Nike Kaepernick ads will be among the most memorable from the 2010s

Key Points
  • The most impactful and memorable ad campaigns of the decade came from brands including Nike, Mattel and Burger King.
  • Brands that saw real success often took big risks and took in plenty of criticism.
Always' #LikeAGirl campaign.

This decade, the ad campaigns that mattered did more than just try to sell stuff.

If there's a thread connecting the most memorable campaigns of the last 10 years, it's that big risks can pay off. Campaigns like Coca-Cola's "It's Beautiful" or Procter & Gamble's "#LikeAGirl" tried — and succeeded — in changing cultural conversation.

Here are some of the marketing campaigns that helped define the marketing and advertising world during this decade and continue to have an impact today.

'#LikeAGirl,' Always

What does it mean to do something like a girl? In 2014, a three-minute video from Procter & Gamble's menstrual hygiene brand Always asked a series of young people to act out various activities "like a girl." The young adult women and men flail their arms ridiculously or coif their hair as they pretend to run.

Then, the question is posed to younger children, who interpret it in a completely different way. When asked, "What does it mean to run like a girl?" one answers, "It means means run fast as you can."

A 60-second version of the video, done with Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett, marked the brand's Super Bowl debut, and it kicked off a cultural phenomenon. The three-minute version of the YouTube video has nearly 68 million views today.

"This is the type of campaign you put in a time capsule to give future generations a read on gender stereotypes in the 2010s," said John Osborn, the CEO of Omnicom Group media agency OMD USA. "In taking a phrase that people have used often, and used without thinking about what we were really saying, it transcended any one brand or product to create a much needed conversation around gender stereotyping."

It also felt personal, Osborn added.

"As much as this appealed to me on a professional level, it also really struck a chord for me as a father," he said. "It made me ask myself if I've ever put limits on my daughter because of her gender. That kind of reaction is the gold standard for a great campaign."

Scott Goodson, CEO of cultural movement firm StrawberryFrog, added that the campaign had the quality of galvanizing people to do something.

"It's relevant and provocative and full of meaning," he said.

'Small Business Saturday,' American Express

President Barack Obama buys ice cream for his daughters Malia and Sasha at Pleasant Pops during Small Business Saturday on November 28, 2015, in Washington, DC. Obama to urge easing 401(k) rules for small businesses.
Getty Images

Credit card company American Express started the "Small Business Saturday" campaign in the dregs of a recession in November 2010. The company said it started the movement "to encourage people to Shop Small and bring more holiday shopping to small businesses."

It became official in 2011, when the Senate passed a resolution.

Now a veritable shopping holiday (celebrated even by former President Barack Obama) with name recognition that borders on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the campaign transcended a company and a moment. American Express estimates Small Business Saturday spending has reached $103 billion since the day it began.

Goodson said Small Business Saturday "took a stand for Main Street and small business, folks who never have any support and who find themselves in the direct line of fire from the Amazons of the world," he said. "Amex SBS is purpose marketing that works inside small companies and among consumers — inside out. It takes the boring traditional credit card advertising approach and turns it into activism and a movement that millions want to join."

'The President Stole Your Land,' Patagonia

Patagonia's "The President Stole Your Land."

Generally speaking, brands like to keep their distance from politics. But in 2017, outdoor apparel company Patagonia changed the homepage of its website to display a sinister message: "The President Stole Your Land." It continued: "In an illegal move, the president just reduced the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. This is the largest elimination of protected land in American history."

The company said it also planned to sue the Trump administration over the matter.

"Not only did they cater to their target, but they didn't lose the others," said Kristen Cavallo, CEO of The Martin Agency, which is owned by Interpublic Group of Cos. She said though the message created a lot of drama, it probably helped pave the way for Nike and Wieden & Kennedy's "Dream Crazy" campaign with Colin Kaepernick.

"They put everything on the line for their values, and they risked everything, and they didn't lose," she said. "That actually became a case study; that clients could take much bigger risks without the fear of so much backlash."

Viral marketing stunts, Burger King

Source: Burger King

Burger King had perhaps the most dramatic brand turnaround of the decade, from the edge of death to the center of the cultural zeitgeist.

