The best marketing campaigns of 2021: Part 1

From Airbnb and Aldi to Boots and Deliveroo, the Marketing Week team chooses the first eight campaigns that make up our best of 2021.

Airbnb – ‘Made Possible by Hosts’

In February, Airbnb declared it would be making a permanent cut to its overall marketing investment, after noticing that slashing spend during Covid had little impact on traffic. That cut has primarily been on the performance marketing side, with the business instead investing in building the brand and “educating” customers.

“We take a very different approach to sales and marketing than our competition,” CEO Brian Chesky said at the time. “PR, in addition to word of mouth, is the thing that built our brand over the last 10 years. And because of that, Airbnb really is a noun and a verb used all over the world.”

Reflecting this shift in attitude, in late February Airbnb launched its first large-scale brand marketing campaign in five years, titled ‘Made Possible by Hosts’. The company created a series of videos using real photographs from guests staying in Airbnb listed properties around the world, with new executions launching regularly.

The campaign had a dual aim of educating guests about the benefits of being hosted and inspiring more people to become Airbnb hosts. It initially launched on TV and digital channels across the business’s five largest markets – the UK, US, France, Canada and Australia – before expanding into Italy and Spain.

Creatively, the ads are far from the flashiest. But since launch, Airbnb has consistently championed the strength of its decision to shift spend from performance into brand building and the effect Made Possible by Hosts is having on the business, continuing to invest heavily in the brand campaign.

Over the third quarter of 2021, following a 136% increase in year-on-year sales and marketing expenditure, Airbnb recorded a 15% increase in overall traffic in the countries where the campaign had run compared to 2019, before the pandemic hit. The company claimed this is “significantly ahead” of non-campaign countries.

Meanwhile, YouGov’s brand health tracker BrandIndex shows ad awareness rose from a score of 2.8 before the campaign launched on 24 February, to a score of 9.4 by 27 March. The metric peaked at a score of 14.1 on 17 July.

In the third quarter of 2021 – after six months running the campaign – Airbnb posted its highest ever profit, with net income up 280% year on year to $834m (£618m). Adjusted EBITDA broke the billion dollar barrier for the first time, as the business reached a “major milestone” of 1 billion guest arrivals.

Airbnb is a perfect example of a business that understands how the performance/brand divide should look for its own brand, which is exemplified in this campaign. The brand’s awareness and relevance is so high that it doesn’t need to use performance marketing to drive traffic. Instead, it needs to remind travellers of what Airbnb offers from a brand perspective, to ensure it stays ahead of competitors. MJ

Aldi – ‘Free Cuthbert’

‘This is not just any court case, this is…#FreeCuthbert’. With these 10 words Aldi managed to take a potentially damning situation and turn it into a good news story.

It all started when Marks & Spencer launched legal action against Aldi, claiming the discounter’s Cuthbert the Caterpillar Swiss roll infringed the trademark for its Colin the Caterpillar cake.

While trademark and IP laws are pretty complex, Aldi decided to take a very simple approach, with the intention of getting the nation on its side. Quicker than you can say Colin versus Cuthbert, the supermarket, working with McCann Manchester, took to Twitter and using its rival’s famous tagline grabbed people’s attention and sparked national debate.

The series of #FreeCuthbert tweets that followed meant that within a few hours Aldi was trending at number one on Twitter and the clash of the caterpillar cakes was being discussed in the national news. It was covered by BBC Breakfast, Good Morning Britain and This Morning for several days and generated more than 1,400 pieces of written coverage.

Cuthbert was also the talk of TV comedy panel shows; memes, parodies and memorabilia were made; and hundreds of people joined the debate on social, with user-generated videos racking up more 30 million views. Meanwhile protests were held outside M&S. Aldi estimates the organic reach generated by the campaign equated to more than £5m worth of media spend, pretty impressive given it didn’t spend a penny.

According to Aldi’s data, the campaign triggered a 134% drop in M&S’s score for news sentiment, while its score for purchase consideration declined by 2.72%. Meanwhile Aldi’s scores increased by 8.5% and 6.8% respectively. The German discounter also grew its Twitter following by 30%, reached more than 35 million people on Facebook and achieved a 15% engagement rate on social.

Aldi has described #FreeCuthbert as its biggest ever news story and the most effective social media campaign in its history.

Thanks to the swell of positivity from the public Aldi launched a limited edition Cuthbert the Caterpillar cake, with all profits going to its charity partner Teenage Cancer Trust. It also encouraged some of its supermarket rivals and their caterpillar cakes to join the #CaterpillarsForCancer cause.

While the result of the actual court case is yet to be decided, it’s safe to say Aldi won the public debate. LT

Boots – ‘Feel Good as New’

Boots has a reputation as an unflappable stalwart of the high street, founded in 1849 and still going strong. But while that reputation has built a great deal of consumer trust in the business, the brand had become a little tired and was lacking the sexiness of its online competitors.

