I’ve always been a little leery of proclaiming anything "the best." I never declared anyone my best friend as a kid because I was afraid my other friends might assume I thought less of them.
So it was a little difficult for me to come up with just one "best" marketing campaign of all time -- which is why there are 12 in this post instead.
Why are these 12 marketing campaigns some of the best of all time? Because of the impact they had on the growth of the brand, and because they manage to hit on some universal truth that allows us to remember these campaigns years after they first began. In fact, some of us might not have even been alive when these campaigns first aired!
But first ... what is an advertising campaign?
An advertising campaign is a group of ads centralized around one message. They often use many different marketing channels to get this idea across. The timing of these campaigns are also very clearly defined.
So here they are, in no particular order (but feel free to let us know which one is your favorite in the comments) -- 12 of the best marketing and advertising campaigns of all time, and the lessons we can learn from them.
12 of the Best Marketing & Ad Campaigns (And What Made Them Successful)
1) Nike: Just Do It.
Did you know that, once upon a time, Nike's product catered almost exclusively to marathon runners? Then, a fitness craze emerged -- and the folks in Nike's marketing department knew they needed to take advantage of it to surpass their main competitor, Reebok. (At the time, Reebok was selling more shoes than Nike). And so, in the late 1980s, Nike created the "Just Do It." campaign.
It was a hit.
In 1988, Nike sales were at $800 million; by 1998, sales exceeded $9.2 billion. "Just Do It." was short and sweet, yet encapsulated everything people felt when they were exercising -- and people still feel that feeling today. Don’t want to run five miles? Just Do It. Don’t want walk up four flights of stairs? Just Do It. It's a slogan we can all relate to: the drive to push ourselves beyond our limits.
So when you're trying to decide the best way to present your brand, ask yourself what problem are you solving for your customers. What solution does your product or service provide? By hitting on that core issue in all of your marketing messaging, you'll connect with consumers on an emotional level that is hard to ignore.
2) Absolut Vodka: The Absolut Bottle
Despite having no distinct shape, Absolut made its bottle the most recognizable bottle in the world. Their campaign, which featured print ads showing bottles "in the wild," was so successful that they didn’t stop running it for 25 years. It's the longest uninterrupted ad campaign ever and comprises over 1,500 separate ads. I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
When the campaign started, Absolut had a measly 2.5% of the vodka market. When it ended in the late 2000s, Absolut was importing 4.5 million cases per year, or half of all imported vodka in the U.S.
So what’s a marketer's lesson here? No matter how boring your product looks, it doesn’t mean you can’t tell your story in an interesting way. Let me repeat: Absolut created 1500 ads of one bottle. Be determined and differentiate your product in the same way.
3) Miller Lite: Great Taste, Less Filling
Think it's easy to create a whole new market for your product? The Miller Brewing company (now MillerCoors) did just that with the light beer market -- and they dominated it. The goal of the "Great Taste, Less Filling" campaign was getting "real men" to drink light beer, but they were battling the common misconception that light beer can never actually taste good. Taking the debate head-on, Miller featured masculine models drinking their light beer and declaring it great tasting.
For decades after this campaign aired, Miller Lite dominated the light beer market they'd essentially created. What’s the lesson marketers can learn? Strive to be different. If people tell you there isn’t room for a product, create your own category so you can quickly become the leader.
4) Volkswagen: Think Small
Many marketing and advertising professionals like to call Volkswagen's "Think Small" campaign the gold standard. Created in 1960 by a legendary advertising group at Doyle Dane & Bernbach (DDB), the campaign set out to answer one question: How do you change peoples' perceptions not only about a product, but also about an entire group of people?
See, Americans always had a propensity to buy big American cars -- and even 15 years after WWII ended, most Americans were still not buying small German cars. So what did this Volkswagen advertisement do? It played right into the audience’s expectations. You think I’m small? Yeah, I am. They never tried to be something they were not.
That's the most important takeaway from this campaign: Don’t try to sell your company, product, or service as something it’s not. Consumers recognize and appreciate honesty.
5) Marlboro: Marlboro Man
The Marlboro Man ads, which began running as early as 1955, represented the power of a brand when it creates a lifestyle around its product. Want to be free? Want to be a man? Want to be on the open range? That was the very definition of a Marlboro Man. The ads were effective because they captured an ideal lifestyle to which many men aspired at the time.
The lesson here? Remember that whatever you're selling needs to fit somehow into your audience's lifestyle -- or their idealized lifestyle.
6) California Milk Processor Board: Got Milk?
Thanks to the California Milk Processor Board's "Got Milk?" campaign, milk sales in California rose 7% in just one year. But the impact ran across state borders, and to this day, you still can't escape the millions of “Got [Fill-in-the-Blank]?” parodies.