The burger chain's old advertising involved a plastic-looking Burger King crawling into consumers' beds to feed them burgers. In 2009, The Atlantic's Derek Thompson wrote that "to the surprise of nobody, Burger King's horrible, creepy advertising campaign is not working, and the company finds itself falling further behind McDonald's... " But now it's a powerful turnaround story.

In the last few years, Burger King has done a lot of crazy stuff to right the ship.

It ran a television ad that prompted Google voice devices to pull up Wikipedia and start listing the ingredients of a Whopper. It ran a "Whopper Detour" campaign, which offered 1 cent Whopper burgers to consumers who were geographically near a McDonald's restaurant. It ran a limited edition collection of "moody" meals for Mental Health Awareness Month, ribbing McDonald's by calling them "Unhappy Meals."

In Sweden, the restaurant launched a "50/50 menu," which meant consumers who choose to order from the menu would be randomly served a plant-based or regular meat patty. Consumers had to guess which one they had been served, then could scan their box to see if they were correct.

"I think they have done more than any other brand to define modern marketing," Cavallo said. She noted that the brand employs social listening tools to show up in cultural moments.

Even Burger King's competitors have been jealous at times. Deborah Wahl, former chief marketing officer of McDonald's and now global CMO of General Motors admitted it.

"Despite being a former competitor, I love what [CMO] Fernando [Machado] demonstrated with the Whopper Detour," she told CNBC in an email. "He tackled a business problem, used marketing technology as a solution, and framed it up in a customer relevant and compelling engagement – that drove results."

'It's Beautiful,' Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola's 2014 "It's Beautiful" was simple in concept; the minute-long spot, done with Wieden & Kennedy, shows scenes of people of all backgrounds all over America with a version of "America the Beautiful" that is sung in a variety of languages.

As innocuous as that might sound, backlash to the ad was swift (Glenn Beck argued that it was "in your face" and intended to divide people).

Kasha Cacy, global CEO of Engine, said the spot was "so, so in their heritage" and was reflective of where the country was in that moment.

The company re-aired the ad during a pregame commercial break before the 2017 Super Bowl, with the tagline "Together is Beautiful," right when President Donald Trump's travel ban order had been announced.

Cacy said it's another example of a company that took a risk on something and had the social media machinery behind the scenes to manage the conversation.

"I don't think another brand could have done it as well as they did," she said. "As governments become incapable to make anything happen, there's this expectation that brands are going to fill that void."

'Imagine the possibilities,' Mattel

"Imagine the Possibilities" campaign from Barbie

Barbie doesn't look the way she used to. She also isn't just some pretty girl in a skirt.

Mattel was grappling with what consumers saw as being dated and out of touch with the women of today. The brand in 2015 launched "Imagine the Possibilities," a viral video with Omnicom Group's BBDO that showed little girls taking over the jobs they dream of, and what the company said was hidden-camera reactions.

"As society evolved, Barbie and Mattel were criticized for the make and look of Barbie dolls and the influence of that on young girls," said Alicia Tillman, chief marketing officer of software giant SAP. "They introduced this campaign to respond to the criticism and demonstrate the positive impact Barbie has on imaginations based on how consumers were using Barbie."

Not long after, in 2016, Mattel said a new line of dolls would come in a range of body types, skin tones, eye colors and hairstyles.

Finally, little girls' fantasies could look more like reality.

"It is a beautiful campaign that demonstrates the true purpose of Barbie and Mattel and will forever be one of my very favorites," Tillman said.

'Dream Crazy,' Nike

Colin Kaepernick in a new ad for Nike.
Source: Nike

Shares of Nike plummeted right after it released its ad campaign with Wieden & Kennedy for the 30th anniversary of "Just Do It," featuring former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The football player gained attention after he began protesting police brutality against African Americans by "taking a knee" during the national anthem in 2016.

But in the aftermath, sales exploded, despite a social media campaign to boycott Nike.

More importantly, Nike solidified its position as a brand willing to put it all on the line to show what it felt mattered.

The way Cacy sees it, "There were very few things that capture the attention of everyone the way that did."

Consumers are letting their beliefs decide which brands they buy
Consumers are letting their beliefs decide which brands they buy