The 30 best creative brand moves of 2020
The turbulence of 2020 might have at times dampened our spirits, but it’s clear from looking back on the past year that creative ideas only flourished under all the strife and restrictions that upended our lives. Here, we revisit the strongest, most entertaining and most expertly executed brand moves of the last 12 months.
30. L’Oreal: Because self-care is self-worth
Agency: McCann Paris
Early on in the pandemic, with hair salons closed, L’Oréal had the genius idea of asking Eva Longoria to record herself dyeing her hair at her home in L.A. The actress filmed herself using two smart phones, with agency McCann Paris providing remote direction via Microsoft Teams. In a category rife with polished scenes of celebrities looking their finest (even when they're supposed to be doing "normal" things like washing their faces or applying makeup), the spot brought unexpected authenticity (her gray roots feature prominently) and struck a chord with the millions of viewers also resorting to home hairdos. The brand and agency had turned out other compelling messages this year, including a spot featuring a gripping speech from Viola Davis, but this one surprised with its new take on a genre gone stale with its conventions of perfection.
This year, we saw a slew of initiatives from brands and creatives conceiving inventive ways to get out the vote, but we particularly loved this cover series from New York Magazine, which pooled the talents of numerous artists including Shepard Fairey, Barbara Kruger, Laurie Simmons, KAWS and more to reconceive the “I Voted” sticker. A dozen stickers from different creatives were placed on four different covers, which gave voters something new to adorn themselves with each day. The initiative was created in partnership with civic engagement organization I Am a Voter, and it was one of the year’s finest examples of creativity for a cause.
28. Hellmann’s: Animal Crossing Island
Agency: Ogilvy Toronto
With physical gatherings off limits this year, people came together online to hang out and play games, and Nintendo’s Animal Crossing became one of the most popular places to be. Brands, naturally, started to take roost in the game with their own islands, but Unilever’s Hellmann’s used its presence to address the real-world problem of food insecurity during the pandemic. The campaign from Ogilvy Toronto let players drop off virtual turnips they are unable to sell at the Hellmann’s island and convert them into actual donated meals for Second Harvest Food Rescue. It was a great reminder that while the pandemic has millions of people bored at home, millions of others are struggling to pay for food and other necessities.
Babynames.com isn’t a big brand that does a ton of advertising, but the planning site for prospective parents caught our attention (and that of countless others) when it transformed its homepage in a statement of Black Lives Matter solidarity. The site went viral after it listed dozens of names of Black Americans who have died from police violence or at the hands of civilians, together with the message “Each one of these names was somebody’s baby.” In the wake of the death of George Floyd, it was one of the most unexpected and powerful Black Lives Matter statement to come from corporate America.
26. Libresse: Womb Stories
Agency: AMV BBDO
Much as Pixar’s “Inside Out” took human emotions and gave them characters, Libresse’s Womb Stories illustrates the internal landscape of women’s bodies, documenting the female experience by visualizing what’s going on inside the uterus. A worthy follow-up to the brand’s award-winning work like “Blood Normal” and “Viva La Vulva,” the project was helmed by “Girls” director Nisha Ganatra for AMV BBDO.
25. State Farm: ESPN ‘Last Dance’ Integration
Agency: ESPN CreativeWorks; Translation; Optimum Sports
The Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” was prime pandemic viewing, and State Farm was one of just four sponsors. To celebrate His Airness and the Bulls, ESPN’s in-house agency CreativeWorks, along with Translation and Optimum Sports, turned SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne into Nostradamus. With deepfake-like tech and new audio, the team created what appeared to be a SportsCenter segment from the late '90s showing a young Mayne predicting that the Bulls' greatness would lead to the very documentary viewers were watching. The spot hit the zeitgeist at just the right time and the VFX were believable enough to fool veteran fans.
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign hit the sweet spot with a pair of ads featuring a talking voting bubble and a helpful No. 2 pencil. Running just a few days before the election, the animated ads were spare but offered both humor and suspense in delivering their directive: If you want to shut the POTUS up, get out and vote. In the sea of political ads full of testimonials and archival footage, these stood out with their powerful simplicity.
