July 17, 2024

Tricia Oak

Business & Finance Excellency

9 campaigns that struck a chord in 2021

9 campaigns that struck a chord in 2021

Despite 2021’s unfulfilled promises across many fronts, some creative efforts have proved enduring. They captured the cultural moment or felt keyed into what’s coming, with brands jumping on viral TikTok trends based on classic TV spots or rolling the dice on the emerging concept of a metaverse. A sense of fun made a welcome return following a grim 2020.

Not everything panned out as expected for marketers. More widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines in the spring inspired optimistic campaigns pining for a return to old ways that has, in reality, only materialized in fits and starts — and could again be delayed by the spread of a new variant.

If experiments with NFTs or budding apps like Cameo represented an eye toward the new, plenty of companies also brought back old chestnuts with adjusted tactics. Experiential marketing, a favorite of pre-pandemic days, resurfaced, but with hybrid and contactless elements that didn’t sap out the fun.

There were, of course, some misfires. Burger King UK in March took its provocative streak too far with a “Women belong in the kitchen” tweet intended to highlight culinary career inequalities that nevertheless read as a combination of clumsy and offensive. Volkswagen tricked the media into believing a “Voltswagen” rebrand reflecting a focus on electric vehicles was real, resulting in an April Fools’ stunt gone sour. Such misses emphasize the necessity for even winning brands to keep a closer ear to the ground with culture, which has become its own speciality in marketing services.

Below, Marketing Dive breaks down the 2021 campaigns that were able to thread the needle deftly, balancing boldness with an execution that resonated with consumers. As marketers continue to reshape their businesses for a digital-first era in 2022, these concepts can serve as a guidepost for what’s working on the messaging and media strategy fronts.

Coke gives gift of Cameo messages from Santa

Coca-Cola’s advertising ties to Santa Claus stretch back to the 1920s, but the soda marketer upped the ante this year with a campaign that nods to the creator economy. The brand in November partnered with fan connection app Cameo to offer consumers the chance to request a custom video greeting from its interpretation of Saint Nick, mirroring how the service is used to pay for shoutouts from celebrities.

Coca-Cola’s “Chimney” spot accompanied the holiday effort.

Courtesy of The Coca-Cola Company


The creative underpins Coke’s ongoing focus on personalization at scale, but also the fact that many families may be wary about visits to crowded malls for pictures with the holiday icon given COVID-19. Coke’s take on Santa is additionally making his first “IRL,” or in real life, appearance as part of the Coca-Cola Holiday Caravan, a traveling experience where families can receive free printed holiday photos with the jolly icon and sample products.

The effort is part of “Real Magic,” the first major brand overhaul for the soda maker in five years. It’s a platform to address a fragmented world in need of community, a theme embodied in a holiday ad that depicts a boy who inspires his apartment community to construct a makeshift chimney for Santa using cardboard boxes.

“The box has become the ubiquitous symbol of the pandemic,” Ludwig+ CEO Barbara Yolles said over email. “This is Coke when Coke is at its best — the global inclusive brand.”

Wendy’s keeps experiential weird with ‘Rick and Morty’

As experiential marketing remerged in 2021, Wendy’s rose above with a pop-up inspired by its running partnership with the hit Adult Swim show “Rick and Morty.” The immersive “Morty’s” drive-thru at a California location was accessed through the gaping maws of giant inflatable versions of the show’s characters leading to a tunnel adorned in screens displaying references to the edgy cartoon. Items on deck included a Pickle Rick Frosty inspired by a notorious episode and menu staples rebranded after fan-favorite characters, while mascot Wendy received a Morty-centric makeover.

Months out, the June activation remains noteworthy for tapping into changing dining habits, with an emphasis on the safety and convenience of the drive-thru, as well as culture-driven innovations that have dominated the fast food category as brands vie to woo young customers. On the latter front, Wendy’s effort was a clear success, with reports that wait times to get into “Morty’s” stretched for hours.

It’s a concept Wendy’s built on for the Adult Swim Festival in November, with a custom Morty’s mobile vehicle delivering the chain’s new Hot & Crispy Fries to eaters in the Los Angeles area. In a segment with plenty of mismatched tie-ups, Wendy’s and “Rick and Morty” continue to key into an appealingly bizarre sensibility.

“They’ve always shown their character in all of their communications, but in Morty’s, they cleverly mashed up two brands [while] being true to themselves,” said Code and Theory Chief Creative Officer Amy Carvajal over email.

Pepsi stakes its place in the future of food ordering

Ghost kitchens are forecast by some analysts to be a $1 trillion market by the close of the decade, suggesting brands that move early on the opportunity could reap serious rewards. Pepsi took its first crack at the space by opening a Pep’s Place virtual restaurant in May that asked visitors to pick their favorite drink from its portfolio and then paired the selection with an ideal dish.

Pepsi opened a virtual restaurant called Pep’s Place. 

Courtesy of Pepsi


The “beverage-first” direct-to-consumer offering, which ran 30 days online and through third-party delivery apps, kicked off a “Better With Pepsi” platform that has seen the soda marketer continue to innovate in a world increasingly dominated by takeout and delivery. Ahead of Memorial Day, the brand enacted a marketing blitz claiming Pepsi pairs better with burgers in a shot to chief rival Coke, which has partnerships with category leaders Wendy’s, Burger King and McDonald’s.

Beyond marking a return to the types of brand sparring that animated fast food marketing in the pre-pandemic world, the campaign was another indication that Pepsi sees an opportunity to shore up its positioning as changing dining habits create greater flexibility.

“With a lot of takeout and people bringing food home nowadays, I think there’s a lot more choices in beverages,” Todd Kaplan, vice president of marketing at PepsiCo, previously told Marketing Dive about the burger push. “A lot of people will pair the drinks with what they want and can have the freedom to optimize their beverage choices.”

Crown Royal experiments with hybrid worlds

While some brands are heading full-steam for the metaverse, others are experimenting with blending the real world and alternative ones. For its “A Whole New World of Cocktails” campaign in September, Diageo-owned Crown Royal unveiled a block party that inhabits this hybrid space. Using 3D-printing tech, the whisky brand turned a real cast of people and ready-to-print models into a miniature set, which was hand-painted and assembled for a 30-second spot.

As the camera pans through the party, viewers get the sense they’re exploring a different world, with buildings replaced by giant cans of cocktails and time frozen to capture a bustling neighborhood in collective celebration. Realistic scenarios are intermixed as rapper DijahSB performs a new single for a crowd and pro gamer Erin Ashley Simon plays among friends.