15 of the Most Ingenious Marketing Campaigns

by | Aug 23, 2010 | Legacy

Ingenious Marketing Campaigns

Over the years, savvy marketers have systematically discovered and created not only    the greatest products to sell, but precisely how to package and push them upon the world.  No matter the negatives, or how unnecessary a certain product or service is, corporations have found a way to portray themselves and their products as indispensable.  To reject those products and services is to reject happiness, or so the consumer should believe.  Over the years there have been some extreme standouts in this advertising game, most notably the following fifteen:

BMW vs. Audi

Checkmate Marketing

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The automobile was one of the first products to be sold to a global market in the 20th century.  Car companies have come and gone, but some heavyweights have lasted throughout.  Two German monsters in the industry are BMW and Audi.  Both were created in the early 1900s and outlasted two world wars to continue to sell cars to Americans.

Of course, they hate each other.  In 2006, Audi put up a racy little number in the form of an attack billboard in California.  It read “Your move, BMW” on an all-white background with an image of Audi’s A4.  The billboard was quickly countered by the local BMW dealership, Santa Monica BMW, who responded with an all-black billboard with an image of the BMW M3 Coupe.  Underneath, one word: Checkmate.

What could Audi respond with?  There’s absolutely nothing to do but just shut up and admit defeat.  And snatch down your billboards that make you look foolish, of course.  This kind of marketing coup is the stuff of CEO dreams.

Coca-Cola Bottle

Coke bottle Marketing

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Coca-Cola has long been the most important soda in the world — very much because its makers decided long ago that it wasn’t just going to be a soda, but a symbol of eternal happiness.  Created in 1886 in Atlanta and marketed to a small consumer base, Coca-Cola quickly became a force to be reckoned with in the 20th century.  It’s the kind of product that accompanies men to war and can be sold in hundreds of countries, because no matter what someone’s experience, the brand’s mythology and promise shines through.

A million different things went into creating this mythology, but one of the most important is the shape of the bottle.  In 1915, the Coca-Cola Company challenged its bottle suppliers to design a bottle so unique that people would recognize it instantly, even if they couldn’t see it.  The bottle was supposed to be so distinct that if you picked it up in the dark you would know exactly what it was.  One man, Earl R. Dean, rose to the challenge.  Whether you call it the “contour” bottle, or the “hobble skirt,” we all know exactly what was done.  Dean shaped the bottle based on a woman’s figure, the most popular and recognizable shape on earth.

Coca-Cola was destined for greatness before this development, but it simply pushed them over the edge.  In India, they call the Coke they serve there “Thums Up,” but it still has the exact bottle shape that let’s everyone know who makes it.  Most recently, Coke made the genius move of converting every bottle they make (including the giant two liters) into the contoured, womanly bottle shape.  By imprinting this shape on our minds since infancy, they define themselves to us in a way that guarantees brand loyalty and recognition.

Lucky Strike: Edward Bernays

Lucky Strike Marketing

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Sometimes one man can make such an ingenious marketing move that his story will echo in the annals of history forever.  Such was the case with Edward Bernays and Lucky Strike.  Lucky Strike was created in the late 19th century, originally as a chewing tobacco, and soon after as a cigarette.  Early attempts at marketing itself were slogans such as “It’s Toasted,” or “L.S.M.F.T.,” or Lucky Strike means fine tobacco.

This was all well and good, but Bernays thought they could do better.  In the 1930’s, Lucky Strike was mostly recognized for its forest green pack.  Instead of focusing on convincing people that Luckies were the best, Bernays focused on green.  Letters, phone calls and visits were made to prominent fashion designers, interior designers, and women of society.  They didn’t mention Lucky Strike, just suggesting (sometimes with payment) that green be the color for 1934.  It worked.  Balls, window displays, clothing and gallery exhibitions all over America in that year emphasized green.  As a result, Lucky Strikes sales went up.  Once women realized that Luckies would match everything, they had to have them.  It was another masterstroke in marketing.

