What We Can Learn from History’s Most Successful Marketing Campaigns

by Brittany McSorley

If there’s one constant in this world, it’s that people love buying stuff. But the way we live dictates the way we shop, so as society evolves, so must marketing techniques. Over the past several decades, cultural and technological shifts have transformed consumerism. On the sell side, we’ve gone from the sophisticated advertising meetings of Mad Men to fast-paced ads that often end up sounding like, “Click here to learn more! Seriously, click! Please don’t stop scrolling. WAIT, I said! Ugh. Why is the internet so hard?”

Things are different now. For example, they were day-drinking on that show all the time, and now for some reason it’s almost universally frowned upon in professional environments? Rude.

Adapting your marketing strategy in this ever-updating landscape can be tricky. But if you look back on the most successful ad campaigns of the past, you’ll notice several tried-and-true strategies that will never go out of style, even if the mid-morning bourbon has.

What can we learn from these successes?


“Just Do It”

It’s hard to believe that Nike ever existed without the “Just Do It” tagline, but in fact, the phrase was introduced in the company’s advertising in the late 1980s. Before that, Nike mainly catered to professional athletes, marathon runners and the like. The “Just Do It” campaign helped Nike branch out and appeal to a far broader audience, the normal folks who exercise to stay healthy but don’t live to sweat. With “Just Do It,” Nike offered a solution to its new target customers’ problem: exercise is hard. This slogan is actually kind of abrasive when you think about it. Do you find working out challenging? Of course you do. That’s the point. But the only way to exercise is to exercise, and at least Nike helps you do it stylishly. “Just Do It” worked because it cut through the crap, which can be the key to the whole puzzle when it comes to marketing.


“Think Small”

social media marketing

via Medium

Volkswagen’s 1960 “Think Small” campaign addressed a problem head-on. At the time, buying big American cars was all the rage. Rather than trying to blend in (a pretty much impossible feat for a compact, foreign car in the ‘60s), the company advertised its Beetle by playing up what made it stand out, taking out full-page print ads and fearlessly presenting negative space. It was an eye-catching move, and going against the grain paid off. Play up what makes your product or service unique, even if it seems risky, and it may become a big hit.


“The Most Interesting Man in the World”

Creating a marketing strategy for an indulgence, like alcohol, can be especially challenging. In 2006, Dos Equis found an incredibly successful loophole when it launched a campaign that showcased the value of making fun of yourself. In presenting an exaggerated version of the advertising world’s sophisticated cool guy, the company let customers know it was in on the joke, which is far more endearing than trying too hard and appearing insincere. Plus, the phrase, “Stay thirsty, my friends,” really rolls right off the tongue. So don’t be too serious, and remember that having an incredibly parrot-able slogan never hurts.


“Got Milk?”

This 1993 campaign from the California Milk Processor Board was a game-changer. What made it particularly unique? It wasn’t even targeting a new demographic. The now-iconic ads weren’t meant for people who never drank milk. They were suggesting to milk drinkers that they weren’t drinking it enough. You know what’s easier than picking up a new habit? Doubling down on one you already have. Thanks to this wholesome campaign, milk sales sky-rocketed, nearly every famous face of the time donned a painted-on dairy mustache for print ads, and a simple two-word question became engrained in our collective consciousness forever. The lesson? Sometimes it’s not about asking customers to try something brand new, but rather asking them to circle back to a classic.


“Does She or Doesn’t She?”

Legend has it that this 1957 Clairol campaign is the reason some states no longer list hair color on driver’s licenses, so it’s safe to say it was pretty effective. These ads posed one simple question: does this beautiful woman color her hair? You bet she does! But she uses Clairol, which is so damn good, you can’t even tell it’s not natural. This campaign was all about subtlety, the opposite of a loud, show-and-tell strategy. It let customers in on a secret and promised to continue keeping it quiet. The number of American women dyeing their hair increased dramatically after this campaign debuted, and the strategy revolutionized the beauty industry. These days, women coloring their hair isn’t so much a trend as a given, and that’s largely thanks to Clairol’s conspiratorial wink. Sometimes, you can show off by letting customers know you have an invisible footprint.


“A Diamond is Forever”

This De Beers campaign has been running for more than 70 years and may be the most successful marketing strategy of all time—the company literally invented the concept of the diamond engagement ring. Before De Beers came along and insisted that diamonds were a necessary luxury for the betrothed, the stones weren’t considered the valuable prize they are today. It was a bold strategy to say the least, because De Beers wasn’t even looking for repeat customers. It was just informing you that you absolutely must make this one purchase. The company decided diamonds should be crucial and created the new normal. Marketing doesn’t always need to convince a customer to come back over and over. If you establish that you’re the expert, just one transaction can be enough. Mind games are forever.


The Marlboro Man

It’s hard to believe now, but before the 1950s, filtered cigarettes were largely marketed to women. Then the Marlboro Man campaign came along, totally flipped the script, and presented an icon that embodied ‘real,’ rugged masculinity. In no time, Marlboros were for men. With the right marketing techniques, you can make your product represent whatever you want. It’s largely up to you what people associate you with. (We just don’t recommend using this tip to sell cigarettes anymore.)



via Bustle

 Before Progressive came up with Flo, it was difficult to imagine that insurance ads could be entertaining. (Okay, fine. The Aflac duck was pretty fun.) But since 2008, actress Stephanie Courtney’s perfect portrayal of quirky and helpful spokeswoman Flo has transformed the brand and inspired many other campaigns that emphasize fun and humor. Never underestimate the power of adding a personal touch. Put a face to your product, and people will engage.


As far as how marketing will further change and develop in the coming years, your guess is as good as ours. Will we start using holograms to sell Oreos? Probably. Will advertisements eventually just be beamed straight into our brains? Also probably. But connection, personality, and innovation will always be vital marketing tools. And if none of that works, try to get George Clooney. I’d buy poison from that dude.