The best ever digital marketing campaigns leverage the personal aspects of social media, the emotional connections of visual art and the nuanced sales tactics of traditional marketing. With these combined, the brand can gracefully swan dive directly into the customer’s subconscious, as well as their hearts. Or, it can be a humiliating belly-flop, like that Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner.
To help inspire your next digital marketing campaign ideas—and offer a gloomy warning of what not to do—we’re releasing our list of the best and worst digital marketing campaigns of all time. We try to stick exclusively to online campaigns as best we can—so we won’t subject you to any more mentions of Pepsi’s painfully unaware take on social justice.
The 5 best digital marketing campaigns of all time
1. ALS ice bucket challenge
Are you even online if you haven’t done a TikTok challenge yet? Our obsession with connecting over social media and daring each other to share recordings has been growing for years.
In 2014 a new tide of challenge video begun with the emergence of the charity-focused “Ice bucket challenge”.
The premise was simple enough: pour a bucket of ice on your head in a social media video to show support for ALS research. Once finished, you’d challenge friends to do it too, which helped the campaign expand its reach. Although it’s often linked to the ALS Association, the campaign was actually started by Pat Quinn and Pete Frates, two ALS activists who didn’t didn’t represent a particular institution.
There are competing narratives whether you could participate in lieu of or in addition to actually donating but, regardless, the project generated enough awareness to increase research funding by $220 million worldwide. The money went to good use, as just a couple years later in 2016, researchers discovered a new gene that caused the disease, which in turn led to new targeted gene therapy and drug development.
Why did it work so well?
According to Eb Adeyeri, the strategy director of We Are Social, “The ice bucket challenge plays on many of the personality traits that emerge when using social media. It encourages a competitive spirit, with each participant trying to make their video more amusing, absurd or outrageous than the last. It also plays on the fact people often have narcissistic tendencies on their own social media feeds and enjoy an excuse to post images and videos of themselves.”
2. Always #LikeAGirl
Touted as “a game-changer in feminist movement,” the 2014 #LikeAGirl campaign from feminine hygiene brand Always blurred the line between advertising and social impact. The campaign centered around a series of YouTube videos that reversed gender stereotypes, twisting the derogative “do something like a girl,” into a positive and empowering meaning, often showing candid sound bytes from female athletes and leaders, as well as the perspective of adolescent girls.
Soon after the initial video was released, women everywhere were sharing personal stories and showing support for younger generations to challenge traditional gender roles. Always reinforced the campaign with multiple follow-up videos, often revolving around a single successful woman telling her story.
While the campaign succeeded in raising the profile of the Always brand, its real achievement lies in its social impact. A follow-up case study showed that 76% of girls now had positive associations of the phrase “like a girl” (up from 19%) and that two out of three males who watched the video said they’d “think twice” before using the phrase as an insult.
3. Spotify Wrapped
What started as a user feature in 2015 ballooned into a widespread digital marketing campaign that many people look forward to year after year. Now under the name “Wrapped,” this Spotify campaign looks at what you’ve been listening to all year and in December compiles some statistics and a playlist based on your preferences.
Users are encouraged to share their Wrapped findings online with the help of themed Spotify Wrapped ads and copious influencer marketing. Every December, Spotify users share their data with one other, with conversations of friendly competitions and shared interests. In 2018, they even offered the chance to have your Wrapped statistics displayed on digital billboards in areas like Times Square and Piccadilly Circus.
This digital marketing campaign works for one overwhelming reason: it’s about the people, not the brand. The Wrapped campaign is essentially just a vehicle for people to discuss the music they love, and any campaign that strikes a chord with people’s personal passions will be a success.
4. Chipotle #Boorito
@newtShould have dressed up as Parsley😤 Show ur best costumes using #boorito #contest & this sound. You could win 1yr of free 🌯s. terms: chip.tl/boo #ad♬ Monster Mash (Ethan Fields Remix) – Chipotle
Since 2000, Chipotle has celebrated “Boorito” during the holiday season, often involving discounts awarded to customers in a spooky costume. In 2020, for its twentieth year anniversary, Chipotle shook things up a little, in response to both the pandemic and the rise of social media marketing.
The result was a two-pronged campaign that showcased both a mastery of digital marketing and ethical adherence to pandemic safety guidelines. To dissuade overcrowding at their store locations, Chipotle turned Boorito all-digital; customers had simply to follow Chipotle on Twitter, Instagram or TikTok to receive a special discount code, which could be redeemed on their app or website.
At the same time, Chipotle ran a special Boorito TikTok challenge: participants showed their “before and after” Halloween transformations, using Chipotle’s special sound effects and, of course, the hashtag. The top 5 videos that received the most likes won free burritos for a year.
Chipotle supported their digital marketing campaign with sponsored influencer participation, such as Addison Rae. All in all, it was an unprecedented success, with 3.6 billion total views of videos with the #Boorito hashtag.
5. Dollar Shave Club video
An original “viral” video back in the old-timey days of 2012, the Dollar Shave Club was one of the first brands to reveal just how effective digital marketing campaigns could be. The one-and-a-half-minute video racked up 27 million views, culminating in the company’s $1 billion buyout.
Part of the video’s success was its humor—its irreverence, absurdity and profanity appealed to the growing Millennial market that made up the majority of online users back then. Michael Dubin, founder and host of the video, merged his marketing experience with his amateur comedic training at UCB to invent a new way of marketing.