23. NBA/Michelob Ultra/Microsoft: Courtside
Agency: FCB; Technology: Microsoft
Throughout the pandemic, sports leagues and brands came up with plenty of innovative ways to bring the game experience to fans at home—and even found sophisticated ways to bring the fans to the game. For the “Orlando Bubble” phase of the NBA season, the organization teamed up with Microsoft and Michelob Ultra to transport fans “virtually” to games via Microsoft Teams’ “Together Mode” and 17-foot screens that surrounded players on the court—just as real stadium seats do. Though the experience was a bit clunky (fans appeared larger than life and there was noticeable glitching in their movements) it was an ambitious idea that, when in-person games resume, could be a way to enhance participation by fans living miles away from their home teams.
22. New York MTA: Subway Map Redesign
Agency: Work & Co
An elegant solution to a decades-long design problem. Work & Co. reconceived the New York MTA’s subway map for the digital age with an interactive interface that combined the modernist simplicity of Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 concept with the information-rich system later conceived by Michael Hertz. The agency also tapped director Gary Hustwit, known for his acclaimed design-focused documentaries including “Helvetica” and “Objectified,” to capture the process.
It seemed that Lego had yet another moment in 2020. The brand continued its "Rebuild the World" campaign in 2020, a message that seemed particularly appropriate during a year filled with so many trials and so much strife. The brand's Christmas spot felt fortuitously timely when it broke the week of the U.S. election. It was the culmination of a superbly creative year for the company, punctuating the new social media platform, “Let’s Build Together,” designed to inspire locked-down families to make new Lego creations for improving the world in the pandemic. Some of these designs, such as a “Dream Hospital Treehouse” and a sustainable farm, were eventually showcased on a huge brick globe at Lego's Denmark headquarters.
While you can largely credit TikTok star Nathan Apodaca, aka @420doggface208, for propelling Ocean Spray into the spotlight with his chill performance riding his longboard while swigging the brand’s Cran-Raspberry juice and lip-syncing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” big props to the brand, too, for embracing him. After his video went viral, Ocean Spray rewarded him with plenty of juice and his own cranberry-colored truck. Never mind the risks that might be involved with a brand celebrating a self-professed cannabis lover who lives in a state where marijuana use is illegal. It was gravy when TikTok itself jumped on board with a new spot starring Apodaca and all his fans, including Mick Fleetwood.
In late May, when the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 reached 100,000, the New York Times eschewed numbers and graphs for a front-page listing of nearly 1,000 names of those whose lives were taken by the virus. It was a simple yet jarring way to shine light on the impact of coronavirus. The page dropped during Memorial Day weekend, a moment we typically dedicate to remembering those who sacrificed their lives while serving our country.
18. Apple: Shot on iPhone Vertical Cinema by Damien Chazelle
Agency: TBWA/Media Arts Lab
In August, when many of us were tired of heartfelt messages of hope and perseverance and just ready for some straight-up good advertising, Apple and TBWA/Media Arts Lab delivered with their most ambitious and captivating expression yet of the “Shot on iPhone” platform. They tapped “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle to create this sweeping, cinematic tour of Hollywood’s most beloved storytelling styles—all told in the vertical video format.
17. Facebook: We're never lost if we can find each other
Facebook’s poignant film by Droga5 was an example of a pandemic ad done right. Featuring both user-generated and photojournalistic footage of a world ravaged by COVID-19, it broke at the end of March—as we were all reeling from its first wave—and encapsulated some of the scenes, including health care workers and empty shelves, that would soon become familiar tropes. Yet the decision to set it all to a stirring spoken word track by British poet Kate Tempest helped it to rise above the sea of emotional sameness.
U.K. fashion brand Burberry re-imagined the iconic dance sequence from the classic film, “Singin' in the Rain,” with a spectacular modern twist. The contemporary performance by a diverse group of talents was set in an ice storm on the streets of London. The brand positioned it as an uplifting metaphor illustrating our resilience in the face of 2020's challenges. Directing collective Megaforce helmed the in-house spot, which was one of the year's creative highlights and topped our own "Most Popular" chart throughout the holiday season.
Most brands try to stay nonpartisan, but Patagonia wore its heart on its weatherproof sleeve—and elsewhere—this year. The environmentally conscious brand printed “Vote the Assholes Out” on the tag near the eponymous body part in one of its lines of shorts. If customers had any question about exactly which assholes needed to leave, the brand clarified that it was targeting deniers of climate change and science—which really couldn’t be clearer in a year like 2020.
