Brands that take bigger risks are reaping greater rewards in the world of digital marketing, write Google’s Eric Solomon and Gopi Kallayil in this opinion piece. 

Strange and dangerous things happen every day, some representing bold and risky breakthroughs. On October 24, 2014, Alan Eustace, senior vice president of knowledge at Google, a respected engineer and leader, made waves by jumping from the stratosphere, breaking the world record previously set by Felix Baumgartner in 2012. Wearing a specially designed spacesuit, Alan ascended in a balloon to a height of more than 25 miles and then jumped into space, reaching a peak speed of 833 mph (greater than the speed of sound) as he plummeted toward Earth. Even more interesting, Eustace planned the jump in total secrecy — a private initiative with a small, dedicated team of experts, without the support of one single dollar in sponsorship money. 

Eustace did it because he wanted to do it: One man guided by passion and compelled by the sheer risk of the jump, resulting in a new world record and opening up the stratosphere for research. The fact that the jump was orchestrated by a small team working without the overhang of a larger organization may have given Eustace and his team the freedom and speed they needed to break the record.  

For us, the connection between Eustace’s risky jump and a growing trend in the world of brand advertising is clear: Brands that take bigger risks are reaping bigger rewards — especially in the digital space — and positively impacting brand metrics and sales. On the heels of Eustace’s news, we wanted to dive deeper into the phenomenon of risky behavior driving impact as it relates to brand advertising on digital platforms.

Ambush on the Big Stage

It’s impossible to think about advertising on the big stage in the U.S. without talking about the Super Bowl. With 111.5 million viewers, the broadcast of Super Bowl XLVIII last year was the most watched TV show in U.S. history. Super Bowl XLIX is expected to break that record. These numbers pale in comparison to the reach of digital video, with more than one billion unique monthly users visiting YouTube. In fact, digital is responsible for people watching Super Bowl ads more than the game itself — 50% of the Super Bowl audience watches the ads on YouTube before the game airs, and 62% tunes in to these ads after the game is over. Big brands always make a splash at tent-pole events like the Super Bowl, but increasingly, we’re seeing smaller brands winning even more. 

Take Newcastle Brown Ale’s Super Bowl play. Knowing that the company had neither the permission nor the $4 million plus budget required for a prime slot during the Super Bowl game, Newcastle showed the world the ad Newcastle would have made, if only they could have. Veering off the traditional path, Newcastle took a risk by creating digital teasers, trailers, fake focus group footage, and mock “behind-the-scenes” footage featuring Anna Kendrick and Keyshawn Johnson. Newcastle created the commercial it might have made if the firm had the gigantic budget or the rights to advertise during the game. The campaign received more than 10 million views — prompting the posts, social shares, and comments Newcastle needed to gauge viewer response — and was mentioned in 600 news articles. Newcastle conjured up more than one billion impressions, and in markets where the campaign also received promotional in-store support, it resulted in a high triple-digit lift in sales. Newcastle ambushed the Super Bowl, leaving competitors wondering what their prime slot spend really got them. 

“One man guided by passion and compelled by the sheer risk of the jump, resulting in a new world record and opening up the stratosphere for research.”

Of the several lessons brand advertisers can learn from Newcastle’s effort — Adweek’s pick for the No. 1 ad campaign for 2014 — is that taking risks sticks with us. Newcastle was willing to put its budget toward an innovative digital approach that side-stepped both the safety and the pitfalls of traditional outlets. Newcastle proved that risks can pay off, and the company may have inadvertently paved the way for all brands — big or small — to rethink their approach to costly, tent-pole advertising events like the Super Bowl. Newcastle is hardly the only brand out there taking these kinds of risks. They are part of an even bigger trend we’ve been keeping our eye on.

Smaller Brands, Bigger Wins

There is no denying that big household name brands like Coca-Cola and Nike fund some truly excellent creative work. In some cases, as with Oreo (and its parent company, Mondelez International, formerly known as Kraft Foods), these well-known brands are noted for taking some calculated risks. However, we’ve seen that more often it’s smaller or lesser-known brands that benefit from taking bigger advertising risks.

Turkish Airlines is not a tiny brand in terms of its advertising spend. Still, up until recently, the airline was dwarfed by some of its mainstream competitors including United, American or Delta in terms of brand recognition and awareness. A few years ago, Turkish Airlines met its global awareness issue head-on with a popular spot featuring sports greats Kobe Bryant and Lionel Messi. That initial content began to build awareness for the brand, but the airline realized the need to sustain momentum to hit core objectives: To increase Turkish Airlines’ brand awareness around the world, to reach a new, adventurous target audience, and to test campaign effectiveness by measuring brand recall. Turkish Airlines crafted a campaign around the concept of a “selfie” — one of 2014’s hottest buzzwords. The “Selfie Shootout” became YouTube’s fastest spreading ad of all time, reaching 77 million views in one week and nearly 140 million views in all (as of January 12). Searches for the Turkish Airlines brand tripled on YouTube and saw a 16% increase on Google. The company also saw a 9% increase in people remembering the brand.

