to push and advocate for their big ideas and work. Your team did not spend the weekend polishing a proposal for a 90-foot Godzilla statue (or whatever) for you to then accept defeat at the first Google Doc comment.

Constraints can help drive creativity. If you stay in the budget, answer the remit and solve for the goals, generally that opens other doors. When you hit a sweet spot in your constraints, sometimes budget magically appears. Double down on your work, but show what you can do, and what you could do, within reason.

“Innovation” itself has become somewhat of a buzzword, but the point is, you won’t get anywhere if you’re focused on social media comments and shares. You have to have a bespoke strategy for each client, budget and opportunity, and you have to ask yourself, “Is this going to just satisfy the brief, or is it going to move the needle?”

Beware of saturation

Both The New York Times and The New Yorker have declared the death of The Internet. But these stories are really about bland brand marketing: The Times discusses how sardonic brand humor is no longer resonating with Gen Z and millennials, and The New Yorker blamed lackluster social media algorithms that highlight ads and months-old posts.

It’s become a trope: “We want to go viral!” shouted the toilet paper brand, fast food chain and sponge company. With shrinking marketing budgets and a growing disconnect between CEOs and CMOs, there is a lot of pressure on marketers to move quickly, jump on trends for 15 seconds of internet fame or, at worst, use AI to generate a slew of low-quality content just to get something out into the world. When one brand does it, it’s weird; when two do it, it’s a trend, and then everyone tries to get in on it.

Wendy’s was one of the first brands to stand out on social media with whip-smart, irreverent takes on trending news. You didn’t expect it from the chain that often promoted salads and burgers, but the disruption in social media use spawned years of edgy brand humor. This reached saturation with Duolingo’s live birth TikTok video (not linked here, if you haven’t seen it … don’t?) and that was it—no broad consumer brand will ever be that edgy again. All other remarks and attempts at humor just seem stale in comparison.

It’s important to understand that everything has its tipping point. You must keep evolving and pushing the envelope to make an impact.

Legends never die

Think back to when you began working in the creative industries. Did you think, “Wow, I hope one day my work is fleeting”? Hell no.

There is a big difference between trends and cultural relevance, and they should not be conflated. A trend is a moment, cultural relevance lives on. (Cue the “Heroes and Legends” speech from The Sandlot.) We know the importance of brands having a consistent voice and identity, and not immediately chasing the shiny object of viral fame—i.e., posting #girlboss for Queen Elizabeth II’s death—but to truly forego copycat syndrome, you have to innovate.

Liquid Death does this with thoughtful celebrity partnerships that match its branding—what’s more literally “liquid death” than Tony Hawk’s blood? McDonald’s has also done this well with its collaborations with artists like Travis Scott, J Balvin, BTS and Mariah Carey. It’s a natural extension of the brand that has frequently done entertainment partnerships in the past while pushing the envelope with international talent. 

Shoehorning celebrities

Last year, people bemoaned the use of celebrities in every Super Bowl spot. Flash and spectacle mean nothing if there’s no creativity behind it. 

If a client ever insisted on using a celebrity in a spot, I’d probably go outside for a quick scream session and maybe consider fleeing the country. If it really was unavoidable despite my passport, I’d ask: “What is the most outlandish way to do it? How can we push through? Do they have to be in the spot or can we just use their voice?”

During the 2022 Super Bowl, Hellmann’s ran a spot with Jerod Mayo (get it?!) tackling Pete Davidson. The next year, Pete appeared again alongside Jon Hamm and Brie Larson. In the former, Pete Davidson is a surprise cameo at the end who ends up being tackled as he is “very hittable;” in the latter, Pete returns to eat a ham and brie (get it?!) panini. This is the difference between decent celebrity usage and good celebrity usage. I have to imagine someone said, “Pete Davidson is hot right now, let’s get him for a spot,” and someone wisely responded, “Ok, but can we throw him to the ground?”

Or look at Flamin’ Hot Cheetos x Megan Thee Stallion, versus Popeyes x Megan Thee Stallion. Both feature Megan’s signature spice, but the Flamin’ Hot collab let her go all the way with both FU puns and a scholarship for Thee Stallion’s alma mater, Texas Southern University.

Read the room

At the end of the day, you have to do what makes sense for you. You’re looking for the intersection of being who you are and aligning with what matters to your audience. It’s not just Celebrity + Product or Festival + Ferris Wheel. You can’t show up at Coachella the same way you’d show up at Broccoli City. Gen Z and Black Gen Z are not the same! So, who is your audience?

Know your sauce, and know that not all sauces go with all dishes. Diversify your efforts. Do a celeb spot (if you must), then a TikTok creator activation. Or hold the proprietary summit but differentiate with location, speakers and on-site experiences. 

Keep it fresh. Sometimes the best laid proposals don’t result in a green light. So lay the foundation. You may be able to go bigger and riskier next time.

Put it all together and…

With the Super Bowl right around the corner, it will be interesting to see which brands rise to the challenge and which spend (or waste) their ad dollars on an influencer endorsement. After that, its conferences and Coachella clones. Unless…?