NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Each year, Ad Age awards one top marketer judged to outperform the rest. The past two years, we left the choice up to senior marketing executives, but this year, dear reader, we are turning this important decision over to you.
Ad Age's editors and reporters have done the spadework, narrowing the list of choices to five marketers we deemed most adept at navigating what -- to understate -- has been a tough year. The selection will be interesting, since each of these companies handles its brand in different ways and each suggests a different way ahead for the art and science of marketing in a time of great flux. It's up to you to tell us which you think has been most successful in 2009, worthy of joining recent Ad Age winners such as the Obama campaign (2008), Apple (2007) and Toyota (2006). Voting ends Wednesday, Oct. 21, and the victor will be announced in the Nov. 9 issue.
Here are your choices.
Amazon: Customer Service as Marketing
Far from a marketer in any traditional sense, Amazon has just about no ad budget and a tiny internal marketing operation. Instead of trying to penetrate consumer consciousness with a barrage of TV ads, it's focused on developing a supreme customer service on a massive scale. As a result, shopping at Amazon is a seamless experience and just about everyone knows it. And that kind of awareness is gold in a day when bad products and services are outed immediately, regardless of the media budget or creative idea propping them up. Keeping prices low (though not too low, even in these hard times) and shipping deals sweet has -- no surprise -- resonated with recessionary customers. Revenue was up 16% over the first half of 2009 as Amazon consistently beat expectations.
While big-brand blasts aren't its style, Amazon does do cool things that hit home with tastemakers. The retailer won plenty of plaudits for its frustration-free packaging, meant to do away with those annoying plastic clamshell containers. And, of course, its Kindle e-reader has helped build the category in the mind of consumers, something competitors Sony and Barnes & Noble are now trying to take advantage of.
In 2009, Amazon also snatched up what's likely to go down as one of the smartest deals of the year, laying out more than $800 million to buy Zappos, which should pay huge dividends, both in terms of bolstering Amazon in the clothing and shoe sales, and in continuing to build out a culture based first and foremost on the customer.
Hyundai: Bold Assurances
What can aggressive marketing do for you during recession? Just ask Hyundai. In September the Korean auto giant enjoyed 27% sales gains while the market fell over 23%. Amid the worst auto market in decades, so far in 2009 it's managed to expand its share by nearly a third, to around 5% of the market.
Of course, critics will say that 5% is still relatively small beans, but Hyundai is building the kind of marketing machine that has even the most cynical ad-watchers expecting further growth. This isn't simply a story of bludgeoning consumers with a bigger media budget (although that certainly hasn't hurt): In 2009, Hyundai has gone from advertising also-ran to trendsetter. The brave and smart Hyundai Assurance push confronted the recession head-on, telling consumers they could give their Hyundai back if they lost their jobs. And now the automaker has launched an effort aimed at those who have old cars that didn't quite make the cut as clunkers -- another wise response to market conditions.
The automaker still faces some major tests in the U.S., not least of which is launching the Equus into the luxury car market next year, a move that will test the elasticity of a brand that is probably still generally perceived as being about value. But, with a PR operation that's done a great job of communicating the ever-improving quality of its vehicles -- and the advertising smarts it has shown in 2009 -- you start to believe that today's Hyundai can pull off even those high-tariff marketing maneuvers.
Lego: Always Listening
Deep into a video-game era, Lego should have long ago seen its empire of bricks reduced to heaps of multicolored plastic rubble, and apocalypse did almost come to Legoland. In 2004, losses totaled nearly $300 million, as the Danish company was caught between a past where children's playtime was all about using imagination and a present of "Rock Band," games, movies and TV shows that don't allow for stretching the imagination. Yet, in a relatively short time Lego has bounced back. Going against the grain of a toy industry in decline, Lego saw sales spike 18% last year and, in the first half of 2009, sales were up 23%.
Success has come along multiple fronts. First, Lego slashed the amount of time it takes to develop new toys and, more importantly, the toys it already makes, to gel well with contemporary culture, linked then to popular movies such as "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones." That means Lego's owners had to overcome a long-held resistance to creating movie-themed sets that often had violent accoutrement such as guns and knives. Now, by some estimates, licenses make up more than half of sales.
Listening might now be en vogue among Twitter and Facebook-obsessed marketers, but Lego was getting good at it before it was fashionable to court the opinion of consumers. The other thing Lego has done is to stop viewing the large population of adults who love its brand as an oddity to be ignored. Now the company has a big presence at events involving grown-up fans and has 44 ambassadors around the world who seek out the community's input. The company is also investing in its retail presence, expanding to 47 stores by year's end and it's designing a board game and developing a movie.
McDonald's: Redefining Value
In 2009, McDonald's redefined value for the fast-food industry, teaching that it isn't synonymous with dollar items. While McDonald's has owned that cheapest of propositions, it's also done a series of campaigns behind core full-price menu items, such as Big Mac and Chicken McNuggets, that resulted in double-digit sales gains each time -- extra impressive at a time when consumer confidence is low. McDonald's even ditched the dollar cheeseburger, which has lowered overall percentage of value menu sales and left competitors fighting over how many things they can sell for a buck.
In raising the price of the double cheeseburger by 20 cents, the marketers threw franchisees a bone while they were forced to shell out for the McCafé renovations. It was a masterful stroke that meant the McCafé rollout was done on time, even a little early. In recent months, it's promoted premium products such as Angus and McCafé, the latter of which has essentially redefined the coffee category and will likely reduce the price of a decent cup of coffee in the future. In addition to helping the caffeine-addicted, McDonald's assuaged mothers by adding salads, grilled-chicken options and vanilla lattes, and by adding a moms' quality control panel. This winter, it's going after 7-Eleven with more bottled drinks and then setting its sights on healthier competitors by adding smoothies next year.
In the U.S., second-quarter same-store sales grew 3.5% and global same-store sales were up 5% at a time when many of the best-performing competitors were flat and the industry as a whole was down. McDonald's achievement is particularly dizzying because the chain is lapping many years of gains, some of them quite sizeable, and over a massive system.
Walmart: Recessionary Resource
When Vanity Fair and "60 Minutes" recently asked Americans which company best symbolizes America today, Walmart was the winner by a country mile. Of course, there aren't too many country miles free of the sprawling superstores. But ubiquity aside, Walmart has made great strides in doing more than just a growing an elephantine footprint used to stomp out suppliers and force mom-and-pop rivals out of business: It's become corporate America's recessionary resource in a time when it's most needed.
An ad campaign has driven the value message across at just the right time, when Walmart marketing has developed sophistication beyond simply low prices. It has increasingly applied analytics to maximize margin with an eye toward the fact that the retailer doesn't have to keep expanding price gaps (in some cases it can even narrow them) to win.
Walmart has winnowed lesser-performing brands from shelves, worked to get marketers to shovel more of their marketing dollars into Bentonville's own marketing budget, and restaged its Great Value brand. In short, it's having a massive impact on all the marketers who do business with it -- which is most of them.
Walmart has also been active on the digital front, launching a highly successful "Twilight" DVD almost entirely through social media and it is looking to expand the clout of its website, both by selling ads to vendors and bringing on new vendors to fill in gaps in the product offering. It's also pondering ways to harness the long tail both within and outside its stores via digital marketing.