Modern marketing is a 24/7 full-contact sport. Thanks to the always-on nature of digital media, brands are always on high alert, whether about mini controversies that have the potential to take them down or world events that might present an opportunity to present themselves in a positive light.
To be sure, the environment is difficult to navigate—and that’s not going to change anytime soon. So before moving forward to 2016, we thought it might be helpful to look back at some of the top brand moments of the year. These are cases in which marketers either connected with consumers in a positive way or seized a moment to their brands’ advantage, without looking as if they were being exploitative.
As these examples show, achieving success is no mean feat and often involves a fair amount of risk.
Since more than 50% of the U.S. population supports same-sex marriage, you could argue that brands that wanted to declare their admiration for the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling on the matter risk little. Even so, the outpouring of support from brands including American Airlines, Macy’s, and Maytag, in the U.S. at least, was both surprising and creatively executed. It was also an important cultural moment, demonstrating that much of corporate America was aligned with the Blue States.
2. GIFs On Facebook
GIFs have been around for almost three decades, but Millennials love them. While GIFs proliferate in email messages and on Tumblr, though, they had been absent from the Facebook News Feed. That changed in May, when the social network finally acquiesced and, in August, allowed brands to get their GIFs on. Among the first to try were Wendy’s and Kuat, a Brazilian Coca-Cola brand.
3. Budweiser’s Super Sequel
Budweiser won the 2014 Super Bowl with “Puppy Love,” a Lassie Come Home-type tale featuring an adorable yellow Lab that kept returning to its original owner (and his Clydesdales). What did Bud do for an encore? It continued the tale, showing the same guy and what looks like the same pup, who gets loose, confronts a wolf, and is saved by those Clydesdales. What will the brand do in 2016? Despite the ad sequel’s success, don’t expect another pup. A Bud exec told Adweek that the spots don’t move enough cases, so we’ll likely see a more overt paean to the brew itself.
4. The New York Times Goes Virtual
The Old Gray Lady has been justly accused at times of being behind the curve on advances in digital media, but on Nov. 7 the brand gave its subscribers a vision of the future. The newspaper shipped 1 million Google Cardboard devices that let readers experience “The Displaced,” a virtual-reality (VR) film about war refugees. The effort also included a VR ad for GE.
5. Facebook VR Ads
Speaking of VR, Facebook made it clear that it is not prepared to cede any ground to Google. As Facebook plans to put its Oculus Rift headset on sale in early 2016, the company has laid the groundwork with 360 video, which lets user click and drag to zoom in on an image within the panoramic video. Within a few weeks, Facebook began offering 360 video ads from Ritz crackers and AT&T.
6. Barbie’s Girl Power Message
Mattel, readying an interactive, Wi-Fi-connected version of Barbie, shrewdly countered years of criticism about its famous doll with a two-minute ad that went viral in October. The ad features young girls in adult roles, such as veterinarian and businesswoman. Key to the humor, though, is that the girls don’t exactly talk like adults, but rather express themselves like young girls do. “Can your cat fly? Because mine can,” one young vet tells a startled pet owner. At this writing, the ad has close to 16 million views, making it one of the viral hits of the year.
7. Android’s ‘Friends Furever’
As Budweiser has illustrated, a video has stronger viral potential if it features animals. Here, Google took that idea and ran with it with “Friends Furever,” a video that features nothing but the type of moments that your aunt is likely to post on Facebook. The cute montage has a point, though: Unlike Apple’s iOS, Android is customizable, so you can be together but not the same, sort of like an elephant and a black Lab. The message has resonated: At this writing, the video has more than 21 million views on YouTube.
8. Brands Go Live
In early March, Meerkat, a Twitter-based app that lets anyone broadcast a live video feed, became a cause celebre in tech media circles. Some brands were quick to see the possibilities. In particular, Red Bull used Meerkat to give behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Red Bull Double Pipe Finals, in Aspen, Colo. Starbucks also was an early adopter and offered a live feed from its roastery. Within a couple of weeks, Twitter bought a competing app, Periscope, and that stole Meerkat’s thunder. Brands are still figuring out how to use live streaming via Twitter. So far, Nissan has employed it for the unveiling of the 2016 Maxima at the New York Auto Show, and Taco Bell used it for a satiric press conference to announce a new breakfast item.
9. Netflix Finds Native Advertising Heaven With The Wall Street Journal
Publishers are still trying to wrap their minds around native advertising, but one late convert, The Wall Street Journal, showed a way forward with “Cocainenomics,” an exhaustively reported, bilingual piece of content sponsored by Netflix to promote its show “Narcos.” As Fast Company wrote, “Native advertising in general might just be, as John Oliver so eloquently put it, like licorice and guacamole, but this is a clearly labeled and pretty damn interesting editorial snack.”
10. Honey Maid Gets Edgy
Honey Maid, a Mondelez graham cracker brand, used to be well-known but pretty dull. After all, it’s hard to get excited about a cracker, right? Then the brand hired Droga5 and completely change its image. The agency decided to link Honey Maid to the idea of the “modern family” and feature same-sex couples, interracial couples, and even (gasp!) tattooed parents with the tagline, “This is wholesome.” The effort started in 2014, but the brand really hit its stride with a Fourth of July spot with an immigrant family. While brands have waded into the same-sex marriage debate (see #LoveWins, above), Honey Maid became one of the few to address another hot button topic: immigration.
11. Burger King’s Peace Offering To McDonald’s
We’ve come to expect some shenanigans from Burger King, but the brand topped itself with an August effort around Peace Day, a UN holiday in September. The brand took out full-page newspaper ads asking rival McDonald’s to join hands for a “McWhopper.” McDonald’s refused, sending a chilly note saying, “A simple phone call will do next time.” Unfazed, BK joined forces with Denny’s, as well as much smaller brands, such as Krystal, Wayback Burgers, and Giraffas. All this made BK look magnanimous. McDonald’s? Not so much.
12. Alibaba’s Singles Day
This year China’s Alibaba demonstrated that Singles Day is–to use Donald Trump’s favorite descriptor–HUGE. In 24 hours, the brand moved some $14 billion worth of merchandise and got Kevin Spacey, in character as Frank Underwood from Netflix’s “House of Cards,” to celebrate the day. Singles Day, in case you were wondering, is on Nov. 11. The “11/11” is interpreted as a message to singletons to celebrate their status. The choice of that date might limit expansion into the Western world, where it is celebrated as Veteran’s Day in the U.S. and Armistice Day in Europe as the anniversary of the end of World War I.