Review of the year 2013: all the marketing highs and lows

Andy Murray's Wimbledon victory
Andy Murray's Wimbledon victory

It's been a year of pessimism, optimism and pretty much everything in between. As 2013 draws to a close, we identify the marketing highs and lows that show it was anything but an "Empty 13".

2013 was a tale of two nations. This is not a geographical distinction, but a dual mindset that has emerged this year in which we can be both profoundly pessimistic and at the same time optimistic.

"Britain is gripped by pessimism, fear and anger as economic hardship continues to eat into people's living standards - and simultaneously by optimism, enthusiasm and excitement about everything from the latest iPhone launch to our new national narrative of success," says Saatchi & Saatchi director of strategy Richard Huntington.

Except for those really struggling with austerity, this conflict has been present in most of us in 2013, he believes. "Navigating this so that brands appear aware of the struggles of most people's lives, while harnessing and capitalising on their optimism, is a real challenge for marketers."

The UK's buoyant new-car category is a case in point. While the economy is only slowly emerging from recession, with UK GDP in the third quarter expanding by 0.8%, new car registrations in September soared to their highest level in more than five years.

"People think defer, defer, defer, then: 'Fuck it, I'll have that new car now'," says Huntington.

This dichotomous view neatly frames 2013, starting as it did with the horsemeat scandal casting a shadow of consumer distrust over the food sector before patriotism took over. The latter was sparked by Andy Murray's victory at Wimbledon, which sent his marketing power skyrocketing, while royal-baby mania, seized upon by brands from Warburtons to Ryanair, continued to fuel the nation's optimistic mood.

Joy vs wrath

Coca-Cola tapped into this upswing, too, first bringing back the "Diet Coke hunk", then launching its personalised bottle campaign, sending consumers back to the shops to search out specific names - and boost sales.

Elsewhere, while it may feel like the most over-discussed piece of social-media brand activity of all time, that timely Oreo tweet, "You can still dunk in the dark", sent after a power outage at the Super Bowl, happened only in March (see opposite).

Judged on chatter, it was ranked as one of the best ads of the night. When considered in the context of what it was up against - multimillion-dollar spends from brands and months of carefully crafted TV creative designed to outdo all-comers on the night - it was a sign that real-time marketing had hit the big time.

That Oreo tweet went on to win several Lions at Cannes and inspired a campaign that took the Grand Prix in its category.

The spectre of pessimism was never far away, though. In May the double-edged quality of social media was illustrated perfectly, when online "gender-based hate speech" was brought into the spotlight, with brands also complaining that their ads appeared alongside offensive content. In the event, it took social media to combat social media.

The campaign, using the hashtag #fbrape, from Women, Action & The Media and the Everyday Sexism Project, forced Facebook to change its policies on content endorsing rape and domestic violence - all in just seven days.

Then came British Gas' poorly timed use of social media, running a Twitter Q&A with its customer service director just after it had announced a price hike. The #askBG hashtag backfired spectacularly, with thousands of people taking the opportunity to lambast the energy firm.

The wrath of the vocal minority has never had so perfect a platform as Twitter. So brands that increase prices while wages remain flat or decline in real terms, will find to their detriment that negative chatter is rife online.

Long-term behaviours

The effect of the recession on longer-term shopping behaviours became clearer this year, with most brands buying into the idea that the money-saving patterns of the past few years are the new norm.

"This year seemed to be the year in which austerity went from being a phase into a fact of life," says Tracey Follows, chief strategy officer and executive partner at JWT London.

Most brands buying into the idea that the money-saving patterns of the past few years are the new norm.

The JWT Austerity Index has shown that some behaviours adopted initially as coping mechanisms have since become ingrained. "Coupon-cutting, deal-seeking, price-comparing on a mobile while in store - all of these have come to signal the savvy shopper rather than the desperation of the deal-seeker," explains Follows.

At least some positive news in the economy in 2013, including the Eurozone emerging from recession after a record 18 months of contraction, may signal the start of an uptick in consumer sentiment.

The big question, however, according to James Murphy, editorial director of think tank Future Foundation, is how comprehensively UK consumers will snap back to type. "Have the years since 2008 left deep ruts in the consumer psyche to the point where few are going to see and exploit new opportunities for indulgent living? Or will they act as if the recession is indeed over and thus they are permitted to consume in the same old ways?"

Murphy believes there are signs of hope. "It is as if consumers are peeking through the curtains to see whether the rain has really stopped," he says. This year, he contends that we could see the "first really bumper Christmas of the decade" - if the consumer's nerve holds.

The simplicity principle

It may sound like marketing basics, but remembering that the "consumer is boss" became the mantra at Procter & Gamble in 2013, with the reappointment of AG Lafley as chief executive in May following the surprise retirement of Bob McDonald. Lafley, whose first stint as CEO lasted from 2000 to 2009, set out his stall on his return with a letter to staff reminding them what matters most.

In his address to "P&Gers", he outlined his core beliefs: "The consumer is boss - at the heart of everything we do; we create and build brands that improve consumers' lives; innovation is our lifeblood; and every P&Ger is an owner and a leader - we are one team, with one dream, collaborating internally and competing externally."

According to Peter Fisk, consultant at strategic consultancy GeniusWorks and a former CIM chief executive, this was far more meaningful than just a memo to staff. "The simplicity of (Lafley's) obsession saw a tripling of P&G's market value in his previous decade as CEO, and, while it doesn't mean the consumer is always right, it does mean that taking a consumer rather than product perspective is the foundation of more relevant marketing and successful innovation," says Fisk.

