The launch of Instagram and John Lewis Christmas ads: Marketing moments of the decade, part I

As the decade draws to a close, Marketing Week looks back at the defining moments of the 2010s from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal to the launch of Instagram and the dawn of influencer culture.

2010 – The coalition government and start of austerity

Given the ructions seen in politics in the years since the 2016 referendum, it’s easy to forget how significant the first new government of the decade was.

After 13 years of New Labour, the country wanted change. The electorate, however, wasn’t entirely sure what they wanted instead. The election of May 2010 was indecisive. David Cameron’s detoxification of the Conservative brand had helped the Tories become the biggest party, but shy of the requisite number of MPs needed to form a government.

Whether out of a sense of duty, or a naked pursuit of power, Cameron acted quickly and agreed with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to form the UK’s first post-war coalition. It was a government that would define politics, the economy and in many ways marketing for the next 10 years.

In 2010, the UK and world economy were still reeling from the financial crash, bank bailouts and subsequent monetary crisis in the eurozone. Consumer confidence was low, the deficit high and business brittle.

The response was brutal. To restore confidence in UK PLC, the coalition government prioritised debt control. A huge programme of cuts was unveiled.

Spend on marketing activity was immediately frozen, and then reviewed and cut by half in the coalition’s first year. The Central Office of Information (COI), the government’s marketing agency, was no longer the UK’s biggest advertiser and wouldn’t be long for this world.

Public information was an unnecessary cost. The language was unhelpful to the perception and standing of marketing.

Once shorn of much of its budget, its responsibilities were passed to the Cabinet Office. It left many agencies scrambling to fill the tens of millions they earned from being on the COI’s roster. Some suffered serious damage. Others reportedly worked for smaller margins in order to stay in line when the crumbs were being thrown.

The narrative around marketing communications was pejorative, with statements suggesting the government was taking decisive action by ridding Whitehall of the profligacy of marketers. Public information campaigns were an unnecessary cost. The language was unhelpful to the perception and standing of marketing in Westminster and elsewhere.

Elsewhere, the coalition inadvertently help popularise brand purpose. Its flagship ‘Big Society’ initiative aimed to spread responsibility for societal advancement by marrying business, community and the benevolence of people.

While the Big Society was flawed and ultimately retired, the concept of brands having a wider role took deeper root. Corporations sensitive to the sense of injustice people felt following the near-collapse of the financial system at the end of the previous decade felt guilt and a need to do their bit.

The biggest act and legacy of the coalition, however, is austerity. The downsizing of the government’s marcomms operation was insignificant compared with other cuts to central and local government spending.

Although the economy stabilised through the decade from its 2008-2009 nadir, it remained in a perpetual state of uncertainty through to the end of the decade.

At the same time, those that bore the brunt of public sector cuts grew angry and frustrated. A sense of injustice that arguably played its part in triggering Brexit and yet more economic uncertainty. Marketers, as spenders of cash that would be otherwise returned to shareholders, were forced to tighten their belts. RP

2010 – The publication of How Brands Grow

How brands grow Byron SharpAlthough the commercial viability of the printed word has undoubtedly lessened in the 2010s, one type of book appears to be in rude health – marketing theory.

Feeding the anxiety many marketers feel about their capabilities in wake of some of the big macro shifts seen in the decade, tens of such books appear to be published every month. Transformation, agile, disruption and customer experience particularly popular among publishers, at least.

Given the volume and often generic subject matter they are often sent for donation to charity after a short period sat on your desk as a talking point when your boss stops by. One very notable exception came right at the decade’s start: Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow.

“The first book in a decade to say anything new about brand strategy,” according to Mark Ritson, How Brands Grow cut through a lot of the theory, and indeed practice, that had become common in marketing to that point.

A very brief summary: penetration should be key for marketers, with more sales from more people reached through mass marketing being demonstrably more effective than targeting a segment of a brand’s potential buyers. A focus on distinctive assets such as colours, tag lines and logos trumps differentiation.

There are few other marketing books launched in the decade that would be as known, as consumed and as polarising as How Brands Grow.