14. Match.com: Match made in hell
Agency: Maximum Effort
In December, as this “dumpster fire” year was coming to a close, Ryan Reynolds created this hilarious spot for Match.com that summed up the past 12 months with the idea of Satan dating a woman named “2020.” Throughout the year, the Hollywood star and entrepreneur proved a modern-day marketing master with his production company, Maximum Effort, on campaigns for his brands Aviation Gin—including an ad featuring the provocative Homeschool Edition—and Mint Mobile, along with Rick Moranis. The Match ad saw Reynolds apply his talents to a big brand that was not his own. His company also went on to create a spot for Frida Mom that offered a no B.S. approach to the “fourth” trimester.
As agencies, marketers and organizations were in the midst of canceling or trying to rethink events and experiences during the pandemic, rapper Travis Scott went on a blockbuster tour—in Fortnite. Over five days in April, his “Astronomical” event saw more than 27 million unique players attend and set a benchmark for experiential marketing at a moment when it seemed experiential was out of the question.
In a highly coordinated effort, Epic Games poked fun at Apple with a biting parody of the brand’s legendary “1984” Super Bowl spot directed by Ridley Scott. A “Fortnite” version of the ad re-cast Apple as Big Brother, just as the video game publisher filed an antitrust lawsuit against the Cupertino, California-based company. It was a response to Apple’s ousting of “Fortnite” from the App Store after Epic added an in-app payment system within the game, circumventing Apple’s payment setup and giving gamers a discount. The lawsuit is ongoing (Facebook recently joined the battle in support of the game publisher), but Epic’s twist on such a seminal ad will surely go down as one of the ballsiest ad moves in modern marketing history.
Sometimes old media is the best way to get a point across. Twitter took the #BlackLivesmatter hashtag off the internet and onto the sides of buildings across the country, showcasing tweets about the movement in foot-high letters usually reserved for brands and business. Juneteenth tweets also got their own time to shine, with billboards featuring the #BlackJoy hashtag. It was a telling reminder that even though social media can reach far more people, there is a level of validation that print and out-of-home still provide. Subsequently, the brand went on to bring coronavirus safety Tweets to outdoor media, including a barge floating past Miami Beach.
10. Jeep: Groundhog Day
Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep Super Bowl spot, revisiting “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray reprising his iconic role alongside other actors from the classic movie, was the delight of the Big Game. Created out of Chicago agency Highdive and directed by Jim Jenkins of O Positive, it saw Murray having a raucous good time with the groundhog, because "No day is ever the same in a Jeep Gladiator." It delivered the surprise and entertainment audiences look for in a Super Bowl ad in an era when that goal has become increasingly difficult to achieve. Not surprisingly, it earned the top spot on USA Today's Admeter along with an Emmy nomination.
9. Uber: Delete Uber
Agency: Wieden and Kennedy
Protests against racial injustice became a common sight across the country this summer, and many brands shared messages of solidarity. Uber, though, asked people to delete its own app. The message was directed toward racists, encouraging them to stop using the platform (and noting that racism is against the service’s community guidelines). The campaign from Wieden and Kennedy included billboards in cities hosting protest marches and a co-sponsorship of one march in Washington, D.C. It followed Uber’s push from earlier in the year that similarly “sacrificed” the brand for the greater good, thanking users for not riding with Uber in their efforts to keep others safe during the pandemic.
8. Dove: Courage is beautiful
Agency: Ogilvy Canada
Dove campaigns are known for digging beneath the skin. But in the middle of a pandemic, the brand highlighted what the surface reveals in a campaign featuring the faces of health care workers, battered and marked up by wearing masks as they toiled away on the frontlines caring for COVID patients. The effort from Ogilvy Canada was a celebration of their courage in caring for patient after patient, all while under-equipped and in danger for their own lives. It also included donations of desperately needed funding and PPE.
