Despite what many year-end industry lists may tease, there were no silver-bullet brand secrets of success magically revealed over the last 12 months. But what you can find among the best ads, brand content, Snapchat action, and more are smart brands applying strong strategies to any number of platforms, in ways that fit both their image and the needs of their consumers.
In 2016, we spoke to top brands in a wide variety of industries—from Apple and Gatorade, to WWE and National Geographic. These are very different brands, in most cases creating very different products, but if there's a common theme, it's probably in how they are all searching for marketing solutions that aren't just popular or tapping a trend, but adamant that these ideas must hold true to what they see as their brand's core values or message.
Here are some of the best Behind the Brand insights of 2016.
Vice president of marketing Tor Myhren, on the brand's approach to this year's holiday ad: "Particularly in America, and probably in many places around the world, a lot of companies still tend to do the really hard-sell, price-based retail advertising around the holidays. That's what you're surrounded with, and I will say that there are a few brands like John Lewis who have stepped outside of that to remind us there's more to the holiday season than getting the biggest discount. It's a time to think about ourselves, our families, the world around us, and for us it's also thinking about one of our core values."
"We said we wanted this to be something that during this time when people are being inundated with these hard-sell messages, can we give people a minute or two of just a really nice piece of entertainment that ties really tightly to something we believe strongly in at Apple?"
VP of marketing Cory Bayers on starting tough conversations, how the brand evaluates content, and turning up the volume on the environmental message: "If you're not creating a conversation, why are you even talking? Brands talk a lot about cutting through the clutter, but a lot of times they're creating that clutter. It's about having a point of view and actually having a real conversation. Let's really talk about what we think a fair wage for a factory worker is, and where your clothing is made."
"We're not perfect either, we're always evolving, and we want to take the consumer along in that journey. Are we topical? Are you talking about it with your buddy over coffee? Are we part of the dialogue on our communities? If you're not and it's just another ad, we're not going to win that game. No one is really, it's just more clutter. That's an arms race, and I don't think it's the future of marketing, outspending one another, or 'My ad is better than your ad.' That's ridiculous. Give me something I can sink my teeth into as a customer, that I can get educated and make informed decisions, make a difference, and maybe change someone's perspective. And that applies to us to. We ask, 'Can anyone's logo be on that?' If the answer is yes, then throw it out. What problems can we uniquely solve for our customers? If it doesn't answer that question, it's not worth doing."
National Geographic Partners CEO Declan Moore on the doc Before the Flood, and the 120-year-old brand's shift back to smart science: "Look at Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk—he’s a superstar with millennials and gen Zs. It’s not an age thing for people to be interested in this kind of stuff, if you make it fascinating. The curiosity gene is in all of us, and if you feed and satisfy that curiosity, that’s a tremendous opportunity to make a difference and create value."
Creative director Humberto Leon on how the brand's head-turning projects with Spike Jonze, Carrie Brownstein, and more reflect its overall vision: "When we talk about collaborating—which is almost an overused word—but it really is about having a partnership. Spike and I always talk about what we can dream up. We'll riff off each other—what if she did this, but what if that led to this—and we feed off each other. These are true conversations, starting from a really blank slate, and it's really about people coming together and dreaming up stuff. There's no storyboarding; there's no looking at other videos for reference. It's about trying to come into it with a pure eye, trying to figure out what we can do that would be really awesome, that we would get excited about and be jealous of."
"It's a simple approach, and we really try to come at it like kids playing around. It also marks where we are as people, for us, for Spike, for Carrie. Where we are today and how do we do something that's new for us that's exciting?"
Head of content Larry Jackson on the kind of creative hub the brand is trying to foster both internally and with its marketing: "I've had this idea for a few years, that you could have this creative haven for artists, and there could be synergy among these people in the clubhouse, and this campaign is a perfect manifestation of that."
"That first ad, for example, the Drake and Future album was a one-week exclusive on Apple Music, they're both in the clubhouse. To use that song, from that album by two guys who wear the jersey, in that commercial, was such a symbiotic thing, and had such unspoken power because you've got Drake, Future, and Taylor, who are all part of the Apple Music family, so to speak. To have Drake and Future benefit from a commercial with Taylor made me really proud."
Chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon on how they've managed to keep body-slam storytelling going for more than 50 years: "I think any successful company with longevity has to continue to reinvent itself over and over. At our heart, what we are, we're storytelling. We have compelling stories because in order to invest in the characters and care whether they win or lose, you have to understand who they are. And you have to be able to relate to those characters, because ultimately, that's the best form of storytelling. We combine the best elements of reality shows, soap operas, drama, and action into one incredible show that never goes off the air. You can be engaged with WWE 24/7 if you want. We're always here for you. That's an unusual notion that doesn't exist with any other brand."
"When your mission is to put smiles on people's faces the world over, it's very clear. No matter how big and broad our company gets, it's a simple message and mission to embrace. Many companies have these crazy long mission statements, and I'm sure they're all trying to do wonderful things, but you need to be able to simplify your brand message in order to stay on point. The more you grow, the bigger you become, the simpler your message needs to get."
Netscout chief marketing officer Jim McNeil on making brand content with Werner Herzog, and the technological times we live in: "It's a big challenge when you hire a man who's been called a Director of Dread to help position your company in the industry. For people to understand that there's value in being a thought leader and beginning an important conversation without making it all about you. That's a leap, especially for literal engineering types. So I've been at the brink of having this thing pulled out from under me at least four or five times in a very significant way. But we were able to muscle through."
"We have some of the brightest engineers on the planet, but this idea is bigger than our tech industry. We're living in a historical time. People who grew up in the Renaissance didn't realize that everything was changing around them, it was just a really cool time to be alive. Right now, we're on this timeline of change that is accelerating that people can't truly comprehend because we're all moving along with it. What's coming in the next 5 to 10 years is going to blow people's minds."
Gatorade senior vice-president and general manager Brett O'Brien on how the brand approaches new innovation without straying from its core mission: "We could get into the wearable space, we could say we’re going to go create a band of some kind that you wear that monitors sweat and thus leads to a hydration solution. We could get into the app world and make a hydration app. But how is Gatorade being used right now and how do we make your hydration solution more effective?"
"Instead of hoping you go buy something else that will then lead you to drink something out of that squeeze bottle, how do we make sure that squeeze bottle is the most effective tool for hydration as possible? And that squeeze bottle is telling you what you need, and how much you need it? It may be that it communicates with a wearable or an app, but we don’t have to create those, what we do need to make is the vessel with which you consume Gatorade. For us it was a pretty easy move to put our focus there because it’s an area we feel some ownership of—on the sidelines, just adding a new element to it."
Axe senior marketing director Matthew McCarthy on shifting the brand image from skirt-chasing to self-confidence: "Perhaps in the past, the idea that a guy needs to project a certain outward appearance as being most important, the seismic change lies in the individuality of personal style as key to a guy feeling attractive. I think that attractiveness and confidence are still a lot of what this brand is all about, but now what makes this exciting is basically we’re relaunching the brand around this idea of individuality. That’s how we distill the idea and optimism of the brand, the freedom that guys now feel, and want to step into more than ever."
Lego senior design manager Joakim Kørner Nielsen on how the brand turns ideas into toys: "When shaping the business opportunity, we explore the creative and play experience, bouncing ideas back and forth so in the end we have something that works for the business but also has a really cool concept and story that works creatively. That process is much longer for a project like this, as opposed to a smaller scale because there are more players involved and needed to be taken into account—TV partners, the digital dimension, app development, scanning technology—all these things that need to be considered in the planning. At some point it all lines up and you have this vision for the IP."
Beats by Dre
Executive vice-president of marketing Jason White on basing the brand's ad strategy on real athlete insights: "'The Seven Nation Army chant and the chest beat. Both are real. They exist. They are the behaviors of the biggest athletes and the most passionate fans on the planet. They are inseparable from sports biggest moments. We've never asked our athletes to act. Just to be honest and to be athletes. This was no different. They knew the emotional place we wanted to go, and they knew the behavior inherently. It was effortless because it was true."
GE’s global chief creative officer Andy Goldberg on why the brand decided to try its hand at podcasts (resulting in the sci-fi hit The Message): "This was about experimenting in a different platform, doing it well and doing it first. To be there and resurrecting GE Theater, gives us an arm to get into this—we’ve been telling great stories for a long time, but this elevates the level of storytelling we can do under the GE Theater umbrella, and gives us an opening to more narratives, more long-form, and more content, in general."
"It opened up a new story medium for us, something we hadn’t done, and with a new audience. Not necessarily a different audience—they may be engaging with us in other ways—but sometimes when you engage with an audience in a different form it takes on a whole new association, which is good."