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Do’s and Don’ts Brand Lessons From 2017

Pepsi, Ikea, Netflix, McDonald’s, Amazon’s Alexa, and others have served up hearty marketing tutorials throughout 2017.

Do’s and Don’ts Brand Lessons From 2017

It’s that time of year again–THE END!–when we all start reflecting on the previous 12 months. How many books did I read? How often did I go to the gym? Should I start cooking at home more? Is this the year I become a morning person? A cat person? Do I even have a gym membership? You get the idea. The same annual inventory happens on a professional level. And for marketers, the biggest question often revolves around what their brands can learn to improve performance in 2018.

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Turns out, 2017 was a pretty interesting year for brands. Plenty of scandal, a cultural landscape teeming with both pitfalls and possibilities, lots of the usual crap, all crossed with some truly engaging creativity.

DO:

Know what you stand for—and stand for it: This is really just a good blanket rule for anyone, but for brands in the age of Trump, it’s pretty much a requirement. That doesn’t mean speaking out on every issue, but it does mean being in touch with your consumers, employees, and stakeholders to know when it’s time to stand your ground. For many brands, particularly in Silicon Valley, the initial immigration ban was that moment. On March 6, Google employees protested the controversial executive order on the tech company’s Mountain View campus. As co-founder Sergey Brin told the crowd, “This is a debate about fundamental values. I hope this energy carries forward in many different ways, beyond what just our company can do, beyond what just companies can do, but as a really powerful force and a really powerful movement.” As my colleague Austin Carr wrote at the time, Google, inspired in part by its community of employees, was announcing what it stood for as a company.

Think about podcasts as legitimate brand content: Huuuuge caveat here–only do this if it fits your brand and you’re not a Make the Logo Bigger marketer. That said, a solid collection of companies have proved over the last year that a podcast series can be a cool, engaging way to really show their brand value. From Walmart and Gatorade to Microsoft and Spotify, brands of all stripes gave us a peek at the potential of audio storytelling beyond the host-read ad hit. As I wrote in April, according to Gimlet, the average branded podcast investment runs in the mid-six figures—far cheaper than a TV spot, and with a much more attentive audience. An NPR study found that 75% of listeners took action on a sponsored message.

Netflix’s “Stranger Things 2” billboard [Photo: courtesy of Netflix]
Get prolific and specific: Historically, advertisers have tended to be all things to all people. Casting a wide net and all that. And yet some of the best advertising over the last year has been exactly the opposite: major brands using specificity to score big with fans. Look no further than Netflix’s marketing juggernaut behind Stranger Things 2Mysterious billboards? Check. Rom-com trailer edit? Check. Recreating classic movie posters for Stand By Me, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien, and more with Stranger Things characters? Yuh-huh. Then there was Ikea showing us all how it had taken the black on Game of Thrones. Speaking of Sweden, that country’s tourist association decided to list the entire country on Airbnb. So yeah, get weird and go with it.

National Geographic’s “Breaking2” documentary, made with Nike. [Photo: courtesy of National Geographic/Nike]
Find your own cultural moments: Look, I know everyone is sick of hearing that brands need to “create culture,” mostly because it’s equal parts pretentious and unrealistic. But in the right context, it’s true. It doesn’t have to be Nike inventing a whole new product, then staging a race to break the two-hour marathon mark and teaming with National Geographic on a doc about the whole thing. Culture is simply the context in which people experience your brand. It could be a podcast aimed at addressing a specific need or interest of your consumer base. Or, y’know, like 3AM did for Bladerunner 2049, it could be eschewing more traditional ads in favor of short films that actually add something to the fan experience. Or in the case of the rapper Logic, it could be composing a hit song that’s actually a suicide helpline PSA. The key is finding that right context for your brand and making something people will either enjoy or find useful.

Raise your voice: According to eMarketer earlier this year, there are 45 million voice-assisted devices in use in the U.S., with that number expected to be 67 million by 2019. Meanwhile, comScore data has forecasted that voice tech will account for 50% of all search by 2020. “Alexa, should I start planning my voice search and brand content strategy immediately?”

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DON’T:

Beat up your customers: This, uh, should be obvious. You don’t need an MBA to know that making someone bleed isn’t exactly a powerful brand move. And yet, United Airlines. Back in April, security services called by United staff dragged a passenger off a plane because the company had overbooked the flight. Video of the incident went viral, natch. So how did United CEO Oscar Munoz react? With something less than an apology. The entire incident sparked weeks of memes, as well as think pieces around how companies should be always reviewing policies and procedures to help avoid situations that may or may not lead to one of your customers getting punched in the face on camera. Makes sense.

Pepsi’s widely ridiculed ad starring Kendall Jenner. [Photo: courtesy of Pepsi]
Trivialize social justice: Also known as the Pepsi Lives Matter Rule. You remember the time Kendall Jenner stopped a riot by giving a police officer a Pepsi, right? That didn’t work out so well. Then there was the time Papa John’s founder and CEO John Schnatter blamed NFL players kneeling in protest of racial inequality and police brutality for the pizza chain’s sagging sales. Not. A. Good. Look.

Underestimate fans passion for 20-year-old Szechuan sauce: Okay, this one’s a tad specific. Related to one of the above Do’s, to paraphrase Omar Little, if you come at a passionate niche fanbase, you best not miss. McDonald’s found that out the hard way when it tried to capitalize on the goodwill it had built up among Rick & Morty fans by sending show creator Justin Roiland a jug of Szechuan dipping sauce last seen as a promo for the 1998 Disney film Mulan. It extended this obscure reference to a customer promo for one day only on October 7 but failed to anticipate the demand, resulting in truly bizarre scenes of bros chanting “We want sauce!” at unsuspecting employees.

Treat people like idiots: Ah, ye olde respect the customer rule. But in 2017, someone forgot to tell Uber. Back in February, thousands of people dumped the app after it was perceived to surge prices during protests against Trump’s initial immigration ban. It was just one in a long line of corporate missteps, but as these things go, people tend to get most upset at company policies that illustrate open contempt for customers.

A Dove ad that sparked cries [Photo: courtesy of Dove]
Use ideas that can be easily misinterpreted: Step right up, Dove. First, in March the soap company released limited edition packaging to evoke “the shapes, sizes, curves, and edges that combine to make every woman their very own limited edition.” Yet many found it akin to body shaming, sexist (where were the men’s bottles?), and just plain dumb. Then in October, a Dove ad that featured a number of women pulling off a shirt to become a different skin type was edited for social media and showed only a black woman turning into a white woman. This sparked cries of racism, obviously. And even though the black woman in the spot wrote an op-ed in The Guardian to explain the context, the premise was ripe for misinterpretation. Ads are like jokes: If you have to explain it, it’s not working.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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