7. McDonald’s: Favorite Meals
Agency: Wieden and Kennedy New York
Just ahead of the 2020 Super Bowl, McDonald’s debuted a simple, charming ad from Wieden and Kennedy New York featuring trays of its menu items representing the “favorite meals” of celebrities including Kanye West, Kim Kardashian West and Whoopi Goldberg, top athletes including Magic Johnson, Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce as well as fictional characters like its own Hamburglar and Dracula. Little did we know then that the spot was setting the stage for what promises to be an enduring platform. In September, McDonald’s formed a month-long partnership with hip hop star Travis Scott, putting his favorite meal on its actual menu board and featuring it in a dedicated spot. It consisted of a Quarter Pounder with cheese, bacon and lettuce, fries with barbecue sauce and a Sprite, and went on to become so popular that Golden Arches restaurants started to run out of ingredients. The Golden Arches followed with another pop star collaboration with J Balvin and then brought back more “famous trays” in a holiday push.
At the end of election night, there was no clear winner but, on the brand front, Calm won the day. The meditation app was hailed as "genius" by Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian after it saw an opportunity to stand out by sponsoring CNN's "Key Race Alerts" throughout the night, as well as running a 30-second spot of rain falling on leaves to soothe viewers' fraught nerves. It also shared breathing and relaxation exercises on social media.
In an era of hyper-partisanship, criticism of the Trump administration from anyone on the left often falls on deaf ears. So, this election cycle, the most cutting critiques of the president and his policies came from a group of establishment conservatives who formed the political action committee we now know as The Lincoln Project. Using the same strategies and go-for-the-eyes messaging that had served their party well lambasting Democrats in years past, the group proved to be one of the year's most nimble and impactful marketing machines, targeting President Trump in a series of funny, incisive and biting spots throughout the campaign. The highlight, arguably, was this riff on Ronald Reagan’s classic “Morning in America,” a macabre dirge for the hundreds of thousands of Americans killed by the pandemic under Trump’s watch.
4. Burger King: Moldy Whopper
Agency: INGO, David Miami, Publicis
If you can even remember back to February, when we weren’t overwhelmed by COVID, social injustice or the election, Burger King’s fetid, rotting burger made everyone green with envy (and nausea). The brand wanted to get the word out about its commitment to nix artificial preservatives from all its foods—so it let its star sandwich sit out for a very long time, until it grew hairy with mold, and filmed the whole thing. In the world of fast-food advertising—even in BK advertising—it was a refreshingly disgusting move that proved its point. The campaign went on to score this year’s top awards, including a Black Pencil at D&AD and Best of Show at the One Show.
3.Beats: But do you love me
Plenty of brands weighed in on the Black Lives Matter movement this year, but Beats by Dre cut to the heart of the matter with a searing spot from Translation that asked the real question of people who love (and appropriate) Black culture: “Do You love Black people?” The spot pulled together an all-star lineup of production talents: Prettybird’s Melina Matsoukas directed, Solange Knowles created the score and Lena Waithe wrote the spot's poem, while Tobe Nwigwe performed it.
2. Nike: You Can't Stop Us
Agency: Wieden and Kennedy Portland
Nike was, as usual, a standout creative force in 2020, with spots ranging from its ad aimed at inspiring Middle Eastern female athletes to its powerful homage to Kobe Bryant narrated by Kendrick Lamar. But the most impressive of all was this film underscoring the common thread between athletes around world during the challenges of this year. The agency and production team expertly spliced together otherwise unrelated found scenes of different athletes to make it appear as if they were moving as one. It was directed by Oscar Hudson of Pulse Films, one of the hottest directors of 2020, as exemplified by his selection to direct this year's John Lewis Christmas ad.
1. New York Times: Life Needs Truth
Agency: Droga5, New York
In 2017, the New York Times debuted its first brand campaign in a decade at the Oscars with a simple, typography-driven ad illustrating how the “truth is hard.” Since then, the idea of “truth” has become an enduring anchor for the brand’s message, leading to gripping campaigns including the “Truth Is Worth It,” which unraveled the hard work behind journalists’ big headlines. Celebrated for both its impactful, enduring message about why its reporting is worth paying for, as well as its exquisite craft, it earned both Film and Film Craft Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Arguably, it was a tough one to top, but The Times and Droga5 managed to do so with the spot we crown our No. 1 idea of the year. It conveys the highs, the lows, the struggles, the heartbreak and even the mundane events of the past year in a single “visual poem”—woven together through the lens of The Times' headlines and with a seductive track from jazz drummer Makaya McCraven. More so than any campaign, the ad elegantly captures the 2020 roller coaster with the gravity it deserved but also the levity we needed—just as The Times did with its reporting.