Congrats! If you’re reading this, you have almost made it through 2016–and that means you survived a seemingly never-ending election and an overall rough year for many around the globe.
Things weren’t all bad, though. Often the most uplifting messages came from brands, which provided some hope and levity. At this point, the savviest marketers know that the best way to connect to consumers is to break through to the wider culture. In doing so, they also redefine advertising’s role from intrusive to helpful. That, of course, is tremendously hard to do, which is why we salute the following 10 brands for finding those moments in 2016.
It’s hard to think of a more unlikely comeback. Pokémon, a property whose name and yellow-and-blue logo reeked of 1995, suddenly became the hottest commercial phenomenon thanks to an AR-enhanced mobile game, Pokémon Go. Teens and millennials all over the world took to the app, swarming public places in search of PokéStops; downloads eclipsed 100 million. For marketers, it was a wakeup call about the possibilities of mobile AR. The next time a phenomenon like this arrives, they’ll be ready.
The video that put Facebook Live on the branding map was as charming as it was unexpected. Dallas mom Candace Payne’s joie de vivre was palpable in this video, which has received more than 161 million views at this counting. It wasn’t a plant by Kohl’s, but since Payne name-dropped the retailer, it gave her $2,500 worth of Kohl’s gift cards. Kohl’s also shrewdly capitalized on the phenomenon by filming a post-Chewie encounter with Payne that it distributed with the hashtag #AlltheGoodStuff.
While many brands danced around the election issue, Hefty had a clever response. In early November, the brand bought space on sites like The Huffington Post, CNN, and Fox News to block banner ads from pols. Instead of a nasty message from either side of the aisle, readers saw a message saying, “This political ad has been trashed thanks to Hefty.” The idea was based on a Marist poll that showed 80% of the public was frustrated by the increasingly negative tone of political ads.
Who says advertising never does any good? Well, OK, a lot of people, but Brazilian advertising agency NBS and out-of-home agency Posterscope sought to prove them wrong with an outdoor ad that lured and killed the Aedes Aegypti mosquito by mimicking human breath and sweat. The ads, which could attract mosquitos from as far as 1.6 miles away, were placed in areas where Zika outbreaks were the highest. The agencies open-sourced the technology so anyone else could copy the design for free.
Apple proved in 2016 that it can still deliver a great ad, this time showing how Dillan Barmache, a 16-year-old with autism, uses the iPad to communicate. “So many people can’t understand that I have a mind,” his iPad translates at one point. “But now you can hear me.” What a ringing endorsement for the iPad–and technology, in general.
Who better to talk up Sweden than the Swedes themselves? That apparently was the logic behind a campaign this year from Visit Sweden, which let Americans dial a number that connected to an actual, random citizen of that country. Reporters, of course, had a field day dialing the number and then using Google Street View to see where those various Swedes lived. In a year of a major backlash to globalism, here was an effective counterargument.
BuzzFeed showed the power of Facebook Live with its exploding watermelon experiment. Some 800,000 people tuned in to watch the 45-minute stunt, which consisted of two millennials wrapping 680 or so rubber bands around a big ol’ melon. Hilarity ensued, and the idea of Facebook Live as a competitor to broadcast TV emerged. BuzzFeed wasn’t the only one to try it out, but no one brand got a bigger buzz, at least until Chewbacca Mom (No. 2) came along and shamed the video’s puny 11 million views.
As Budweiser traded its beloved Golden Retriever for Helen Mirren, Hyundai’s “First Date,” won USAToday’s Ad Meter thanks to a clever ad featuring Kevin Hart as a suspicious dad using the automaker’s Car Finder feature to track his daughter’s date. With 26 million views, another Hyundai ad, “The Chase,” was also most-viewed Super Bowl ad this year. Both ads managed to tell a compelling story, show off new vehicle features, and helped Hyundai to break one sales record after another this year.
In a similarly high-stakes venue, Under Armour produced the most-viewed ad of this year’s Olympics with “Rule Yourself,” an artful portrait of champion Michael Phelps in what may be his last time at the Games. Set to the Kills’ “Last Goodbye,” the ad conveys the complexity and drive of Phelps, whose compelling back story of alcohol abuse and rehab added poignancy to what could have been a by-the-numbers tribute.
AI has become the hottest buzzword in ad tech. On the business side, robotic-process automation is already taking white-collar jobs. On the consumer side, there’s Alexa, Amazon’s cylinder device, which acts as a virtual butler. By April, Amazon had sold 3 million Alexa units, following up with the smaller, cheaper Echo Dot in October. There was so much interest that a 13-second ad for Alexa received 13 million views in September. Hey, Alexa, what can we expect in 2017?