Bear Bryant: Call Your Mama

Bear Bryant, a legend in college football for his time with Alabama, was finishing up his career in the late 1970’s when he was asked to do a commercial for the South Central Bell Telephone Company.  He was supposed to look into the camera and say in a gruff voice, “Have you called your mama today?”  But Bryant’s own mother had recently died.  So instead, he ad-libbed.  He looked into the camera and softly and honestly said “Have you called your mama today?  I sure wish I could call mine.”  Before the viewer was even ready to leave Bryant’s face the commercial jumped to the South Central Bell logo, inexorably tying the two things together.  Because of the raw, real emotion (and how rare that is in advertising) the commercial did incredibly well.  Even today, try watching it without feeling anxious and wanting to call your mother immediately.

I Love NY

New York Marketing

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Sometimes, advertising and marketing are pushed into over-drive where you would least expect it.  Tourism and New York are almost synonymous terms today.  It’s well assumed that all over the globe there are blood-thirsty people who would do anything to blow all their hard-earned wages on just a few days vacation inside the greatest city on earth.  But this wasn’t always the case.

In the 1970’s, Milton Glaser, a graphic designer, created a campaign on behalf of NY state tourism.  It was simple, eye-catching, and ignored the grime, crime and disarray that the city was mired in at the time.  It featured a dark, bold faced I and NY separated by a bright red heart.  It was an immediate hit.  The logo was used to not only promote the city, but state parks, wildlife, and essentially all of the things NY State has to offer as a whole.  Through today, the logo is still incredibly popular, and is often hijacked by imitators far and wide.

McDonald’s: No Child Left Behind

An essential demographic to reach is children.  Especially in America, but also across the globe, marketers have exploited the fact that children get what they want — and bring their parents with them.  No company has embodied this better than McDonald’s.

Created in 1940 as the ultimate speedy service eatery, McDonalds quickly rose to the international juggernaut that is today.  In the 60’s, it invented a character whose goal was to make kids all over the world recognize the brand: Ronald McDonald.  The clown represented a world where food was quick, delicious, and followed immediately by running into a ball-pit (no coincidence).  Ronald was followed by such favorites as the Hamburglar, a daring hamburger thief, Mayor McCheese, an accurate portrayal of a politician and Grimace, a purple butt-plug, among many others.  Today 96% of all American children in school recognize Ronald McDonald.  Burger King who?

Kanye West vs. 50 Cent

Kanye West 50 Cent Marketing

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Marketing can be very subtle and deceptive.  Other times you pull a giant stunt in the hopes of driving up your record sales.  Such was the case when Kanye West and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson squared up against each other in 2007.  The two were slated to release their respective records, West’s Graduation and Jackson’s Curtis on the same day — 9/11. What shows more respect to our historic disaster than album sales?  Nothing does.

Jackson declared that if West’s record sold more than his he would retire his solo rap career.  The two played up the competition on TV, in interviews, and to anyone who would listen.  The internet caught fire.  Was it a true feud?  Was it just a ploy to sell records? Yes.

One week after their personal holiday, West’s record triumphed handily, selling nearly a million copies in its first week.  Jackson was just under 700,000, his weakest showing ever at the time.  On top of it, he had to rescind his retirement boast.

When it comes down to it, in a decade where album sales plummeted, both of these showings in first week sales are remarkable.  West summarized the bout: “And after all of the drama, Kay slayed him.”

Marlboro and the Man

Marlboro Marketing

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Sometimes the product you intend to sell comes with a lot of baggage,  like when it’s directly responsible for cancer.  You still have to make the best of it!  In 1924, Phillip Morris and Co. created the Marlboro cigarette brand, and focused on the female market.  By the 1950’s, the company was filtering their cigarettes, due to recent scientific evidence that cigarettes were bad for you (which was news when Watson told Sherlock Holmes it seventy years before).  As a result of Marlboro’s core market, filtered cigarettes became seen as women’s cigarettes.  Neither Phillip nor Morris was pleased.  Fortunately, they had a plan.