So when pandemic restrictions eased in April, new CMO Pete Markey took the opportunity to “reintroduce” the brand to customers and highlight its relevance for the modern day, particularly as lives returned to some semblance of normality.

Created by WPP’s dedicated Boots division The Pharm, ‘Feel Good as New’ launched late in June, led by a 30-second TV ad voiced by actress Billie Piper. Opening with the suggestion that “today could be a good day for a little reinvention”, the ad went on to highlight the various ways in which consumers would be looking to switch up their routines as lockdown restrictions lifted, spotlighting the various new beauty brands it now stocks and showing off the new Boots Health Hub.

The spot closed with the statement that Boots will be with consumers “every step, salsa and shimmy of the way, as we’ve done some reinventing ourselves”. On launch, Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson lauded the campaign’s strategy of mixing mass marketing with more refined targeting, using both to reach everybody in Britain.

The new brand platform has proved so strong for Boots that the business’s parent company, the Walgreens Boots Alliance, credited its role in driving a 15% increase in comparable retail sales in the UK in its fourth quarter financial results.

Indeed, within two months Markey told Marketing Week that online and in-store sales had increased, particularly in the beauty and health categories most featured in the ad. The Boots website also saw a boost, with a 700% rise in the number of visitors to the Health Hub alone, while overall searches for the brand jumped 15%.

Meanwhile, according to YouGov’s BrandIndex, Boots’ brand scores have also moved forward since the launch of the campaign. Ad awareness rose from a low of 12.6 in June prior to the campaign launch to a score of 14 a week after its TV debut, and steadily rose over the remainder of the summer, peaking at a high of 16.6 in August. Positive buzz around the brand has also improved, from a score of 5.8 in June to a high of 9.5 in November.

Boots has continued to build on the ‘Feel Good as New’ platform with its Christmas campaign this year, which is the biggest the brand has launched in at least four years. With that campaign also generating an early positive response, Boots is in a strong position to continue reinventing its brand next year. MJ

Channel 4 – ‘Super. Human.’

Channel 4 has never shied away from confrontation or controversy, and it used its coverage of the delayed 2020 Paralympic Games to highlight the sacrifices required to become an elite Paralympian, as part of its long-term bid to change perceptions of disability.

A score of real-life athletes took part in the ‘Super. Human.’ campaign, including athletics and cycling champion Kadeena Cox. The ad opens with a dream sequence of her facing the pressure of repeating her gold medal performances from Rio 2016. It goes on to show the genuine experiences of gruelling training regimes, injuries, childbirth, missed birthday parties, accidents and the agony of the Games being postponed. The montage of experiences is set to a version of ‘So you want to be a boxer’, familiar to fans of the 1976 comedy musical Bugsy Malone.

The “deliberately provocative” ad culminates with the message ‘To be a Paralympian there’s got to be something wrong with you’.

The ad is the third iteration of the Superhumans campaign, which Channel 4 launched ahead of the 2012 Paralympics, before following up with ‘We’re the Superhumans’ for the Rio 2016 Paralympics. At the launch for Super. Human, Channel 4 CMO Zaid Al-Qassab told Marketing Week that the 2021 film was like a difficult third album, after the consistent success of the first two ads.

This is because he believes the campaigns – and the channel’s consistent high-profile Paralympics coverage – has done more to shift public perceptions around disability than “anything else in the last 20 years”.

Indeed, the broadcaster’s research shows 83% of people say their attitudes towards those with disabilities has changed as a result of its Paralympics activity, which is why Channel 4 felt it needed to continue to challenge attitudes and give a voice to those with disabilities.

“We took that responsibility very seriously and thought we’ve got to take this a level further. We’ve got to listen to what we’re hearing from Scope, other organisations and from athletes, to try and make this more about the human side of super human,” he said. MV

The best marketing campaigns of 2021: Part 2

Colgate – Sonic brand

While many toothpaste brands adhere to a formula where functional messaging works best, Colgate decided to differentiate from rivals by launching a sonic identity.

The toothpaste brand wanted to find something that was positive, instantly recognisable and would have global appeal across its more than 200 markets, so it carried out extensive research through whitepapers and interviews with academics, ethnomusicologists and neuroscientists. This revealed that the human hum is universally thought to be optimistic, a key theme the brand wanted to be associated with.

Working with MassiveMusic, Colgate then developed its sonic identity, which is a melody that comprises female and male voices humming to uplifting backing music.

At the time of launch Colgate-Palmolive global head of design Jared Richardson said: “We know very well [highlighting] the functional aspects of our brands [works], we’ve been doing that for 200 years, but when we [began] bringing emotion into the brand, that’s where we started to see a kind of a step-change in the equity.”

Colgate joins the likes of Mastercard, Just Eat and McDonald’s in having a sonic brand, which can be significantly more successful in bringing a brand to mind than visual cues, according to data from Ipsos.

Despite this very few brands venture down the sonic branding route. Earlier this year Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson told brands to think about whether their list of distinctive brand assets is exclusively visual and if so ask themselves why.

