Over the past few months the World Federation of Advertisers and We Are Social have been partnering to identify the brands that marketers around the world respect the most.
Over the course of our conversations, the same handful of brands came up again and again.
But what is it about brands like Red Bull, Nike, and Dove that marketers respect so much?
1. Their value proposition extends beyond their products
When Felix Baumgartner jumped out of his space capsule high over the deserts of New Mexico, there wasn't a can of Red Bull in sight. Red Bull's intention wasn't merely to raise awareness; and 36 million people didn't turn to Youtube to watch an 'ad'.
Instead, the brand – with Felix's help – set out to challenge the world's perceptions of what's humanly possible. Similarly, when the brand teams up with people like Danny Macaskill to create amazing content, it doesn't resort to mere 'audience mirroring' – the weak, "we like what you like so buy us" sort of approach.
Instead, Red Bull strives to produce content that people go out of their way to engage with and share – an approach borne out by the 3.5 million subscribers on the brand's Youtube channel.
Red Bull doesn't just offer the world an energy drink; it inspires people everywhere to explore their own limits, and achieve something more.
2. They're not just differentiated; they make a real difference
Many of the industry's leading practitioners indicated a strong preference for brands with a 'conscience'. The most commonly cited example was TOMS, a brand whose core 'one-for-one' proposition ensures someone in the developing world benefits every time someone buys their products.
What's most interesting is the way this brand proposition has allowed TOMS to transcend product categories. The brand has extended beyond its initial one-for-one shoe program, where it donated a pair of shoes to a child in Argentina for every pair bought in stores, to offer sight-saving treatment for someone in the developing world for every pair of sunglasses sold.
The brand's most recent development involves providing a week's worth of clean drinking water for someone in Africa each time someone buys a pack of TOMS coffee:
TOMS doesn't just sell products; it sells a promise – a promise that we can still indulge in little luxuries, safe in the knowledge that we're also helping other people lead a better life.
Another brand that champions a cause is Goldieblox, who have set themselves the mission of encouraging more girls to consider careers in areas such as engineering. As a result, the brand isn't just making and selling great toys; it's helping young girls to build a brighter future.
Other examples in this area include The Body Shop, Ben & Jerry's, and Honest Tea, all of whom have made standing up for the things they believe in a core component of their marketing.
3. They don't interrupt people; they involve them
Nike is a brand that never seems to lose favour in the marketing community, and no conference seems complete without at least one swoosh-branded case study. There's something particularly interesting about the examples people cite most though: they're almost always participative activities.
Whether it's huge running events like the Human Race, or getting people off the couch during the World Cup to play in three-a-side soccer tournaments like Joga Bonito, Nike has a strong track record in creating marketing activities that actively involve its audiences.
These activities work so well because they actively add value to the audience, rather than asking them to add value to the brand first. Indeed, Nike has done such a good job with these events that people are even willing to pay to take part in them; how many other brands have succeeded in getting people to pay to be a part of their marketing?
It's worth pointing out that Red Bull has championed this participative approach to its comms too, with events like Flugtag now a regular fixture in the brand's global approach:
More and more brands are using 'crowdsourcing' to influence product development too, with Dell's 'Ideastorm', Starbucks's 'My Starbucks Idea' and Lay's 'Do Us A Flavor' all popular examples of activities that brought the audience into the heart of the brand.
Taken further, the power of involvement may mean that IKEA's self-assembly model actually adds value, rather than acting as a potential barrier. In the words of Dan Ariely, Daniel Mochon and Michael Norton:
"Labour increases people's valuation of products, not just for those who profess an interest in "do-it-yourself" projects, but even for those who are relatively uninterested."
Source: The IKEA Effect
The most extreme examples of this approach appear on crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, where people can actively contribute to the very birth of a brand.
4. They engage our emotions
When it comes to specific communications activities, the industry's leading practitioners repeatedly offered two recent examples of brands that have swapped eyeballs for heartstrings.
Dove began its Campaign for Real Beauty a few years back with its oft-celebrated 'Photoshopped billboard' Evolution film. Recent iterations have moved from shock tactics to a more emotional style though, with the brand's recent Real Beauty Sketches film playing more on empathy than outrage:
In a similar vein, P&G's Thank You Mom films have moved audiences to tears with touching stories of Olympians' growing pains:
These activities work because they resonate with audiences' own experiences; they harness empathy to engage our emotions, ensuring a more profound and enduring connection.
That may seem like stating the obvious, but that's what's so interesting; most marketers seem to understand this logic, yet it's strange how few of us actually take the time to understand our audiences well enough to be able to deliver such powerful, empathetic marketing.
5. They help people to help themselves
Google's Michael Burke asserts that "learning something is the top motivator when it comes to driving engagement," and this is borne out in many of the examples of great marketing that people shared with us.
One of the most powerful demonstrations of this is American Express's OPEN Forum and 'Small Business Saturday' initiatives that help small business owners to achieve their specific objectives.
By providing SMEs with advice, support, and a network of peers, AmEx has moved from being a mere payments facilitator to an added-value business partner.
In addition to organising widely-publicised events like Small Business Saturday, AmEx also offers small businesses advice on areas such as how to manage a Facebook page (complete with $100 of free Facebook adverts), how to construct compelling customer offers, and provides attractive POS materials and promotional assets.
The practitioners we spoke with also cited examples like Hubspot, a marketing services brand that provides a wealth of free materials to help marketers adopt and optimise an inbound marketing strategy.
A common thread
If you're looking for the one thing that connects these themes though, it's quite simple: do something that people care about, and there's a higher likelihood they'll care about you.