Advertising executive Leo Burnett saw the problem and the solution at once.  Marlboro needed to be baptized in manhood.  A story in Life magazine about a Texas cowboy caught his eye, and the Marlboro man was born in 1954.  The Marlboro Man would be an icon that rejected the male patriarchal family structure and suggested to men around the world that they should rely on themselves and Marlboro alone for a satisfying life.  The Marlboro man was usually pictured alone, roughing it in nature, puffing away and feeling amazing no matter what anyone said.

In 1955, when the campaign truly began, Marlboro sales were $5 billion.  In two years, sales rose to $20 billion, and who would look back?  What was even more insidious and effective was the way the campaign re-framed the image of cigarettes at a time when health concerns were beginning to loom as a threat to sales.  Instead of worrying if the product would hurt them, people were encouraged to man up and move to flavor country permanently.  The Marlboro man campaign was one of the most successful of all time, commercially, socially and temporally (it lasted almost forty years).  In 1999 the campaign was ended in America, and doesn’t exist in most of the world any longer.  But the damage was already done.

Cloverfield: Viral Marketing

Cloverfield Marketing

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J.J. Abrams is no slouch at using mystery, the Internet and science fiction to make a buck or two.  The producer of TV giants such as Alias and Lost, in 2007, Abrams began marketing a film he planned to release in 2008. It was without a title, a plot summary, famous actors or any of the trappings of a successful film.  The first teaser trailer for what would become Cloverfield aired in theaters before Transformers with no title, just a date of release.

Attempting to promote a movie without a title, or while stifling all meaningful information about it is ridiculously hard.  But doing so with wild success is almost impossible.  What Abrams had realized– and exploited to no end — was that marketing could be done on the Internet for next to nothing, and that the less it told people, the more interest they would have in whatever it was you were advertising.

Websites began to pop up that seemingly had nothing to do with the movie, but were somehow related (Japanese soda companies, information about their drilling procedures, still shots of things that happened before the movie began, etc.)  Speculation ran rampant about what exactly was going on in the film and what kind of monster was involved.  People needed to know!

Cloverfield lived up to the hype, releasing to critical and financial success.  In its opening weekend it grossed $40 million, and was the first movie in 2008 to gross over $100 million.

Miller Lite

Miller Lite Marketing

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All over the world, beer is a wildly popular drink.  The only problem with drinking beer every day (besides rampant alcoholism) is that it makes you fat — something that is widely looked down upon, especially in America.  It’s pretty much entirely empty calories that give you a beer belly and make you hate yourself.  That’s why Miller developed a campaign to change the game.

In the 1970’s they invented a new beer, Miller Lite, which contained way fewer calories. Men could drink more of it (spending more money) without getting (as) fat.  What they quickly discovered was that men didn’t care about getting fat.  However, the legendary ad agency McCann-Erickson Worldwide pulled a Marlboro Man and started showing the beer with only the most masculine, burliest men they could find.  Sales jumped from 7 million barrels to 31 million — an outrageous success.

NFL Fantasy Files

In 2009, 18 videos hit the Internet showing NFL stars doing incredible things.  This was brought to us by Reebok and the NFL, and was an immediate viral sensation.  The most amazing thing about it was how much speculation appeared on the Internet about the authenticity of these videos.  Considering they were called Fantasy Files, it would appear obvious — but apparently wasn’t.

The videos showed stars doing the impossible, such as wide receiver Braylon Edwards catching balls blindfolded, or running back Maurice Jones-Drew buried in sand and exploding out onto the surface.  The budget for the videos was incredibly small, and they mostly utilized simple special effects to achieve the impossible feats.

The NFL isn’t exactly the kind of business that desperately needs more attention or financial success, but their use of viral tools to promote themselves drummed up interest among audiences that don’t usually watch football is refreshing and diverse.