Despite the video’s silliness, it pioneered quite a few hallmarks of successful video marketing that live on today. Constant motion, abrupt topic changes and talking directly to the camera are still effective methods of holding your viewer’s attention. The video doesn’t neglect the business side either. It uses visual metaphors to hit value points like “so gentle a toddler could use it” and keeps attention to the irresistible $1 deal at its core.
The 5 worst digital marketing campaigns of all time
1. McDonald’s #McDStories
How you think your digital marketing campaign will go can be very different to how it actually goes. That lesson hits close to home for the McDonald’s marketers in charge of the disastrous #McDStories campaign of 2012.
The idea was to have Twitter users share their experiences with McDonald’s and in a way that’s exactly what happened. The hashtag was immediately flooded with horror stories about what happens at the fast-food chain, not to mention plenty of call-outs to the corporation’s animal abuse allegations.
McDonald’s pulled promotion for the campaign after just two hours, but by then the damage was already done. Jason Falls, a social media correspondent, attributed the failure to the brand’s lack of self-awareness. “McDonald’s… had no idea what their true perception in the marketplace was. They didn’t see their brand the way consumers did.”
2. Snapchat’s “Would You Rather?”
In 2018, an ad on Snapchat asked users whether they’d rather “slap Rihanna” or “Punch Chris Brown,” presumably referencing the Brown’s publicized domestic violence assault on Rihanna from 2009. Although the ad was designed by a third-party (a game called “Would You Rather?”), it successfully passed Snapchat’s review process and went live.
There was enough outrage that led to the ad being pulled after a few days. Among the vocal critics was Rihanna herself, who stated in an Instagram post: “I’d love to call it ignorance, but I know you ain’t that dumb! You spent money to animate something that would intentionally bring shame to DV victims and made a joke of it!!!”
The ultimate fallout? Following the scandal, the share value of Snapchat’s parent company Snap Inc. fell 5%, an estimated loss of $1 billion.
3. Kony 2012
The organization Invisible Children, founded in 2004 by Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell, sought to increase awareness surrounding warlord Joseph Kony and the atrocities committed by his “Lord’s Resistance Army.
“Kony 2012” was a short film that Invisible Children centred an entire digital campaign upon. The three founders believed the world was unaware of Joseph Kony and the turmoil he was wreaking; so they set out to spread awareness and have him captured within the year.
The video itself was at first considered hugely successful; it was YouTube’s first-ever video to reach a million likes. But following its release, Russell went viral again after an incident surrounding his mental health was ridiculed online. This encouraged a renewed public interest and a growing criticism of Russell, Invisible Children and the ‘humanitarian’ film they’d made.
Watching it is incredibly uncomfortable. It begins with a video montage of Russell’s family life through his son’s first years. Why? Because enabling his son to “grow up in a better world than I did” is how Russell sets the context of the film. Exhibiting a striking white savior complex, the situation surrounding Kony’s atrocities in central Africa is retold entirely from Russell’s perspective. He literally narrates the entire thing and, alongside his white do-gooder counterparts, has way more screentime than the people he’s claiming to help.
So despite all of the dramatic music and highly emotional white college kids who feature in the film, it remains unclear what Russell and co achieved with this digital marketing campaign. Many Ugandans resented their ‘masterpiece’ as it oversimplified geopolitical events. The documentary was centered upon Uganda, yet Kony had actually fled the country 6 years prior to its release. In fact, he was never actually caught and remained at large until his reported death from Covid in January 2021.
4. Dove’s (second) racist ad
In 2017, Dove released a quick video ad on Facebook showing a black woman removing her shirt to “transform” into a white woman. Considering that they were advertising a body lotion, the connotations led to an understandable outrage and the ad being pulled (although not before screenshots were grabbed).
This ad alone was bad, but to make matters worse, it wasn’t the first time Dove showcased a racist bias in their advertising. A shocking 2011 campaign showed three women in a range of skin tones, with “before” written above the dark-skinned women and “after” above the light-skinned woman.
The company launched the usual apology tour, but the second time around, people don’t forget as easily. As political author Keith Boykin summed up in a Tweet, “One racist ad makes you suspect. Two racist ads makes you kinda guilty.”
5. Warburton #CrumpetCreations
Always research your hashtags before incorporating them into your digital marketing campaign. Inadequate research can result in some strange bedfellows, like a family-run bakery and a manufacturer of furry costumes.
British bakery Warburton launched a contest in December 2017: take a picture of your best crumpets and upload it to Instagram with the hashtag #CrumpetCreations. Had they looked into it beforehand, they would have known that Crumpet Creations is also the name of a professional “fursuiter”, i.e. someone who creates custom costumes for the furry community.
It took one irate mother who wanted to scope out her competition to notice the misstep. Warburton apologized and changed their contest’s official hashtag, but only after the story was picked up by local news sources.
While Warburton was a little bashful over the mistake, the owner of Crumpet Creations told the Metro that she found the misunderstanding quite hilarious. “This poor bread company had no idea… why didn’t they check the hashtag prior?”
As is the case in each of these examples, the success or failure of a digital marketing campaign is decided on the drawing board. Proper planning, ample research and thoughtful design can nurture success and safeguard against embarrassment. One more reason to work with only the most skilled teams when creating your own campaigns.