9 of the Top Activation Strategies Driving Brand Engagement

Hal Conick
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

​What? Advertising and marketing campaigns are easy, but engaging with consumers can be difficult.

So what? Campaigns without engagement end up fading fast. 

Now what? Leverage existing partnerships for something bigger, market to humans instead of devices and strive for authenticity to activate your brand. 

​May 1, 2017

You can rebrand and relaunch, but can you activate your brand? Take a look at what nine companies from across the U.S. are doing in their brand activation efforts. 

Every brand runs marketing campaigns, but not every brand knows how to engage with consumers. This is where brand activation comes into play.

At the 2017 ANA Brand Activation Conference in Chicago, some of the biggest U.S. brands–Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Ford, Coca-Cola and more–discussed their strategies for brand activation. Here are nine things to know from their presentations.

Image Source (left): Dos Equis

1. Think: Are you adding customer value?

Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign is likely one of the best-known U.S. campaigns. So why did the company relaunch the campaign with a new interesting man?

Andrew Katz, vice president of marketing at Dos Equis and Heineken, says the company wanted to appeal to the average man in his 20s. Through research the company found the average man’s biggest fear was being boring. “So we gave them something to say,” Katz says. 

“Our logic was, we have a franchise not dissimilar to James Bond or Batman where they constantly reboot themselves,” he says, adding that the old campaign wasn’t bringing in as many new, young beer drinkers. The company began focusing on social occasions and showcasing the beer in the ads with the new “Most Interesting Man in the World.”

After finding that 60% of Dos Equis drinkers watch sports while drinking, compared with 40% of all other beer drinkers, Katz says the company decided to become the first national sponsor of the NCAA College Football Playoff. The brand activated by launching its rebooted “Interesting Man” commercial on ESPN.


 The Most Interesting Man Spices Things Up for Cinco de Mayo


“We were reaching the right people at the right time with the right message,” Katz says of launching at the beginning of the football season. 

Katz says this was one of Heineken’s best campaigns as a company, adding new beer drinkers in the last two quarters of 2016 and gaining shares in important markets. The campaign also saw 1.1 million interactions through the national sweepstakes. 

“As you think about activating your own brands, think about what change [you are] trying to make and add value,” Katz says. “We can get better at this as a brand. Anybody can pay for a sponsorship, but it’s the great brands that can deliver something to the consumer that they can appreciate.”

2. Leverage partnerships for something bigger.

When Ford became the official truck of the NFL during the 2016 season, people weren’t surprised. Ford has trademark rights with 13 teams in local markets, is affiliated with Fox Sports and its “FOX NFL SUNDAY” pregame show and has stadium naming rights with the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys. Chantel Lenard, Ford’s executive director of marketing, says by leveraging this existing partnership, Ford was able to build something bigger with the NFL​

Ford used a 360-degree campaign to lock in the 62 million people the NFL reaches each month both on game day and throughout the week. Ford used influencer marketing, promoted through websites like Bleacher Report and held sweepstakes for tickets. In the sweepstakes, 88% or participants signed up for more information on a Ford truck model, 90% of which were not already Ford owners.  

By the end of the campaign, Ford was able to tie a sales increase of 2,000 trucks at $50,000 per unit. “That’s pretty good ROI,” she says.

Dallas Cowboys, Ford, and Denis Leary Give Local Firehouse Surprise Makeover | Super Duty | Ford


3. Stay in the customer’s hands and minds to become their preference.

Coca-Cola is a brand that seems to be ever-present throughout American history. There’s a reason for this, according to what Ivan Pollard, senior vice president of strategic marketing at Coca-Cola, told the ANA crowd: the company always tries to sneak into the background of the customer’s mind.

“It’s better to do something constantly in the background than it is one big thing in the foreground, but the ideal thing is to do both,” he says.

Pollard says the average U.S. attention span was down from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8.25 seconds in 2016. He knew the company needed a way to break through this paucity of attention, so he looked to involve hands, which he says can coalesce active learning and implicit learning.

Coca-Cola held events with celebrity chefs such as Aaron Sanchez, held a March Madness festival and tried to use a “light touch” to get the drink into people’s hands via presence on social media. Pollard believes that many people walked away with “a memory implanted in their brains.” 

While technology will eventually bring real experiences to the living room, Pollard says brands need to bring consumer heads and hands together to build brand preference. He calls this ““A.D.D.vertisng,” or building a brand despite a lack of attention. 

4. Create for the human, forget the device.

Marketers who can’t get an engagement rate of 85% should retire, Life in Mobile CEO John Lim told the ANA Audience. 

But how is this possible in a market where the standard engagement rate is somewhere between 40% and 60%? “Create for the human,” says Lim, who claims he has an 87% or better engagement rate across all brands he works with—including Heineken and NBC Universal. 

One campaign his company ran, a survey for Heineken, received a 90.4% engagement rate out of 485,696 consumers. Lim claims the survey was so popular that 200,000 people took it twice. 

Lim says there are four principles he uses in every campaign that can help any brand get engagement rates of 85%. The principles are:

  1. ​We live in an “I need it now society,” he says, so move at the speed of the customer. Have consistency over time.

  2. Follow “the platinum rule,” which is to treat others the way they want to be treated, not how you’d want to be treated. 

  3. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” i.e., be careful not to overreach on data and show just how much you know about the customer.