Turkish Airlines demonstrated an appetite for risk and innovation by looking to digital video — rather than TV — as the mass marketing vehicle it is. While we expect this behavior to grow tremendously in the coming year, Turkish Airlines may be remembered as the pioneer of this phenomenon. 

“Newcastle ambushed the Super Bowl, leaving competitors wondering what their prime slot spend really got them.”

Another example of bold and risky digital marketing is from Honey Maid, the graham cracker brand. Although Honey Maid is part of the Mondelez house, both the brand and the product are overshadowed by giants like Oreo. The graham cracker itself is said to have been invented by the Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham in 1829 as a health food — a wholesome, conventional beginning that makes Honey Maid’s campaign even more impressive. Although other brands like Cheerios had touched on using non-traditional advertising families in their creative efforts, Honey Maid took the issue head on with a national campaign showing a two-dad family, a punk-rock family, an interracial family, a military family and a single dad, all in one piece of creative. The tagline: “No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. Honey Maid. Everyday wholesome snacks for every wholesome family. This is wholesome.” 

Others have rightly pointed out that associating the word “wholesome” with politically and religiously polarizing images is risky in and of itself. Honey Maid took that risk, and then trumped it. The ad spurred the very controversy one might expect: Many people chimed in on social media about how the spot was not wholesome and, as some wrote, “downright disgusting.” Honey Maid responded with a digital follow-up spot that features an artist duo printing out each email, tweet, or post about “hate” and turning those messages into a very real, physical representation of “love.” The video showed that there were ten times more supporters for the ad than haters. In its first day online, more than 1.5 million people tuned in. Ultimately, the online content drove more than 12 million total views, while Google searches for the name “Honey Maid” shot up 400%. Within two months of the initial spot airing, sales of Honey Maid jumped 7%.

It’s unfortunate that taking a stand on a divisive social issue by a brand is considered risky, and that very few brands are willing to reflect the changing nature of America’s demographics in their advertising. Honey Maid not only reflected the changing nature of demographics, but went a step further by labeling emerging family structures as “wholesome,” and then nimbly responding to negative comments in a creative, forward-thinking way. According to Mondelez senior marketing director Gary Osifchin, Honey Maid acted on instinct rather than data: “We didn’t even test this idea … we are very much showing Americans who they are … it’s reality. Who thought a graham cracker could be talking at this level as a brand?” 

Risky Business

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen smaller entities leading the way in terms of risk-taking. Some prominent brands like Warby Parker or Dollar Shave Club were built on rethinking long-standing business models. In the technology space in particular, some of the biggest payoffs have resulted from placing several small bets rather than one big one — famously, Twitter was conceived as an incubation project within a podcast start-up. Such risks, whether driven by necessity or out of passion, are what drive human innovation and forward thinking. 

“Turkish Airlines demonstrated an appetite for risk and innovation by looking to digital video — rather than TV — as the mass marketing vehicle it is.”

A similar phenomenon is having an impact on digital advertising. Smaller brands are able to demonstrate greater tolerance toward being nimble and fast, what we call “Nimbleocity,” which leads to faster decision making. The digital space lends itself to experimentation, because users are more forgiving of mistakes or unpolished content, which means that brands have an opportunity to place several smaller bets with digital content to drive impact, rather than focusing on just one or two big splashes. The risk involved in experimenting in the digital space may be intimidating to larger brands that are less nimble and feel they have less freedom to fail. Nimbleocity is a major factor in why we’re seeing smaller brands win in the digital space. 

Lessons Learned

Brands and agencies often ask us for advice about how to think differently about digital advertising. 

Our advice:

Know your brand. In particular, know what your brand stands for and think about how to best express that meaning through the digital medium. Honey Maid was dead-set on expressing its modern definition of “wholesome,” and the company’s marketers were nimble enough to respond quickly when viewers challenged that definition. 

Add value for your user. We used to talk about consumers in terms of audience, but “audience” is too passive a term for digital users. Customers are looking to marketing content as a tool to entertain, inform or provide a utility. More than ever, it’s critical for brands to know who they want to reach and to think about how to have a conversation with them, rather than talk at them. Our guiding principle is to always add value for your customer in exchange for their attention. Newcastle wanted to talk with beer-drinking millennials. What better way to reach them than to entertain them using their language on their preferred screens? 

Embrace risk. This is a scary proposition in a world where every move needs to be justified with tangible results and a sign-off from the legal team. But in the digital space, great creative increasingly requires bigger risks. Creative agencies need to be empowered to experiment by placing many smaller bets and then nimbly iterating on them once they are launched. The digital space is the best place to experiment, because users expect a wider variety of content and quality than in more “traditional” mediums. Like Turkish Airlines, brands are increasingly shifting marketing budgets to digital. Setting aside at least a small portion of that budget to put toward digital experimentation can be beneficial, because sometimes these smaller bets lead to the biggest wins.

No matter what the task, taking risks is always scary. However, with increasing clutter in the digital landfill, these risks may soon represent the only real opportunity for brand advertising to stand out. For big and small brands alike, even small risks can lead to big rewards. It’s time to make that risky move on digital. And demonstrate mighty impact. 

Eric Solomon is Google’s Head of Strategy & Insights, the ZOO; Gopi Kallayil is Google’s Chief Evangelist, Brand Marketing.