4 campaigns that should have failed but didn’t

In advertising, there are certain “rules of the road.” Brands that break those rules must do so at their own risk. After all, rules exist for a reason. But sometimes breaking a rule or three can drive extraordinary results.

Here are four examples of campaigns that seemed to do just that. They won by breaking the rules in different ways. But each way ultimately circles back to a fundamental marketing tenet — understanding their target customers and what they care really about.

Winning because the rules were outdated: Chrysler’s “Imported From Detroit”

For decades, U.S. automakers have used video to ask (or, in some cases, beg) consumers to buy American. The conventional wisdom on how to pull the patriot heartstring is to use a lot of flags, waving wheat, and purple mountain majesties. Cue Dinah Shore: “See…the…U…S…A…in your Chevrolet…”

According to the rules, it’s all about appealing to the side of American patriotism that’s resonant with John Philip Sousa music and slow dissolves of adorable, unmistakably American children buried in piles of photogenic golden retriever puppies.

As if there are unphotogenic ones. But I’m getting off track.

Here’s an example of this sort of message from Chevy. It follows the rules: Go sweet or go home. And double up on the flags. Touch the American “superego.” But for its relaunch of the Chrysler brand, that company went another way to get people to rethink buying American. For its campaign, Chrysler flipped over to the b-side of the patriotic record — creating a campaign that’s all about the ‘Merkan “id.” Two parts pig iron, one part rawhide, one part simple truth, and one part honest sweat, paired with a voiceover talent that gargles carpet tacks.

Let’s dissect this a bit. They decided to sell a brand that strives for an upscale mystique by using photos of decaying apartment buildings, collapsing factories, and constructivist public art. What an effin’ mistake.

Except it wasn’t.

It took Chrysler’s new Italian owners to teach us how to do American patriotism right. To appeal to the gut rather than our angel wings. To appeal to the person with the hand adjusting his groin instead of over his heart. Oh, and you follow it up with ads that evolve the concept from heavy shock value to broad appeal.

Did it work? You bet. No one had talked about Chrysler advertising for decades. Chrysler now enjoys more than 66 months of year over year growth.

This is a case where “the rules” were clearly wrong, or at least outdated. Selling American may never be the same again.

Winning by breaking your opponents’ rules: T-Mobile’s “The Un-carrier Revolution”

What do you do when the pecking order in your category hasn’t really changed in a decade? When you’re number four in a two-and-a-half horse race? When your plan to be acquired by one of the lead horses was thwarted by anti-trust concerns?

What do you do? You take aim at the category “given” that cements competitive hegemony — long-term contracts and device installment payment markups. You get back to doing what marketing is all about: pleasing customers.

T-Mobile launched a broad-based integrated campaign with a bluster that only their CEO could manage.

Millions have responded in valuable ways. They added lots of customers, and while profitability took a hit for a while, the company is clearly on a roll. Over the years since their first initiative, the company has challenged other category “givens” and now has its competitors running to catch up to it.

It’s an example of how to rewrite the rules when the deck is stacked against you.

Winning by creating dialogue: McDonalds’ “Our Food, Your Questions”

The rumor in my first grade class was that McDonald’s shakes were made of whipped plastic wrap. We all believed it. But in our defense, we were 7, and the rumor quickly died when we took a field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo and stopped for Shamrock Shakes on the way home. Something that good, we decided, couldn’t be made of plastic wrap.

But McDonald’s has bigger quality perception problems than the momentary confusion of a few kids. They faced large number of adults who questioned the quality of their food and the honesty of their marketing.

What do you do? Well, I suppose the conventional wisdom would be to have a PR team give sunny assurances, and edit out any bizarre questions from the website FAQs. And surely McDonald’s tried that for a while. After all, people can’t really believe that burgers are made of worms or buns of yoga mats. I am sure they spent years thinking that if they told people what they had to say, consumers would get it all straight.

Of course, that didn’t work.

So they changed course. Not in a way that demonstrated a contempt for the consumer’s good sense, but rather in one that did just the opposite.

They took an amazingly gutsy step of answering people’s real questions with real answers in near-real-time. No holds barred. They actually explained why there is a chemical in their buns that is also in yoga mats. They pointed out that the price of worms is far higher than the price of beef, so it was obviously absurd to think they’d try to add it to your Big Mac patty. They discussed how once they included “lean, finely textured beef” (aka pink slime) in their burgers — but that they don’t anymore.

They made videos of their cooking and manufacturing processes. They showed the fresh eggs that go into McMuffins. They even revealed the trade secrets of food photography to explain why the food in ads looks better than what is in the box.

McDonald’s took a lot of heat from press and ad pundits for this sweeping honesty. This integrated campaign, which included television and online video as well as traditional banners and social media, has felt the stabbing fork of more than a few trade and consumer publications.

And yet it seems to have worked. Millions have sought out the web presences to ask their questions. Many have argued that McDonald’s has been more forthcoming than anyone ever would have expected from a large company. From some initial testing of the campaign in Australia and Canada, it has expanded to the U.S., U.K., and other regions.

It’s an example of how a company can win by getting past all the PR spin, and talk sensibly and respectfully to concerned people.

Winning with rich customer knowledge: Oscar Mayer’s “Say it With Bacon”

When most people think of “marketing innovation,” consumer packaged goods (CPG) usually isn’t the first industry that comes to mind. The world of food-in-a-pack and soap-in-a-bottle is largely comprised of staid manufacturers and corporate cultures that actively avoid much risk-taking.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some remarkable CPG marketers and brands out there. Dove, Axe, Cheerios, Kingsford, and Pantene come to mind, for example.

But I think it’s safe to day that the terms “CPG” and “astounding” don’t get juxtaposed very often. That’s what makes CPG advertising so…expected. Safe. Normal. Tested. Oh, how it’s tested. And the ads themselves are mostly inwardly focused. Which is a nice way of saying that they are obsessed with product and less reflective of the customer.

What makes Oscar Mayer’s marketing so unexpected and wonderful is how it shakes things up and focuses on consumer connection. Instead of focusing on what’s inside the package, Oscar Mayer uses what’s in our heads to elevate perceptions about the world’s tastiest pork product.

Oscar Mayer took a risk by recognizing that bacon just ain’t no ordinary comestible. It really, really matters to people. For its fans, the simple utterance of its name stimulates a surfeit of saliva. If you don’t think bacon is bigger than a 1-ounce strip, you just don’t get what’s important.

Their “Say it With Bacon” campaign revolves around getting users to feel like they are special by dint of buying the product. Yes, yes, they get all the product claims in there. But I bet if you read the ARS verbatims, they’re all about the funny and the overarching message — that Oscar Mayer is the bacon for people who care about bacon.

This is a broad-based multi-platform, multi-device campaign.

There are bacon awakenings.

And they’ve even done a working parody nder.

And Oscar Mayer’s business is well outpacing the category. Because what is in the pack is tasty. But what’s in people’s heads is totally delicious.