From funny tweets to guerilla marketing campaigns gone viral, 2017 was an impressive year for creative marketing. We saw Wendy’s vie for chicken nuggets, Patagonia save public lands and American Express master content creation, all for the sake of brand promotion. The best marketing strategies of the year fall into four primary categories: content marketing, mission-driven marketing, viral marketing and brand-based storytelling. Undeniably, these are the most useful and powerful branding approaches of the moment.
Besides the fact that they all garnered positive responses, these campaigns all have one thing in common–they worked overtime to bridge the gap between consumer and business. When a company is telling you exactly how much a product costs to make or is providing you with a personalized playlist that you’d probably make yourself, it feels more like a friend than a corporate entity. As a result, each of these companies contributes to the case for authenticity. The more authentic and approachable the strategy, the more successful the brand.
The Kings of Content Marketing
If you’re weighing different ways to promote your brand, there’s no better strategy than content marketing. With a relatively high ROI and a massive consumer engagement factor, killer content has the power to revolutionize a company’s image. Here are some of the best content marketing strategies from last year.
- American Express — The world’s largest credit card issuer is no stranger to smart marketing. Think Small Business Saturday and, back in the 1980s, “Don’t leave home without it.” Nowadays, the company is setting standards in the world of content marketing with the American Express OPEN Forum providing valuable, shareable and wanted content to consumers. The OPEN Forum includes insight, inspiration and advice for small business owners, and its developers say almost every piece is produced because business owners asked them for it.
- General Electric — GE is another top-tier performer when it comes to content marketing, and it was one of the first to recognize that content goes beyond the written word. It was responsible for the super-popular eight-part podcast series “The Message” back in 2015, and it hasn’t stopped pumping out useful content since. Now, GE stands as a solid example of smart content marketing for business-to-business and business-to-consumer efforts, with its GE Reports blog setting a new standard for content marketers.
- Airbnb — The hot hospitality platform known as Airbnb made a pretty hefty investment into content marketing in the past year. Not only did they unveil AirbnbMag —an in-print and online travel magazine—in partnership with Hearst, they also funneled some major funds into their Experiences department, adding coverage to 200 more cities. The goal for Airbnb is to become a thought leader not only in the realm of hospitality, but also travel and culture. By taking a broader approach and covering things like food, architecture and design, Airbnb stands to draw in loyalists from various spaces.
- Casper — Say what you will about mail-order mattresses, but these companies are no sleepers when it comes to content marketing. Our favorite example comes from Van Winkle’s , the digital publication from disruptive mattress-maker Casper. What’s unique about Van Winkle’s compared to every other company blog out there is that it prioritizes magazine-quality content. Take, for example, the Theresa Fisher piece titled “What Happens to Our Sleep in Various Stages of Love?” By zooming out and not limiting itself to works that drone on about the same old sleep-related topics, Casper earned serious points–not only among marketers, but among curious readers, too.
Mission-Driven Marketing Masters
More and more studies suggest that consumers, especially millennials, want to feel like what they’re buying has a connection to something greater and more meaningful . Younger buyers favor companies that prioritize social and political causes, and some brands definitely got the memo in 2017. They funneled more money into charitable efforts and corporate social responsibility–something that helped bolster their overall brand images.
- REI — REI did something pretty revolutionary in 2016 and 2017: It asked its employees and customers to go outside. As part of its #OptOutside campaign, the company closed its doors on one of the most popular shopping days of the year (Black Friday) and invited its 12,000-plus employees to spend time outside instead. Proving that mission-based marketing has a domino effect, Subaru joined in on the #OptOutside movement and dispatched 30 vehicles to transport shelter dogs and to support the ASPCA on Black Friday.
- Patagonia — For Patagonia, cause-based marketing isn’t a trend; it’s something that’s been deeply rooted in the brand’s mission since day one. Last year, though, it launched The Cleanest Line, a blog that shares stories about the environment and keeps customers clued into where the brand stands on certain issues. It’s also the face of Protect Public Lands, a facet of the company that helps preserve public parks and establish national monuments. Last year, that was particularly important in the effort to save Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.
- Everlane — Billing itself as “radically transparent,” San Francisco-based clothier Everlane has gained a lot of positive attention for one simple factor: It shares its pricing model with its customers. Every piece of clothing comes with a transparent pricing guide that lays out how much it cost to make—materials, hardware, labor, duties, transport and company profit—so buyers know where every dollar goes and how much the company profits. They also got radical in 2017 with real model details that let shoppers see info about the size of the model displaying a piece of clothing.
- Tesla — It should come as no surprise that Elon Musk’s eco-friendly car company is exemplary of brands with a purpose. This year, the company officially launched into the building phase of the Tesla Gigafactory, a Reno battery factory powered by a combination of on-site solar, wind and geothermal energy sources. And then, later in the year, it announced that it would help to build the world’s biggest virtual power plant, which is designed to make energy go further in parts of the world where it’s notoriously limited and unreliable. Although these projects aren’t marketing campaigns per se, their viral factor allows them to serve that purpose, too.