It is still early days but Colgate is a great example of a brand thinking beyond visual cues to connect with consumers on other levels. MP

Deliveroo – ‘We’re England ‘til we dine’

We need not remind ourselves of what happened in the final of Euro 2020 (unless you’re Italian), but the passion and build up is something to keep hold of.

As the country was gripped in football fever and scratching their heads as to how England made it all the way to the final, Deliveroo jumped on the opportunity as an official partner of the national team, with its play on word-heavy ‘We’re England ’til we dine’ campaign.

Created with agency Pablo, the hero ad features a host of England players alongside the voice of comedian Karl Pilkington who sings a version of the England til I die football chant listing people’s takeaway favourites from around the world.

“We’re quattro stagioni, Calabrian peperoni. We’re prawn szechuan, we’re keema naan, we’re England ’til we dine.”

To keep the message fresh throughout the tournament, Deliveroo also released a number of reactive press and outdoor ads and took to social media to play on the rivalry between Italy and England ahead of Euros final.

Meanwhile, it gave away 15,000 free vindaloo curries and introduced ‘matchday’ food and drink bundles to keep football fans coming back.

Deliveroo says the TV campaign reached 33 million people, which equates to 54% of the brand’s target audience. It achieved a share of voice of 42%, while ad recalls grew 15 percentage points during the campaign.

Additionally, the ad pushed up awareness of cuisine selection (12 percentage points), its football and FA sponsorship (six percentage points) and awareness of promotional offers (eight percentage points).

Deliveroo has gone big on brand building this year, increasing total speed on marketing and ‘overheads’ by 61% in the first half of 2021 compared to the year before.

The investment seems to be paying off as UK and Ireland orders grew by 110% compared to the first half of 2020 raking in £71.4m in revenue, while operating profit grew from £34.5m last year to £55.4m in 2021. MP

Gousto – ‘Give It Some’

Recipe box brand Gousto enjoyed turbocharged growth in 2020, boosted by a growing interest in cooking from workers stuck at home during lockdown.

As 2021 dawned the brand had seen its monthly orders more double over the previous 12 months: it recorded sales of £189m in 2020, up 129% on the previous year.

In a bid to replicate that growth throughout 2021 the brand – only created in 2012 – created its ‘Give It Some’ platform. Gousto’s strategy was to move beyond category building, as the sector had become securely established, to focus on brand building, and it was seeking to set itself apart from competitors in terms of both offer and attitude.

“Now, around 75% of the UK knows what a recipe box is,” Gousto’s vice-president of brand told Marketing Week at the beginning of the year. “And then among our core target that’s much higher, around 93%.”

‘Give It Some’ was the first fruit of Gousto’s relationship with agency Mother, and leapt out of the blocks with a conscious sense of energy after a period of enforced introspection due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A mixed, high octane soundtrack was used to show frustrated clubbers and rockers partying in their kitchens as they prepared their meals.

The brand’s growth has continued, with Gousto revealing plans to double its workforce to cope with demand earlier this year. In April the brand confirmed it would be seeking 1,000 new employees by the end of 2022. That intake is set to include more tech and marketing experts as well as workers to prepare and despatch its products. MV

Guinness – ‘Welcome Back’


A white cat sitting on top of a water tank. A half-painted garage. A snow-covered wheelie bin. At first glance this might seem like a random selection of objects but for pub deprived punters they have one thing in common – they all bear an uncanny resemblance to a refreshing pint of Guinness. Something which thanks to extended periods of lockdown became almost impossible to get.

But ahead of pubs fully reopening in May, Guinness wanted to show people it understood their plight and that after so long it was completely normal to start seeing everyday items as a pint of the black stuff.

There are very few brands that could get away with using a pair of socks or an old lady’s shopping trolley and strike a chord with consumers. But the colour formation is so synonymous with the brand the visual cues are instantly recognisable. Not only does the series of black and white objects instantly make the viewer picture a pint of Guinness, this clever use of its distinctive brand asset means the brand is present in every shot.

‘Welcome Back’, which was created by AMV BBDO, read the nation’s mood at the time perfectly. Like a mirage in the desert, of course a bunch of white birds sitting on a chimney looks like a pint of Guinness. The campaign also chimes perfectly with the brand’s long-running tagline ‘Good things come to those who wait’.

Beyond the TV ad, the idea was elevated on social, with the #LooksLikeGuinness hashtag encouraging people to share their own examples of black and white Guinness lookalikes.

This all helped Guinness become the number one talked about beer brand on social when pubs reopened, while the campaign itself saw the brand achieve an engagement rate 3.5 times higher than industry benchmarks across social. Meanwhile, the campaign generated a reach of 8.5 million from earned PR when launched to trade and consumer press.

Plus the ad “significantly exceeded” key creative impact metrics, according to the brand, making it one of the strongest Guinness campaigns of the last decade. LT

The best marketing campaigns of 2021: Part 2