Ten Big Marketing Risks That Paid Off for Brands

Liodice Continues His Series by Looking at How Breaking Boundaries Helped These Companies Get Ahead

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Bob Liodice
Bob Liodice
Marketers consistently push the envelope, hoping that novel ideas will yield stellar results for their brands. Companies attempt to break through boundaries previously set by competitors or, sometimes, themselves. Risk-taking, of course, is both exciting and scary. Deciding which lines to cross is never an exact science. Every decision demands that marketers weigh risks and rewards, but ultimately, without the risks, brands never achieve the best rewards. Below are 10 brands that took risks in their marketing practices and campaigns and proudly lived to tell about them.

Ads and brand mentions during radio programming appeared in the very early stages of the medium. Programs were often interrupted to allow for station identification and to give proper billing to advertisers. New ways for companies to advertise on the radio appeared in the mid-1920s when the National Carbon Company's "The Eveready Hour" became the first broadcast series to be entirely sponsored. The idea came when George Furness heard a book being read on-air and imagined the possibilities of continuous radio programming, and how advertising could fit into that vision. He went on to become the producer and supervisor of "The Eveready Hour," a show created to showcase American culture.

Lucky Strike sought a motive for the female market to smoke. In doing so, the American Tobacco Co. took on an unlikely competitor: candy. The brand's campaign encouraged women to "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet." The National Confectioners Association launched anti-smoking literature in response. The industry rivalries led the FTC to investigate. To fight back, American Tobacco allocated $12.3 million for advertising, an unprecedented amount in 1929, equal to more than $155 million today. Despite great effort, the FTC banned the idea of marketing cigarettes as a weight-loss aid and Lucky Strike amended its campaign to the more innocuous, "Reach for a Lucky instead."

In 1953, the famous brewery attempted to buy the naming rights to Sportsman's Park, occupied by the St. Louis Cardinals, and to identify it as "Budweiser Stadium." Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick rejected this first suggestion but eventually accepted the second proposed title, "Busch Stadium." Named for one of Anheuser-Busch's founders, Adolphus Busch, this was the origin of stadium sponsorships in the United States. After the name was approved, Anheuser-Busch released a product called Busch Bavarian Beer, now Busch beer, to complement the stadium's moniker. Its success paved the way for the stadium sponsorships we know today.

The Volkswagen Beetle was a small, economic vehicle, with comfort and power. While most advertisers in the 1960s used information-heavy text or fantastical ads to sell products, DDB went against the norm to advertise this unique car. VW appealed to consumers' sensibilities, using emotion and product benefits in clear, concise ways that had never been attempted before. Single words and short phrases such as "Think small" accompanied simple product imagery. The distinctive format of the advertisements and DDB's new agency model, where creative departments and copywriters worked side by side, were the start of what is now known as the creative revolution.

According to the Los Angeles Times, "the groundbreaking 'Pepsi Generation' advertisements launched in 1963 profoundly changed the direction of marketing. It focused on the attributes of people who buy Pepsi, rather than attributes of the product." The brand targeted baby boomers, showcasing energetic, young consumers enjoying Pepsi as they went about their athletic, fun-filled lifestyles. Coca-Cola and Pepsi had already been competitors, and for the next 30 years the two would fiercely battle on the advertising stage. The "Cola Wars" defined the soft-drink category for decades.

In the early 1960s, Avis had spent 13 years in the red and in second place in the rental-car industry. Robert C. Townsend, Avis' new president, hired DDB to right its business model. Bill Bernbach told the brand to first revamp customer service and improve its product. During the initial collaborative efforts, a gem of an answer was given in response to the question, "Why does anybody ever rent a car from you?" The answer: "We try harder because we have to." This, and acknowledgment of its No. 2 status, became the tagline for Avis. "We're No. 2. We try harder," was risky as a campaign, but the brand's honest, fresh approach used frank facts about the company's business philosophy.

When Mars Inc. was approached by the producers of a new movie who wished to use M&M's in their film, it declined to participate. The movie integration fell into the hands of the candy most similar to it, Reese's Pieces. Hershey Foods Corp. VP Jack Dowd gauged the opportunity, made sure that it was not a "monster film," and approved the use of the product as the means to lure an alien creature into a boy's home. This became one of the first, most well-known and successful examples of product integration within a movie. In the few weeks following the release of the blockbuster, "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial," sales of Reese's Pieces grew by 65%.

Before the days of Facebook and Twitter, AOL dominated the internet world. AOL's onslaught of mailing CD-ROMs and disks to homes and businesses in the late 1990s and early 2000s is still one of the most well-known marketing pushes and led AOL to become the No. 1 internet company. Collecting the disks became a hobby for some, while others rallied against the practice. With the disks and CDs flooding mailboxes, protest groups formed. In 2007 the CDs were given the undesirable top spot on PCWorld's list of most annoying tech products. Despite this, the AOL CDs were deemed a huge success for the company, as AOL soon took the reins as the biggest internet service provider in the world.

With social media on the rise, brands find themselves relinquishing more control to consumers. Nobody has done that in a bigger way than Doritos. In 2007, the brand launched a contest inviting consumers to "Crash the Super Bowl." It solicited consumer-generated ads for Doritos, asked the world to vote and planned to crown a winner whose 30-second ad would air during Super Bowl XLI. The 2009 contest came with a bonus of $1 million for the winner if the video took the top spot in the post-game advertising polls. For the 2010 Super Bowl, the contest morphed into a 60-second music-video contest featuring a band chosen by visitors to CrashtheSuperBowl.com.

When Burger King looked to promote its TenderCrisp sandwich in a way that supported its "Have It Your Way" tagline, the fast feeder turned to Crispin Porter & Bogusky for help. The agency brought in The Barbarian Group to create a viral-marketing website that risked Burger King's brand image, then quickly rewarded the marketer with a loyal group of young followers. There were upwards of 300 commands to which the Subservient Chicken would respond, and consumers flocked to the site to test them out. Since it debuted in 2004, almost half a billion consumers have interacted with the Subservient Chicken.

Bob Liodice is president-CEO of the ANA. This is the fifth in a series of 10 columns he's writing in celebration of the ANA's 100th anniversary.
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