  4. The mobile device is the customer’s sixth sense. To show this, Lim had attendees pull out their phone, unlock it and hand it to the person to their left. Noting the panic in the room, he says marketers must keep that feeling in mind. “When you communicate to that consumer, understand that you’re communicating to one of their senses.” 

Lim says these four principles can help marketers regain what he believes is a lost sense of humanity in marketing.

5. Be transparent and let employees be your brand.

Air travel in America went from fun in the 1990s to a hassle-ridden experience after the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Airlines merged, security got tight and customers were hit over the head with baggage fees.  

In an effort to ease customer frustration with fees, Southwest Airlines introduced “Transfarency.” This allowed the company to put any charges in the price of a ticket with no surprise baggage fees tacked on. 

Marianne Malina, president of GSD&M, an advertising agency that has worked with Southwest for 37 years, says the company used “Transfarency” to show customers that their fares were staying low and other airlines were tacking on fees. 


 Southwest Airlines Commercials


Southwest also heavily featured executives and employees in ad campaigns, according to Helen Limpitlaw, director of brand communications and partnerships for Southwest Airlines. The company gives employees more autonomy for serving customers than the average airline, she says. As a member of the audience noted, this could help save the company from a nightmare PR event such as the one United Airlines had in April

6. See what your customers sees.

For years, eyewear customers were treated more like patients than they were customers. John Roberts, a partner and strategy lead at Truth Collective, was working with Lenscrafters, a brand which knew it needed to change its approach.

Lenscrafters was trying to win over millennials, a key segment choosing its first set of eyeglasses. To win this key demographic, Roberts says they flipped from “vision correction” to “vision enhancement.” They also knew this demographic wanted to do good things, so Lenscrafters worked with BuzzFeed to make a commercial showing random acts of kindness, such as giving people flowers and paying for their drinks.

From this campaign, which is called “See Good Daily,” the company received 14.6 million engagements, a 14.3% brand lift and a 23% lift in purchase intent. 

“Activation without emotion is price promotion,” Roberts says, adding that customers most often feel something, do it and then try to post-rationalize their decision to do it. 

7. Have a small budget? Use the challenger mindset.

Going up against big brands with a small budget isn’t easy, but the “challenger mindset” may make it easier. Russell Athletics used this mindset for its #SettleYourScore campaign and ended up winning a gold Reggie Award for best partnership campaign. 

“The challenger mindset is about how you go to market,” says Dan Fromm, president and COO of Barkley, which partnered with Russell on this campaign. Challengers must have a clear point of view that will help them break through no matter how crowded the category is, find a way to create differentiation from the big companies and do more with a small budget.


 Russell Athletic | #SettleYourScore | Marion Local


Russell used a challenger mindset by pushing against what it saw as a decline of high school athletes participating in team sports. Fromm says they saw this as “an attack on something fundamentally good about youth” and saw this as an opportunity to become the defender of team sports. 

Matt Murphy, vice president of marketing for Russell Athletic, says the company brought the mentality of being a challenger in the campaign by telling the “untold story” of high school football teams that had heartbreaking losses. The #SettleYourScore campaign followed six “haunted schools” that lost and looked to take that adversity and turn it into momentum. 

The campaign used a professional photographer who shot for the book Friday Night Lights, student photographers and partnerships with Vox Media. By the end, more than 300 pieces of new content were created, and one of the six teams was a state champion. Murphy says the campaign brought in 240 million earned media impressions, 5 million social engagements, 15 million video views, a 40% Facebook fan growth and 180% year-over-year growth in August online sales. 

“The market for losers is a lot bigger than the market for winners,” Fromm says. 

8. You can’t fake authenticity.

When a company tries to fake authenticity, customers will know it, according to Steve Gross, founder of Life is Good Kids Foundation, a clothing company that helps children in need. 

Being authentically optimistic—which Gross clearly is, judging by his presentation—is the “most powerful force in the world,” Gross says. 

“It’s your ability to see the good,” he says. “When you give authentically, you get more than you give, for business too.”

However, faking authenticity defeats the whole purpose, Gross says. A brand can’t simply push a campaign; it has to believe in it. 

“How would we be as companies if we were 10% more authentic?” Gross says. “It’s mandated if we want to transform and have a brand purpose. … When you think about your brand, you think about what you want to do, it’s not about selling. What’s important for you to do with this one precious life that we have?”

9. HP Enterprise’s five lessons from relaunch

Hewlett Packard Enterprise created a new brand strategy in 45 days and a new brand identity in 120 days​. Susan Popper, senior vice president of experience marketing, told the ANA crowd that she learned five lessons from this process:

  1. Prioritize business-critical milestones.”

  2. “You need leadership and the support of executives.” In HP Enterprise’s case, CEO Meg Whitman personally signed off on the logo and relaunch, Popper says. 

  3. “Find your big idea and drive it through everything.”

  4. “Deliver a consistent experience.” In HP Enterprise’s case, they kept their new brand logo—a horizontal green rectangle—consistent, even preventing it from being publicly displayed vertically.

  5. “Inspire and engage employees, partners and influencers. Employees have to be first.”

This campaign won a silver Reggie Award in the B-to-B category. 

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Author Bio:

Hal Conick
Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at hconick@ama.org or on Twitter at @HalConick.
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Displaying 1 Comments
Laurence Sive
May 2, 2017

This is a great article. Can you guide me as to where I can find out how to cater to those who love music? I was planning to launch SPACE, a music CD via a DRTV but feel a 100 percent internet mobile approach may be better. Please advise where I can find the information that can lead me to the right answer. Thanks Laurence Sive

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