Billboards, Mailers and Guerilla Tactics: How Old-School Marketing Is Making a Comeback

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Have you ever found yourself looking at a piece of marketing material and thinking, “It’s so simple, yet so brilliant?” Whether it’s a memorable billboard, a pop-up experience or even a flyer through your door, some ideas are so inspired that you can’t help but kick yourself that you didn’t think of it first.

But there’s a reason that creative, tangible marketing experiences are leaving such an impression on us. In an era where digital marketing has become so saturated that our brains aren’t even registering the hundreds of ads we scroll past daily, brands are turning back to faithful old methods that get people talking.

The digital boom

Over the past decade most brands and businesses have pushed primarily for digital advertising strategies — methods like banner ads, Google Ads, social media campaigns and influencers. It’s not surprising, considering the digital transformation social media has created for consumer decision-making. And the thing is, it’s not slowing down.

Digital ad spending is also only set to rise, with one agency predicting that global advertising across all digital channels will exceed 60% of global ad spend for the first time in 2022, reaching 61.5% of total expenditure. But while digital advertising continues to grow, what this has created is a very saturated market. Where ROAS (return on ad spend) once was averaging 10-15 times over, is now lucky to be close to three to five times over. This digital world makes it harder to create impact that focuses on the consumers’ connection and relationship with the brand, which ultimately affects consumers willingness to purchase a product.

Related: 4 Tips for Developing a Marketing Plan That Will Actually Grow Your Business

A return to the old

No doubt about it, digital advertising will always have its financial benefits, but these methods are not bringing the returns brands have hoped for — which is the value of a long-term consumer relationship or lifetime value (LTV) of your customers. But while marketing budgets traditionally require some proof of return on investment, people are now moving away from this and are instead looking for a more organic improvement in overall brand awareness. This is why we’re now seeing a return to methods from the ’90s and early 2000s like catalogs, direct mail and billboards to name a few.

One study found that response rates for catalogs increased by 170% from 2004 to 2018. In the U.K., several retailers also returned to catalogs during the festive lockdown period when in-person Christmas shopping was interrupted. Not only does it give consumers a tangible connection to the brand from the comfort of their home, but these strategies essentially feel new again, because fewer businesses integrate these methods into their marketing strategies.

The problem is that these methods aren’t always “measurable”, but do hold greater social value — which has always been the go to reasoning for digital transformation. It all comes down to the tracking. However, AmEx is one company that has stood by the value of direct mail marketing to create impact. “Direct mail still has a valuable place in the marketing mix when brands are looking to create a deep, personal connection with customers,” Jon Affatato, director in global marketing operations at American Express, said in 2018. He also emphasized how important direct mail is in getting people to slow down and engage with physical content, which is likely to make a greater impression.

Related: Marketing Trends in the Post-Pandemic Business Environment

A convergence of old and new

While we are certainly seeing a return to the old, some companies are opting for a blend of traditional and new methods. Digital billboard company Blip offers the appeal of a large-scale display in major cities, with a measurable offering too — including the seconds it can be shown for, the number of times it will appear in a day, and an estimate of exposure based on peak or off-peak time frames. This combination of old school and digital allows businesses to prioritize brand awareness, but still have a measurable idea of the impact.

Another great example of this in action was Coinbase’s inspired QR code idea which aired on an advert during this year’s Super Bowl. Playing off of the classic bouncing DVD logo, by scanning the code it offered users a promotion. The idea — which was so popular that it temporarily broke the app — is a perfect example of the potential impact of marketing that blends the nostalgia of the old and technology of the current era to track performance.

A new purpose in the digital world

The value of a viral event or internet moment cannot be understated. After all, it is essentially every brand’s biggest hope from their social media managers. And this growing focus on brand awareness over measurable profits can be seen in the way platforms like TikTok are utilized to grow a brand identity, rather than filtering adverts throughout “For You” feeds. Language app Duolingo is one example of how a seemingly silly idea can garner a cult-like following for a brand.

The company’s TikTok account, which boasts 4.2 million followers, consists almost solely of their giant green bird mascot getting up to mischief and jumping on viral trends. The brand voice also subverts the expectation of an encouraging educational app, and is actually somewhat passive-aggressive when users are on the brink of losing their practice streak. It’s a brand that understood the value of virality when TikTok was still just getting off the ground. This type of strategy sits in the middle ground between the viral marketing events of the past decade — like Red Bull’s extreme sports stunts — and the bold brand voices of companies on social media like Denny’s or Chipotle. These tactics are original, real and in touch with the modern day consumer, not just another digital ad that gets lost in the shuffle.

Related: How Taco Bell Proves Old-School Marketing Tactics Still Work

What’s next?

It seems it’s only a matter of time before we see a greater return of more old-school methods. Who will have the next jingle? Will a major brand reintroduce coupons? Are handwritten letters about to become the norm? Marketing as an industry clings to the concept of the “new” version of the “old,” and it’s no surprise that these strategies are seeing a resurgence at a time when everything from fashion to music to decor is calling back to the early 2000s.

But above all else, within these trends is a greater desire for real-life interaction, more meaningful brand messaging, and a break from the overwhelming everything-ness that is the internet in an ever-evolving digital age. So, in this case, it’s worth thinking about the benefits of going old school and considering the tactics that have since dissipated throughout the digital transformation. Maybe you can even give one a shot and see how it goes.


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