Brand Strategy

This year’s ANA Masters of Marketing conference, recapped

Marketers from Lowe’s, McDonald’s, the NFL, and Unilever spoke at the hybrid event—here’s what they had to say.
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· 6 min read

Each October, thousands of marketers flock to Orlando for the Masters of Marketing conference. Put on by the Association of National Advertisers, the conference is three days of buffet food, subpar coffee, hobnobbing, and performances from the likes of the Backstreet Boys (seriously). Oh, and lots of CMO presentations.

  • Of course, the conference went virtual last year. This year, the ANA went with a hybrid approach that...kind of worked?
  • The ANA told Marketing Brew that nearly 500 people turned up to the conference last week—a pretty big drop from the roughly 3,000 that attended in 2019—while more than 1,300 people tuned in virtually.

At any rate, Marketing Brew watched the conference from the comfort of our apartments to bring you some of the highlights, all rounded up below.

Changing with the times

The NFL is gay, the NFL is transgender, the NFL is American. It’s ad copy that would have seemed unthinkable 20 years ago. But now, it’s a message the league isn’t afraid to hide from, explained Tim Ellis, the league’s chief marketing officer, during his presentation.

  • The strategy to commit to a more progressive worldview was accelerated by 2020’s social justice initiatives. Of course, the league's own players have been asking the NFL to be outspoken about social justice since 2016, when several started protesting police brutality and racism.
  • “We should have listened to some of the powerful voices of our players, including Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid and Kenny Stills,” Ellis said, naming athletes who were criticized and unsupported by the league when they started kneeling during the national anthem in 2016. “We realized that we needed to step up and use the full power and influence of our platform to address and help create true change.”

More recently, the NFL has promoted talking about depression and anxiety among its players, and has seen the first openly gay player come out of the closet to wide support from his teammates and Goodell—as well as the league placing social justice messaging on the field.

“I wanted our players to be relatable, which meant removing that proverbial helmet and showcasing a more human face for the league, a league that’s willing to have tough conversations, authentically lean into youth culture, and stand behind the players and what matters most to them,” said Ellis.

Bonus quote: “If we don’t have the NFL this fall, this country is in for a whole lot of shit,” a quote Ellis attributed to former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi in the spring of 2020.

Standing out

Marisa Thalberg, EVP and chief brand and marketing officer at Lowe’s, said a main challenge she has faced since joining the retailer in February 2020 has been differentiating it from its rival Home Depot.

Ultimately, the company’s goal is to sell products, which it can theoretically do by pouring money into performance marketing, but Thalberg said that felt like a trap.

“If we just do that, we’re in a race to the bottom of one Google search away for [the] cheapest price,” Thalberg said. “I want people to say, ‘I want to get those tools,’ but I want them to say, ‘I want to get those tools at Lowe’s.’”

To that end, Thalberg said he set out to reframe the Lowe’s brand as a destination. For example:

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The latter was an effort to remind people that while Lowe’s is a hardware store, style-minded consumers can also visit it for housewares.

“People knew they could come to us for a hammer and nails,” Thalberg said. “But did they know that they could come to us and get a gorgeous, fluffy pouf?”

Star power

McDonald’s SVP & Chief Marketing & Digital Customer Experience Officer Morgan Flatley shared the brand’s vulnerability during her talk, explaining that, just a few years ago, it was disconnected from its biggest fans (as well as younger consumers) and focusing too much on the haters.

  • “I think sometimes for really large-scale brands—close to 90% of Americans roll through our drive-thru every year—it’s easy to lose the heart of the brand and not connect with some of your most rabid fans that actually allow the brand to have meaning,” Flatley said.

Flatley outlined a few key tactics that propelled McDonald’s brand from stale and disconnected, helping it become more relevant. The not-so-secret thread through the presentation was the importance of celebrity influence.

  • For instance, while explaining how McDonald’s realized its newfound goal of reconnecting with the youths, Flatley highlighted the celebrities the brand has worked with for its “famous orders” campaign, such as Kim Kardashian and Travis Scott.
  • A video played during her presentation detailed what the brand claims happened as a result of its “famous orders” efforts, which began in early 2020, stating that McDonald’s has reached 306 million people organically on social media and grew its 18 to 24 demographic by 3.5%.

Don’t worry, be happy

Unilever’s Esi Eggleston Bracey, EVP and COO of beauty and personal care in North America, had a pretty simple message for attendees: A little positivity might be able to give your brand the boost it needs.

Bracey, who joined the company in 2018, has spearheaded some of the company’s purpose-driven efforts, like its “inclusive” deodorant that rolled out earlier this year. But she’s also helped inject what she calls “positive propositions” into some of Unilever’s brands.

  • She pointed to Axe, which got a bit of a brand refresh this year via a colorful ad created by The Martin Agency. “The new Axe is lighter, certainly in fragrance, but also in spirit. It’s more carefree, it’s upbeat,” Bracey said.
  • She said the campaign has a “happy and positive” music and tone. “Remember, people remember feelings, and positive feelings are even more valuable now than ever before.”

She also highlighted Find Your Happy Place, a line of candle and body-care products Unilever recently developed with Walmart. “You can feel the positivity in the name,” she said.

Results: Bracey claimed these propositions are “working in the marketplace” and leading to “increases in household penetration,” but didn’t share any other details.

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Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.