Ally this “mental availability” with the “physical availability” of being on sale in as many places as possible and you have a recipe for success, the book argued. With the Ehrenberg Bass Institute for Marketing Science at his back, the professor is unwavering in the belief that he and his book are right. This wasn’t finger in the air theory, Sharp argued, it was science.

As the decade wore on so did the momentum behind the book. High-profile converts including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Pepsico and Mars have all at times underpinned activity for some of their brands with takeaways from How Brands Grow.

One thing can be guaranteed, the book and/or its author will be mentioned at some point during any marketing conference, anywhere in the world.

Ubiquity also attracts criticism. There are plenty that reject Sharp’s conclusions. Indeed, Ritson has argued strongly against Sharp’s dismissal of targeting and differentiation, memorably in a debate at The Festival of Marketing in 2017. And despite its influence on some, micro-targeting and the quest for ever deeper engagement has grown exponentially in the decade since How Brands Grow was published.

Whether it is used or not to inform brand strategy, whether you flinch at or favour its findings, the book’s conclusions are parked in marketers’ minds.

At a recent conference, I asked the audience if they had heard of How Brands Grow, most hands went up. When I asked how many had read it, only a few went down. When I asked whether they agreed with its findings, the audience was split.

There are few other marketing books launched in the decade that would be as known, as consumed and as polarising. Or as influential. RP

2010 – The launch of Instagram

InstagramInstagram began life in 2010 as a micro-blog for sharing photos. It was created by two college friends, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom, with Krieger posting the first image on the platform – a lopsided shot of South Beach Harbour, San Francisco, with no caption. Later that day Systrom posted a pic of his dog and then girlfriend’s foot, with the word “Test”.

By October of that year, Instagram was available to download as an app and was gaining a following among a young, digital-native crowd. Just two years later Facebook bought the platform for $1bn (£700m).

At the time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the acquisition of Instagram as an “important milestone” as it was the first time his company had purchased a product or company with so many users. He added: “We don’t plan on doing many more of these, if any at all.”

The gamble of Instagram quickly began to pay off. By the end of 2012, Instagram boasted around 90 million active users and within two years of the Facebook buyout, the app was valued at $35bn (£26.5bn).

Instagram hit just as a more emotionally-entangled celebrity culture was taking hold, one that first surfaced in reality television.

Brands, attracted by a visual platform with a younger, predominantly female demographic, quickly started moving in. The fashion industry loved it, with Nike and Gucci among the Instagram early adopters.

Ads started appearing on the app in 2013 and, although never designed to be an ecommerce site, small independent sellers used artful images and caption info to direct users to their latest products.

Instagram hit just as a more emotionally-entangled celebrity culture was taking hold, one that first surfaced in reality television. It opened up the daily lives of TV and pop stars, not just from the back of a limo or getting ready for their close-up in a make-up room, but also hanging out in the kitchen or kicking off their heels in an airport lounge.

If a celeb’s daily life was increasingly being lived out on the platform, soon regular users behaving in an attention-grabbing way began to enjoy a certain type of fame. So influencer culture was born.

Hired by brands as a shortcut to users, seduced by images of their favourite Instagrammer posing in a new pair of shoes or sipping a poolside drink at a newly-opened hotel, the influencer’s bankability was measured by the number of likes they generated.

However, times are changing. The ‘Checkout on Instagram’ function now allows users to buy directly from brands within the app, while ongoing experiments around hiding the ‘like’ button – or deleting it altogether – will undoubtedly have a big impact on influencer culture as we know it.

Then there’s the credibility issue. In 2018, then Unilever CMO Keith Weed called on platforms like Instagram to take “urgent action” to rebuild trust amid accusations of influencer fraud around fake followers, bots and “dishonest business models”. Couple with this intense criticism regarding concerns about online bullying and peer pressure on the platform.

The issues around credibility and brand safety aside, Instagram remains a buoyant, creative space and with in excess of 1 billion users looks set to surpass Facebook usage in the years to come.

And to think, Zuckerberg very nearly opted to buy Foursquare instead. MB

2011 – News of the World shuts

News of the World It was the story that had everything. Espionage, power struggles, crime and punishment. The kind of story that would make the front page of Britain’s biggest selling Sunday newspaper, the News of the World.

