Last week, marketers gathered in Chicago to hear from some of the world’s leading brands at the ANA Brand Activation Conference. The three-day event brings together the industry’s top professionals to discuss the power for integrated brand activation in their marketing efforts.
Here are VSA’s top five takeaways from this year’s conference:
1. Brand activation is big and growing
When one thinks of the brand activation space, it is easy to wander into a multitude of categories. What is brand activation? What does it really represent in the spectrum of industry spending? How does it respond to the macro-economic trends of today? The ANA categorizes brand activation as composed of these areas of focus: experiential, relational, promotional, retailer/shopper, influencer and content. While there is inherent overlap in many of these areas, the integrating power and spend for many brands are outstripping the traditional methods of advertising as we may know them. In his opening remarks, Leo Kivijarv, Ph.D., Director of Research at PQ Media, shared the preliminary findings from their annual large-scale research study into the nature of the industry, trends and marketing spend. While providing a top-level view into the top 10 trends impacting marketing today, he continued to showcase that the industry spent nearly three times on activation programs what it did in traditional advertising media—some $317B to $180B. The growth of this category is rapid, and when coupled with adjacent marketing spending, it’s anticipated to grow to become $600B to $1 trillion as companies and brands shift their spend, or nearly 8% of the GDP. This represents a big opportunity to create brand and marketing experiences much closer to the customer and moment of truth at transaction.
2. The power of presence
Several brands at the conference reflected on the sheer nature of remaining front and center in their constituents’ eyes, but in the case of Ivan Pollard, SVP of Strategic Marketing at Coca-Cola, he reflected on scientific insights on how Coke goes about affecting not just the hearts and minds of its audiences, but more importantly, the heads and the hands. Coca-Cola, a longstanding and significant marketer of nearly all proportions, has been developing programs that combine the power of presence—the sheer ubiquity and visibility of the Coke brand—with the importance of creating experiences that leave an indelible impression at a more personal level with the product and brand. High-level exposure of the brand—some may call it air cover—is important to establishing a logical and innate processing of the brand’s qualities and attributes, but it is the actual events, collaborations and experiential marketing that create the deeper bond with people. This activation of hands and head has helped Coke win over more hearts and minds.
3. Employees as brand evangelists
With the airline industry recently in the news for negative treatment of consumers at the moment of truth, Southwest Airlines was an interesting case study to share the vitality and power a business can have by believing its employees are its greatest brand asset, ambassadors and evangelists. Helen Limpitlaw, Director of Brand Communications, shared how their strategy has been built from the authenticity of their origin as a maverick and iconoclast, with a simple truth of making flying more enjoyable and affordable, while allowing their employees to embody every aspect of this brand ethos. The resulting campaign, “Transfarency,” was born from the industry analysis that the competitors were being opaque in their pursuit of Southwest’s success of delivering low-cost fares and an enjoyable experience. By creating a word that seemed something only Southwest could do, they struck a chord with travelers who are seeking to avoid the nickel-and-diming, cold and recently abusive behavior in their travel experiences. Southwest employees are front and center in all communications and campaigns, celebrating this manifesto to their consumers.
A second case study, shared by SVP Experience Marketing of HPE Susan Popper, showed the importance of building brands from within, even against many headwinds and brutal timetables. The Hewlett-Packard Enterprise brand is a spin-off, and split from the traditional consumer-facing enterprise, HP, to distinguish the large-scale enterprise IT transformation business. As one would imagine, any effort like this had real headwinds to getting people to buy into the new brand idea, brand identity and marketing possibilities. The brand team visited dozens of markets in person to build momentum and support that had to work across 160 countries, all the while evolving from a culture and brand in the traditional HP brand that had great personal meaning to thousands. Only by working on the ground, in person, and then showcasing in prototype form how the brand would behave in the market to support the business did they win over their internal audience.
4. Emotional campaigns still sell product
It may often be easy to assume brand activation and marketing is only price- or promotion-driven, but these two brands showed how strong, emotionally charged efforts are highly effective in building business. First, Lenscrafters’ Sarah Landsman, Senior Director of Brand Strategy, shared how they utilized data-driven insights to help create the case for an emotionally driven campaign regarding the growth of the daily-use contact lens business. The data helped make a case that the company’s offering could be a more efficient and elegant solution for daily contact use, while still allowing the campaign to be co-funded by their branded product partners alongside their internal private label brand. By building on the emotional insight that there is “good” all around us each and every day, and that all of us would prefer to see the good episodes in our lives, their campaign of “See. Good. Daily” delivered emotional vignettes across multiple channels demonstrating the good in all of us. This positive message also underscored the clinical benefits of clean, safe, disposable contact lens use every day, supporting the commercial agenda. The Lenscrafters mantra of “Activation without emotion is just price promotion” truly was delivered in this work.
A second powerful takeaway was from Russell Athletics, a true challenger brand in the athletic apparel space, on how to tap into the raw emotion of team and loss. Their rallying cry “Team On” (which acts as a call to action for RA employees to compete as well) focuses on the power of team at the most grassroots and community level. They developed a very unconventional integrated campaign featuring six high-school football teams that came up just short in their bid for the state title. Their program, launched in each one of these communities under the #settleyourscore hashtag, captured the “8 seconds” or the “1 yard” that kept the team from winning and chronicled their pursuit of redemption the following year. The creative team brought in a world-class photographer famous for “Friday Night Lights” to mentor high-school student photographers to extend coverage, essentially emotionally investing them in the rally. Russell showed that when you are smaller and less famous, there still is no shortage of emotion to be tapped to drive connection to the brand.
5. Moving from cultural to commercial success
When your current ad campaign has been lauded as “one of the most significant campaigns of the 21st century,” what do you do? Dwell in your cultural success? Or dig in and see if it’s working? In the case of Dos Equis, Andrew Katz, VP Marketing, shared the challenging work of looking deeper at the “Most Interesting Man in the World” (MIM) to see if it was working commercially as the beer category continued to see declining industry trajectory. What they discovered was that while it was buzzworthy, there were fundamental issues with the program. First, they were in the business of selling beer, not the MIM, second, they didn’t “own” an occasion, and third, ten states were accounting for nearly all demand. Their research also revealed that to evolve the campaign, any next character or directive would have to be the MIM living the experiences, being a part of them with friends, and not revisiting them as “old history.” This led them to a more youthful character evolution in the spirit of the James Bond or Batman philosophy, and they began embedding experiences into their sponsorship of college football playoffs and their relationship with ESPN. This evolution had the added challenge of activating the brand across four key stakeholder groups—consumers, distributors, retailers and shoppers, flexing its messaging strategy to continue to drive growth and penetration of the Dos Equis brand. This program has successfully helped them grow in 8 of those 10 markets, moving them from cultural icon to commercial success.