Note, though, that the ad didn't target people who weren’t drinking milk; but instead focused on the consumers who already were. The lesson here? It's not always about getting a brand new audience to use your products or services -- sometimes, it's about getting your current audience to appreciate and use your product more often. Turn your audience into advocates, and use marketing to tell them why they should continue to enjoy the product or service you are already providing for them.
7) Dove: Real Beauty
"Imagine a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety." That's the tagline for Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign, which has been turning heads since its launch in 2004. It's a simple but effective approach to persona marketing: They created ads around a topic they knew was sensitive but meaningful to their customers.
For example, in their Real Beauty Sketches campaign, they created ads around a social experiment in which an FBI-trained sketch artist was asked to draw a female volunteers twice: First, as each woman described herself and the second time, as a random stranger described her. The images that were drawn were completely different, and Dove accompanied this finding with a compelling statistic that only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.
The results? The different videos showing Dove's sketches were viewed more than 114 million times, shared 3.74 million times, uploaded in 25 languages, and seen in 110 countries. The PR and blogger media impression amounted to over 4 billion. It clearly resonated with their audience -- and people were touched both by the ads and by the statistics Dove used to back up their message.
8) Apple: Get a Mac
While there have been many great Apple campaigns, this one takes the cake. The Mac vs. PC debate ended up being one of the most successful campaigns ever for Apple, and they experienced 42% market share growth in its first year. The campaign tells Mac's audience everything they need to know about their product without being overt -- and they did it in a clever way.
A key takeaway here? Just because your product does some pretty amazing things doesn’t mean you need to hit your audience over the head with it. Instead, explain your product’s benefits in a relatable way so consumers are able to see themselves using it. (And if you're curious about Microsoft and Apple's ad wars through history, check out this blog post.)
9) Clairol: Does She or Doesn’t She?
The first time Clairol asked this question in 1957, the answer was 1 to 15 -- as in, only 1 in 15 people were using artificial hair color. Just 11 years later, the answer was 1 of 2, according to TIME Magazine. The campaign was apparently so successful that some states stopped requiring women to denote hair color on their driver’s license. When your ad campaign starts changing things at the DMV, you know you've hit a nerve.
Clairol did the opposite of what most marketers would do: They didn’t want every woman on the street running around saying they were using their product. They wanted women to understand that their product was so good that people wouldn’t be able to tell if they were using it or not.
The lesson here: Sometimes, simply conveying how and why your product works is enough for consumers. Showing becomes more effective than telling.
10) De Beers: A Diamond is Forever
In 1999, AdAge declared De Beers' "A Diamond is Forever" the most memorable slogan of the twentieth century. But the campaign, which proposed (pun very much intended) the idea that no marriage would be complete without a diamond ring, wasn't just riding on the coattails of an existing industry. De Beers actually built the industry; they presented the idea that a diamond ring was a necessary luxury.
According to the New York Times, N.W. Ayer's game plan was to "create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring."
The lesson here? Marketing can make a relatively inexpensive product seem luxurious and essential.
11) Old Spice: The Man Your Man Could Smell Like
The very first part of Old Spice's "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign, created by Wieden + Kennedy and launched in February 2010, was the following commercial. It became a viral success practically overnight:
That video has over 51 million views as of this writing. Several months later, in June 2010, Old Spice followed up with a second commercial featuring the same actor, Isaiah Mustafa. Mustafa quickly became "Old Spice Guy," a nickname Wieden + Kennedy capitalized on with an interactive video campaign in which Mustafa responded to fans' comments on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media websites with short, personalized videos.
In about two days, the company had churned out 186 personalized, scripted, and quite funny video responses featuring Mustafa responding to fans online. According to Inc, these videos saw almost 11 million views, and Old Spice gained about 29,000 Facebook fans and 58,000 new Twitter followers.
"We were creating and sending miniature TV commercials back to individual consumers that were personalized, and we were doing it on a rapid-fire basis," Jason Bagley, creative director at Wieden + Kennedy and a writer for the campaign, "No one expects to ask a question and then be responded to. I think that's where we broke through."
The lesson here? If you find your campaign's gained momentum with your fans and followers, do everything you can to keep them engaged while keeping your messaging true to your brand's voice and image.
12) Wendy’s: Where’s the Beef?
Is it enough to say this campaign was successful because it featured a giant hamburger bun and a cute set of old ladies? No? I didn’t think so.
Wendy’s took a more gutsy approach in this marketing campaign: They targeted their competitors. The simple phrase "Where's the beef?" was used to point out the lack of beef in their competitors' burgers -- and it quickly became a catch phrase that encapsulated all that was missing in their audience's lives.
While you can’t predict when will catch on and when it won’t, Wendy’s (wisely) didn’t over-promote their hit phrase. They only ran the campaign for a year, and allowed it to gently run its course. The lesson here: Be careful with your campaigns' success and failures. Just because you find something that works doesn't mean you should keep doing it over and over to the point it's played out. Allow your company to change and grow, and you may find that you can have even greater success in the future by trying something new.