Viral Campaigns We Shared and Shared Again
Even though consumers care a whole lot about mission, they also love a little bit of fun. The proof is in the viral marketing campaigns they produced last year. Some of our favorite brands got super-creative in the social networking world, with hilarious tweets that served an important purpose: giving brands some real personality.
- Wendy’s — The creator of the Junior Bacon Cheeseburger got some serious social points last year with the massively viral #NuggsforCarter campaign. It all started when a 16-year-old Twitter user named Carter tweeted at Wendy’s asking how many retweets it would take for the restaurant to bless him with a free year of chicken nuggets. Wendy’s swiftly replied with a number: 18 million. The tweet surpassed Ellen’s Oscar selfie as the most-retweeted tweet of all-time. That’s a lot of free marketing! If you’re wondering, Carter got his nuggets, and the company made a $100,000 donation to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in his honor.
- Spotify — Everyone’s favorite digital music service may win the crown for 2017’s most creative viral marketing strategy–not once but twice. First, it unveiled Spotify Time Capsule, a personalized playlist giving every user a set of nostalgic throwbacks that he or she probably played on repeat in their teens and twenties (if you haven’t tried it, it’s remarkably accurate). Then, at the end of the year, the company boosted its annual Wrapped Campaign with personal playlists displaying each user’s year in music. Naturally, both campaigns got a whole lot of shares.
- KFC — Colonel Sanders is a master of viral marketing, and his 1.27 million Twitter followers are proof. Last year, KFC made some major waves in the world of social when a (seemingly) unaffiliated Twitter user pointed out that the company follows only 11 people on Twitter: five Spice Girls and six guys named Herb. “11 herbs and spices. I need to process this,” the tweet read. It was a nod to KFC’s original recipe containing 11 herbs and spices. The tweet nabbed over 319,000 retweets and 712,000 likes. The fried chicken maker graciously painted a portrait for the user who pointed it out.
- Domino’s — Why are companies in the food and beverage space so good at viral marketing? We don’t know, exactly, but we love their creative solutions. Case in point: In February of last year, Domino’s unveiled a new take on the traditional wedding registry—a registry for pizza. The Domino’s Wedding Registry allows engaged couples to register for Domino’s pizza—seriously, to-be married couples can request pizza delivery for the bachelor and bachelorette party, engagement party, wedding, honeymoon and just life in general. No surprise here, but the campaign instantly went viral.
Storytelling: Marketing’s Secret Weapon
Brand storytelling should be the foundation of a growth strategy, say the experts. This approach helps customers build authenticity and trust in a company, something that equals major gains in today’s business landscape. Brands told big stories through label design, omnichannel engagement and videos.
- SoulCycle — The cultish fitness brand knows a thing or two about how to capture engagement with solid storytelling. Traditionally bolstered by word-of-mouth advertising, in 2017, SoulCycle unveiled its very first official branding campaign, and it was impressive. Its Find It campaign focused on the company’s motivational aspect, highlighting the importance of finding yourself to achieve greatness. The new campaign also highlighted SoulCycle’s recent growth and evolution, a smart tactic considering it opened its 74th location last year.
- Charles Smith — Wine has always had a unique connection to storytelling. Part of that is because a massive 82 percent of consumers make their decisions about which type of wine to buy based on the bottle’s label, so it’s in a winemaker’s best interest to create product packaging that consumers get. Winemaker Charles Smith has been nailing story-based marketing through its labels since its inception, with bold labels that catch the consumer’s eye. Each bottle features an edgy black and white label with a design meant to convey the flavor and spirit of what’s inside. It’s story-based marketing with a visual twist.
- Nike — The cool thing about Nike is that since the debut of their very first pair of shoes back in 1964, the company has always understood how to pivot its marketing efforts to suit a particular climate. Nike’s always created exemplary work in the realm of brand storytelling–well, at least since it put out a revolutionary commercial showcasing the career of Michael Jordan back in 1999. Now, the shoemaker has shifted its focus to digital video, with an omnichannel approach. Its videos and stories extend across a myriad of channels—social, content marketing, TV commercials and beyond—for a unique, multi-channel approach to narrative marketing.
What can we conclude from this list of impressive marketing strategies? For one, consumers are no longer dazzled by the same old thing. Sometimes it takes a pizza registry or a motivational video to catch your audience’s attention. Secondly, it’s no longer enough to just inform the consumer. You have to be able to inspire them while you’re at it. And here’s the kicker: You must be able to do it in a way that’s authentic and that resonates with your target audience. When you take cues from the masters, though, you’ll be well on your way to a smart marketing approach that inspires and converts.