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What happened to big, bold brand campaigns?

A large puzzle of an individual puzzle piece hovers over a pink background.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Getty / The Current

“Think different.”

So went Apple’s 1997 memorable exhortation to the masses that were considering their next computer purchase, heralding the company’s remarkable global ascent in the years that followed.

But that stroke of branding genius happened more than 25 years ago. When was the last time you came across an ad campaign that truly stuck with you?

You know the ones. “A diamond is forever.” “Real beauty.” “Just do it.” These campaigns made a clear case that investments in branding can pay off big time when executed at scale — and with some flair.

However, it seems that recently, marketers may have abandoned the path of splashy global brand campaigns that appear to address everyone. In the last few years, brands have instead turned to the easily quantifiable ROI that performance marketing promises, exemplified by the growth of Google’s and Meta’s platforms. And as audiences scattered across search, social, video, and streaming, it became clear that the big, splashy, one-size-fits-all global ad just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

This all comes as a new crop of channels emerges, one that delivers both the benefits of brand-building (like awareness and loyalty) and those of performance marketing (like measurable results). This new crop is focused on connected TV (CTV) as well as programmatic digital out-of-home (DOOH) and audio advertising, all of which can satisfy marketers’ need for data while providing canvases for unforgettable advertising moments.

This shift could allow marketers to finally merge two schools of advertising, although the new era of big, bold brand campaigns is set to look very different from it’s previous one. This will be especially evident in the age of generative AI and hyper-personalization, which is expected to further fragment consumers’ advertising experiences.

“Today, it’s about being noticed and meaning something to specific audiences and communities,” David Proudlock, chief strategy officer at CPB London, tells The Current. “For example, I didn’t even see the Nike World Cup advert until Cannes. But I’m in my 40s and not meant to. It doesn’t make it any less big or bold.”

Moving past performance marketing

Industry leaders speaking to The Current were unanimous that performance marketing’s appeal rests on the fact that many marketers only pay when a certain outcome is achieved, as opposed to a linear TV ad where measuring performance is largely an estimation.

But the shift to capturing clicks and sales in the present has resulted in forgoing brand-building for the future, driving a “hugely damaging and, sometimes, from a business and commercial point of view, fatal obsession with the short term,” says Dan Cullen-Shute, CEO at creative agency Creature.

In a world where almost anyone can launch their own brand via social media or online e-commerce platforms, developing a strong brand is becoming more, not less, important. “Now many of these brands are starting to pay the consequences of focusing too much on the short-term, as these short-term outcomes are more difficult to achieve year after year due to the lack of long-term brand investment,” says Agustin Crespo, head of addressable media at Dentsu GAM.

Indeed, even for fast-growing companies relying on performance marketing to acquire customers, it could pay to invest in their brand early on. “[A performance-first approach] is where startups and scale-ups thrive, until they smash face-first into the glass ceiling of growth-deceleration, and realize they’re addicted to PPC [pay per click] as they buy the CEO of Google a new Tesla every week,” says Cullen-Shute.

The importance of branding is perhaps most apparent in a time of inflation and shrinking customer purchasing power. Proudlock says the brands with the strongest recognition are the ones that have most wiggle room with consumers when it comes to price.

“Brand investment creates the future conditions to make conversion more efficient. It cuts through the clutter to get a brand noticed and remembered. Fail to be remembered at the point of purchase and you may as well not exist,” he adds.

Niche is the new big

In a world of fragmented media and ever-increasing advertising channels, it may seem that the days of big, bold brand campaigns are forever behind us. But that is not the case, industry leaders say — they may just look different.

“They’re populist, entertaining, universally appealing, with a fundamental insight at their heart. What’s new about them is that they must now dominate multiple channels and platforms, not just one or two, and they can never fully switch off,” says James Appleby, planning director at isobel.

Interestingly, it may be TV, or rather CTV, where the new battles for brand relevance will be fought. As the streaming giants that displaced linear broadcasters start placing their bets on ad-supported streaming, the sheer volume of content out there is already creating pockets of consumers that will benefit from a nuanced branding approach.

In this respect, the arrival of authenticated advertising opportunities within premium CTV content is already delivering the kind of granular, measurable insights previously reserved for Big Tech’s platforms.

“What’s needed is a form of performance-up approach: where short-term, data-driven, performance marketing is balanced with a longer-term, brand-building view, and the split gradually shifts over time,” says Cullen-Shute.

Some brands are already making strides toward this bold brand marketing of the future. Airbnb and eBay are among those to have reduced their investment in performance marketing recently and funneled that money toward branding efforts, with positive results.

“We just all need to recognize that the shape of a brand campaign has changed, and will continue to change — and, excitingly, it will need to exist in more and more places, from telly to TikTok, as tech opportunities and real people behavior continue to shift,” says Cullen-Shute.

“The winners in all of this, on agency and brand side, will be the ones who recognize that, and get excited about what could be rather than sad about what’s no longer exactly the same as it was.”

Think different, indeed.