Published in Sep-Oct 2022
Ever since my very first day in the advertising industry, I have been starry-eyed and awestruck by a certain genre of campaign. A decade ago, I mostly stumbled upon these on random blogs that lumped them as “guerrilla stunts” or “WOM marketing”.
My earliest memory of having my mind blown away with something like this was Burger King’s Subservient Chicken circa 2010. Executed by Crispin Porter & Bogusky and The Barbarian Group, the campaign was designed around a brand extension of BK’s long-term ‘Have it your way’ platform. The execution was based upon a person in a rather fake chicken costume appearing in front of a webcam and doing whatever you typed into a text box in real-time. No VFX, no polished production – just a sad, submissive chicken waiting at your beck and call. I wasn’t impressed by the fact that it went viral (way back when that word meant something) or that it swept the award shows. It was disruptive before the start-up world monopolised that word. What shocked me (and sparked my ‘creativity crush’ on Alex Bogusky) is the sheer simplicity of the mechanics. It wasn’t REALLY live, though most people thought so. They had just filmed hundreds of reactions beforehand and connected them to prompts that they guessed people would type. A little seeding to the right folks and voila! An expanding snowball of “hey check this out”. So super simple, yet it broke the internet. Genius.
For someone into the creative side of advertising, exploring these and going gaga over them was addictive. They felt clever because they made you think and talk about them; they tickled your brain. They elevated the brand in your mind because they didn’t feel like they were explicitly selling you something or singing the praises of the product.
In stark comparison, the Pakistani advertising school of thought revolved around the big-thematic TVC and then just ‘adapting’ its content for the other mediums almost as an afterthought. Put the most amount of media you can afford and shove it in people’s faces. In many ways, we are still kind of stuck in that loop… we just replaced the T with a D.
Over the years, I was able to connect the dots and realise that such campaigns worked within the subset of ‘salience marketing’, the branch of our craft that deals with how relevant and top of mind a brand can be in the perception of our consumers.
Brand salience can be achieved through hammering and interruption-based campaigns as well. The ‘iconic’ brand jingles and taglines you carry around in your head have no intrinsic brilliance within them; they are not iconic because they were strokes of poetic genius; rather it is just that the brands behind them were able to spend years of supermassive media budgets to implant them there. Good to hear that it still works but it’s not something that excites me. Instead, I want to do salience microcampaigns.
If this sounds like a mouthful, my apologies. Please bear with me until I figure out a snappier label for this particular kind of marketing. Meanwhile, let me explain what I think the attributes of salience microcampaigns are:
• They are based on insight: All great campaigns are based on insight, but in this case, it is all the more necessary. Microcampaigns aim to get rapid word of mouth out, something that can only happen if they piggyback on a hidden trigger point. We have noticed that TG-relevant universal frustrations work best, as they are conversations waiting to be vented and any brand able to capture these frustrations can utilise their momentum.
• They are self-aware detours from the product category: Microcampaigns have a sense of agency and purpose, no matter how frivolous that may be. The brand goes out and says ‘Hey, we noticed you were having X problem so we did Y for you. Check it out.’ The Y is often not even in the same category, which makes it unexpected and disruptive.
• They have small executional footprints, often tech-based: This is the most important part. Rather than big-budget shoots halfway around the world with superstar celebrities, microcampaigns rely on a fraction of the funds to do something unique. They leverage an insight more effectively (and in combination with tech hacks) to punch at the same weight as their traditional counterparts.
• They are disruptive enough to be shareworthy and newsworthy: The point of this kind of salience is that it relies on the insight and execution being interesting enough to capture the attention of a smaller initial audience. In turn, this audience will (hopefully) talk about it in a way that it spreads organically. With enough traction, the disruptive stunt is picked up by the media as well.
• They tie onto larger brand positioning platforms: If there was kryptonite for such microcampaigns, it would have to be the tether that keeps them attached to their parent brand. They can pick up on an insight not directly related to the TG, but eventually, they should be able to feed into the larger messaging narrative.
Now let me illustrate these attributes and qualities with some examples that inspire me globally as well as those we have been able to execute in our humble way in Pakistan.
• PepsiCo’s snacking brand Lay’s launched a salience microcampaign called ‘Crispy Subtitles’ in Vietnam. Their insight was that their younger target audience watched a lot of video content on their laptops, but whenever they munched on Lay’s, they couldn’t hear the dialogue. Pausing to eat wasn’t viable. So Lay’s collected and sampled hundreds of ‘chips crunching in mouth’ sounds and created a unique browser extension that detected through the mic if the user was eating chips. They then proceeded to enable subtitles so that the audience wouldn’t miss out on what was happening even when eating Lay’s. Are Lay’s in the web browser software business? Nopes. But it was interesting enough to capture the attention of a bunch of people, including one Umair Kazi all the way here in Pakistan.
• Shan Shoop is a noodle brand that is aimed at Gen Z and which stands on the platform of eliminating distrust and friction between its consumers and their parents. We created a microcampaign called Dear Ammi Abbu. It involved us sending out a call-to-action asking kids what sort of permission issues they were facing (a strong pain point for people in this demographic) and promised that we would supersize their requests so that their parents wouldn’t be able to ignore them. Then we went out and bought space in targeted media (like billboards in a mall right next to your mom’s favourite boutique, or YouTube content that parents are likely to watch) and used these real-world requests to urge the parents to listen.
• Country Time (a Tang-like powdered drink brand in the US) unleashed a campaign called Legal-Ade. Leo Burnett picked up on the insight that kid-operated lemonade stands are a part of US culture, yet many US suburb bylaws were trying to discourage this practice. So they put together a legal team designed to help these kids pro bono and give them the legal muscle they needed to retain the space on their lawns to sell lemonade in their neighborhoods. Country Time is not in the legal services business, but the campaign was so interesting that it blew up and captured the attention of the nation’s biggest media outlets.
• Careem, a ride-hailing brand that pioneered the mainstream adoption of ride-sharing and hyperlocal delivery in Pakistan, wanted to reaffirm the fact that they had a presence everywhere. We noticed an interesting insight. In Ramzan, every big city in Pakistan was covered with billboards and messaging by brands using ‘Ramzan’ as part of their campaign. We took the ubiquitous Careem captains and made them pose in a way so that their helmets (or uniforms, or bike boxes) read “Ramzan Careem”, thereby hijacking all the other billboards. Super simple idea, but it gained a lot of traction nonetheless.
At the expense of sounding like yet another complaining advertising seth, I wish more brands and agencies would aspire to create such microcampaigns. So far all the innovation or disruption I see is on the media front – putting a hologram on Liberty Chowk or Pakistan’s first synchronised drone show or covering up a section of a mall in flowers… all things that brands have done in the past, and seem to lack insight or a vital connection to brand comms platforms.
Maybe I should create a microcampaign aimed at brands for this purpose. I think I have a real pain point. I’m kanjoos enough that it will have a small execution footprint, and I guess I can always use my goodwill at Aurora to get some press attention. It’s just meta enough to work!
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.