VW: Think Small

VW Marketing

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Anytime you’re told to do the opposite of your instinct, you take notice.  In an advertising world saturated by the obvious (don’t be scared, be a man, take our product because it will make your life better) anything subtle or counter-cultural is a breath of fresh air.  Enter Volkswagen.

In 1959, Volkswagen decided to aggressively market their Beetle (already a huge European success) to America. They faced many challenges.  For one, the Beetle was seen in America as a Nazi car (because it had been.)  Furthermore, it was oddly shaped and incredibly small, very aesthetically dissimilar to most successful American cars.

Whereas most previous American car ad campaigns had focused on revealing as much information about the cars they were selling, VW took a new approach.  By relying on simple advertisements that made sarcastic disparaging comments about their Beetle, they were able to tap into the rebellious nature of American consumers with much success.

Beetle ads during this time told consumers to “Think Small,” or portrayed the car as a “Lemon.” They almost challenged American consumers to buy a car that was so different and alien to everything they were used to.  In doing so, VW changed advertising forever.  Instead of focusing on giving people what they want through advertising, VW decided they would define who they were, and in extension force new wants and needs upon a new consumer base.

Absolut Advertising

Absolut Marketing

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America was consuming quite a lot of vodka in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s,  to the tune of 40 million cases a year.  Of those cases, only 1% was imported, and within that 1% of imported vodka, Absolut accounted for only 2.5% of imported sales.  That’s only 10,000 cases a year.  Imported Vodka was seen to be authentic only if it was Russian, and Absolut was a French-owned company that produces its vodka in Sweden, which wasn’t a big help.

Starting around 1980, Absolut sought to redefine itself as the hippest, coolest, most necessary vodka that the world had ever seen.  It was mainly through an ingenious print campaign where the distinctive Absolut bottle was pictured in countless situations and was labeled ‘absolutely’ everything.  The ads were everywhere, and they were so clever and appealing to look at that people all over America started collecting them.

Essentially, Absolut’s marketing became a giant experiment to see what was acceptable, what was too much, and to market to every demographic out there (young, old, gay, straight, black, white, etc.).  The print campaign (which spawned viral, musical and video counterparts) has produced over 1500 ads, making it one of the longest running ad campaigns in history.

Nike: Just Do It

Nike Marketing

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Sometimes an ad campaign is built around something so simple it appears that no one created it, like it just always existed.  Such is the case with Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.  In the late 1970’s/early 80’s Nike was a very small part of the sports apparel market.  Reebok had a stranglehold on it, due in part to the raised interest among women and young people in exercise and aerobics.

Rumor has it that while discussing their vulnerable place within the market, Nike and Wieden & Kennedy (an advertising firm) decided they just needed to ‘do something’ about it.  And thus the slogan was born.  It came to represent an all-out take-no-prisoners approach to sports apparel, and its ads reflected this instantly.  They were hip, funny, and showed stars of various sports doing incredible things with ease, all due to their Nike gear.

Most importantly, they worked.  In the 1990’s Nike saw their market share more than double and their sales went from $800 million a year to $9.2 billion a year.

Get a Mac

A classic strategy of advertising is to do a campaign which works on two levels: on the first level is “here’s our competitor” (boo!) and on the second level, “we are the greatest” (hooray!).  This is essentially what Apple applied in their “Get a Mac”  campaign, which lasted from 2006-09.

In the commercials, famous actor Justin Long appears as a comfortable, hip Mac computer.  John Hodgman, a previously unrecognizable actor (he has been a correspondent on the Daily Show) plays a PC.  They then act out a vignette in which it’s made abundantly clear that Apple makes the superior computer.

What is astounding about the commercials are their abundance and ability to imprint them on a consumer’s mind after only having seen one or two.  For example, in the three years the campaign put out over 70 spots on North American television alone.  In the first year of the campaign, Apple sales rose 36% in a tough economy.  Apple was awarded the Grand Effie (the most prestigious of the Effie awards, which honor achievements within marketing) for the campaign.


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