For P&G, the post-digital environment emerging this year has also simplified the landscape. "The era of digital marketing is over. It's almost dead," came the cry from P&G global brand-building officer Marc Pritchard in September.

Translating that provocative statement, Andy Nairn, founding partner of agency Lucky Generals, says: "He means that we have just about arrived at a place where everything is digital and it is 'just brand-building, it's what we do'. Has the fabled post-digital world really arrived or are separate digital functions, agencies and job titles still viable?"

Creative return

For Pritchard at least, post-digital in 2013 is real and the "mindset" P&G is trying to infuse within the company. "It's creating a tremendous shift," he proclaimed. "It's freeing up our minds on building creative ideas that come to life through the mediums that we engage with every single day - search, social, mobile, PR, and, yes, even TV."

With this shift has come a "recalibration" of roles and expectations of digital and digitally inspired marketing practice, notes Saatchi & Saatchi's Huntington. He believes that "a powerful case for long-term brand-building and against the short-termism inspired by digital and data" has come to the fore, highlighted by the thinking in the IPA publication "The Long and the Short of it" by Les Binet and Peter Field.

"Add to that the studies that have questioned the ROI of paid search, plus increasing disillusion over digital display and a recognition that 'TV is dead' is fanciful bullshit, and you have a year that has finally seen a science-based questioning of the 'digitally inspired' mantras that have pervaded our industry. This has been a year of home truths," he says.

While admen might be expected to be quick to hit back against the TV naysayers, in 2013 the debate has moved beyond the old versus the new. In February, for example, streaming service Netflix launched the first series of House of Cards in its entirety, allowing viewers to binge on demand.

"It turned many conventional TV behaviours on their heads," says Lucky Generals' Nairn. "As the star of the show, Kevin Spacey, said in his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Festival in the summer: TV is far from dead, but instead is enjoying a golden age."

In this post-digital environment, creativity is once again the fulcrum of the industry, with "the big idea" clawing back at least some of its voting rights from the domineering big data insights camp.

Wayne Deakin, executive creative director of Jam, points to the Australian "Dumb ways to die" rail-safety campaign, created by McCann Melbourne for Metro Trains, which won several awards at Cannes.

"To be truly creative in today's market, you need to be making ideas that can execute brilliantly across channels - ideas that people want to interact with," he says. "With less time and more channels than imaginable, customers are harder and harder to reach. We need to be more cunning and creative to cut through."

Stratos moment

Although there was no Red Bull Stratos moment this year, there was a raft of high-profile brand partnerships, including Tesco's sponsorship of Downton Abbey coinciding with the relaunch of Finest, plus Kit Kat and Google's unexpected tie-up for the latest version of Android. Such partnerships make a case for 2013 to be considered as the year of content, according to JWT's Follows. Content and context is perhaps more apt, with "native advertising" one of the year's buzz phrases.

"The TV ads are getting shorter and less emotional, while the YouTube content they direct you to is getting longer and better," she says. "The fundamental question for planners is whether we are sacrificing awareness for engagement. While the value of a 'like' is still spoken about in the same breath as ROI, some people in the industry will continue to attribute almost equal value to the two. Both are important but in different ways and we'll find that 2014 is the year that the 'effective wheat' gets sorted from the 'social chaff'."

While we don't need to be told yet again "It was the year of AN Other", mobile devices continued to re-shape the way in which consumers interact with companies, each other and the media. During this final quarter of 2013, sales of tablets will outstrip those of desktops and laptops combined for the first time, according to analysts IDC.

"In 2013 UK smartphone penetration rose to two-thirds; and mobile continues to change the way we go about living our lives," says WCRS executive planning director Matt Willifer.

"Part of the reason for the growth of the smartphone is that it provides some new answers to the most common and mass-market consumer needs. For example, what could be better in a recession than RedLaser, where you can scan goods in shops to search for a better deal elsewhere? And the idea of 'paperless education' is gaining traction to the extent that the US Education Secretary said that tablets would make textbooks a thing of the past 'over the next few years'."

Massive spike

John Lewis predicts that Apple's latest tablet launches, the iPad Air and new Mini, will contribute to a surge in consumer-electronics sales this Christmas. It further forecasts that its online trade from tablets will massively spike at 3pm on 25 December, after the Queen's Speech, as people start using their new devices.

Mobile accounted for 50% of John Lewis' Christmas Day online traffic last year, but the balance is expected to tip in favour of mobile at 5pm on the day this year, overtaking desktop traffic for the first time.

We are more enthusiastic - that is something that changed last year and has stuck in 2013.

While wearable tech was much in the headlines in 2013, John Lewis believes that it will take off in a big way in 2014, with early adopters shopping through Google Glass eyewear when the much-hyped product is finally launched in the UK, as well as the new wave of connected watches from Samsung and Sony.

With the economic mood showing some signs of brightening, the retailer adds that consumers will look to spend wisely on investment pieces, rather than "frittering money away" on fast- fashion items.

Rounding up the highs, lows, successes, failures and most poignant moments of 2013 is not easy against a backdrop of a packed 2012, which had the Olympics, Obama's re-election and the Red Bull Stratos edge-of-space jump among its many highlights.

However, 2013 was a year in which signs of a recovery, coupled with the aftermath of 2012's narrative of success, resulted in a more confident Britain - albeit with a still-cautious outlook.

"We are more enthusiastic - that is something that changed last year and has stuck in 2013," says Saatchi & Saatchi's Huntington. "From pulling off the Olympics to Adele's sweep at the Grammys, people simply no longer recognise that image of Britain being shit at everything."

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