Except in the summer of 2011, the newspaper was the story. What had been brewing for five years was brought to a dramatic, and sudden, conclusion when The Guardian broke the shocking news a private investigator working for the newspaper had hacked the voicemail of the then missing teenager Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.

Celebrities were one thing. Dowler, whose disappearance and death had resonated deeply with the British public, was quite another.

Attuned to public opinion and fearing reputational damage through an association with the toxicity surrounding the tabloid, advertisers began to pull their patronage. Without the support of the public or brands, the newspaper was doomed. The stories that had given the News of the World brand salience became its undoing. It closed on 7 July.

The paper’s closure was significant. Even though sales were past their peak, the newspaper was still read by more than 2.5 million people just before its closure. The arrival of The Sun on Sunday just seven months later was evidence the market still existed. Indeed, it has been argued the extension of Murdoch’s favoured red top was something, if not planned, then welcomed.

Aside from the implications on the News Corporation newspaper empire and the liberty of former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, the scandal also scuppered Murdoch’s plans to widen his UK broadcast empire.

The stories that had given the News of the World brand salience became its undoing.

News Corp’s bid to buy the remaining 60% of BSkyB was shelved two days after the closure of the News of the World. The company was bruised and therefore fair game for emboldened MPs who were preparing to pass a Commons motion to wreck the deal. Despite further attempts, the takeover never happened.

Rupert Murdoch had been irrevocably damaged too. Prime minister David Cameron launched the Leveson Inquiry to formally investigate the phone-hacking scandal. Up until then, politicians had courted Murdoch’s favour and the public perceived him as all-powerful. His appearance at the Select Committee hearing in front of unforgiving MPs may not have established any wrongdoing on his part, but it did at least reveal him to be fallible.

“This is the most humble day of my life” said Murdoch, the very least expected by way of contrition, doing little to redeem him in the minds of the public.

As a demonstration of the power of brands to force the hands of media owners, marking the beginning of the end for Murdoch’s stranglehold on British media, the events of July 2011 would resonate through the rest of the decade. RP

2011 – The John Lewis Christmas ad

It seemed the stars aligned when John Lewis revealed its Christmas TV ad in 2011. Suddenly the department store group was hot property, gaining social media shares and tabloid coverage for The Long Wait, by agency adam&eveDDB, which showed an excited boy waiting to give a present to his parents.

The ad was a game-changer for the way we see Christmas ad campaigns, raising their profile and creating a level of expectation that is still felt.

Most of the ingredients for success had been in place for a while. John Lewis ran its first Christmas TV ad in 2007, with a spot that used products to create shadow pictures, and followed it with a series of ads that focused on the range of gift products available in its stores.

All of the ads had some familiar features: a popular song, performed at a slower tempo and in a different key to the original – nostalgia, middle-class families, cute children.

Rival advertisers followed suit, making big budget Christmas adverts a fixture in the festive schedule.

What changed? In 2011, the retailer moved from a focus on products to broader brand building. This allowed more emphasis on story, without the need to squeeze in a bunch of products. And the brand timed the change well, picking up on the Christmas-shaped snowballing of social media participation.

The 2011 ad received such a positive response that subsequent John Lewis ads have been keenly awaited and commented upon ever since. The debut of the annual John Lewis Christmas advert is now promoted in advance, supported by product tie-ups and broadcast deals.

Rival advertisers followed suit, keen to capture some of that sparkle, making big budget Christmas adverts a fixture in the festive schedule. The Christmas advertising period has been extended and – like the Super Bowl in the US – there is as much discussion about the campaigns as there is about the big day itself.

Christmas ads are reviewed on mainstream breakfast TV shows and there is a growing tradition for low-budget independent ads to be touted as ‘even more heart-warming than John Lewis’. Spoof John Lewis ads are awaited almost as keenly as the real thing.

For its part, John Lewis has nurtured its theme carefully, not straying too far from a successful formula. The ingredients have remained the same, with a distinctive cute animal or fantasy character (or Elton John) taking centre stage. Audiences have now been charmed by dragons, monsters, dogs and a randy penguin. And, all the while, audiences wait to see what will be next. MV

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