When was the last time you saw a commercial that made you cry? Maybe it was one of those gems during the Super Bowl, or maybe you’re not the crying type – either way, what’s the secret behind these stirring commercials? When you think about it, it’s odd that we’d cry over something (not you, non-cryers) that’s simply advertising a product or service for purchase.
So, what is it about certain commercials that tug at our heartstrings? The secret lies in telling a great story, which is the foundation of great marketing.
In today’s world where customers are more interested in buying experiences than products, it’s important to show them what your brand means instead of only showing what you sell.
In the words of Rachel Gillet:
“What grabs your attention more: a list full of ingredients like acacia gum, oligiosaccharide, and glutemate or a story about one company’s mission to bring the tangy sweetness of a blueberry and the warming power of a bowl of oatmeal to kitchen tables around the world?”
Below, you’ll find a selection of some our favorite stories from the past few years; they also happen to be commercials.
1) Tiny Dancer; John Lewis Home Insurance
The scene: John Lewis, a UK-based department store chain, is known for creating moving, delightful commercials. Tiny Dancer, produced in 2015, is no different. Their goal was to promote their line of insurance. A little girl dances around her home, endangering a vase, a potted tree, and many other household possessions as she goes.
The ad communicates that the magic of childhood is something that should be treasured and protected, and that parents can feel free to allow its expression without worry if they have John Lewis Insurance on their side.
What we liked: The ad is relatable because it plays on something we’ve all experienced. Whether or not the audience has children, everyone was once a child, and children love to imagine. It also uses an old classic song to evoke nostalgia.
John Lewis’s ad humanizes something that can be dull (insurance) by portraying a charming example of why you’d want insurance. Their tagline, “if it matters to you, it matters to us” also conveys that the brand cares about you and your precious moments.
2) Moments; Volkswagen
The scene: This commercial is masterful. Volkswagen’s “Moments,” promoting the New Volvo XC60, portrays how a car’s safety features can protect a young child’s future.
The ad shows a little girl’s conversation with her mother about all the adventures she’ll have in her life, as she overcomes her fear about walking to school for her first day. The moments she describes flash by as you see another story playing out at the same time, a distracted woman driving to work. The two stories meet in a nerve-wracking way. (But don’t worry, it has a good ending.)
What we liked: Volkswagen doesn’t beat us over the head with fear to promote their new safety features. Instead, they use a story about a child’s future to show how Volvo’s automatic stop feature will improve your life by protecting you from accidents. Ad Age calls it “the power of nothing.” I know what you’re thinking: Deep, and it’s just a car commercial!
They also focus on the customer, which makes it relatable. The customer could be any of the three characters in the spot – the mom, the girl, or the driver. From all three perspectives, you’d want those safety features.
3) Nothing Beats a Londoner; Nike
The scene: Nike wanted to create something that could help those in the UK identify with their brand, since they tend to market for the US. So, they went to the youth of London and featured them in this video, along with a few celebrity cameos, taking the viewer on a dramatic, intense journey through the boroughs of London.
The journey through London pictures these teens showing off their athletic skills and talking big about their endurance. (To be honest, I found it a little hard to follow what was going on but I’m not exactly their target audience [a. a teen and b. from London], so I just watch to appreciate the art.)
What we liked: Nike actually used their customers in their video. What better way to convey authenticity and a real experience? They also subtly include Nike gear throughout the video, so rather than promoting Nike directly, the ad breathes the spirit of Nike’s brand.
4) Man on the Moon; John Lewis
The scene: We can’t resist sharing another John Lewis ad, especially when they’re as sweet as this. Their yearly Christmas ad is eagerly anticipated in the UK, and this one from 2016 was no different. The ad pictures a little girl’s journey to get the lonely old man who actually lives on the moon a present to cheer him up for Christmas. John Lewis coupled the release of the video with a partnership with Age UK to help older adults who might be lonely around the holidays. Try to get through this one without crying.
What we liked: John Lewis’s creative ad encourages a spirit of generosity, rather than a focus on what you can get, which is a surprising twist for a department store looking to make sales around the holidays. Their story evokes compassion by putting you in the shoes of the little girl who wants to help the elderly man who has no one.
5) A Giant Story; Intuit
The scene: Intuit, the company behind Turbo Tax and Mint, created this advertisement, doubling as a love story, to show the prosperity that’s possible when you have their technology on your side. They show a young inventor with a knack for making useful gadgets creating a robot to help her florist friend get his small business growing.
What we liked: Intuit uses an animated love story to show the value of their software products – a pairing you might not expect, but one that works. They humanize their product offering by helping us imagine the possibilities when we use their software.
6) We’ll Take Care of You, Wherever You Are; Samsung India
The scene: Samsung India’s ad is on the long side, but it’s worth the watch – get your tissues ready. They show a TV technician traveling miles cross-country to get to a remote home to fix a TV before a certain time that evening. I won’t give away the ending, but you’ll understand why it was so important he get there in time, when the ad is over.
What we liked: Samsung India uses this touching story to convey their dedication for their customers. It has a similar message to the Tiny Dancer ad – they want you to know that they care about what matters to you, no matter who you are or how far away you live.
7) Home Pod—Welcome Home; Apple
The scene: Bet you didn’t know Apple’s Home Pod gives you magical powers. Well, according to this commercial, it can transform an otherwise boring evening at home into a world of color. When the young woman gets home from a long day, she voice-activates her Home Pod to play her a song she’ll like. Her world opens up, and she dances her apartment into a beautiful new space.
What we liked: Although this story has a simpler plot than the others, it works well. By juxtaposing a day of dull work and a long, rainy commute with the freedom the dancer feels when she gets home, the ad gives you a feeling of the potential the Home Pod can give your dreams. Apple uses this story to show how the Home Pod can transform their customer’s average evening into an amazing experience.
8) You Better Run; Reykjavik Marathon
The scene: There are a lot of reasons why you might need to run in your life. The Reykjavik Marathon gives you about 20 of these reasons, showing people from all walks of life in all different situations, in the hopes they can get you excited about running 26 miles. Did they convince you to register?
What we liked: The story Reykjavik Marathon tells is pieced together from many little stories. Each clip is a little short story itself, intriguing the viewer, who wonders why they’re all running and what’s going on in each scenario. The audience could see itself in any of the characters, giving it a broad appeal.
9) A Different Paris; Airbnb
The scene: Get to know the real Paris through the eyes of a Parisian, who also happens to be your Airbnb host. Airbnb uses the animated spot to show a woman’s experience of Paris, made personal and enlivened by the connection she made through her Airbnb host.
What we liked: Airbnb used this simple story to indicate the real value they think Airbnb offers travelers. It’s not just a cheap travel option, it’s a way to experience a city through a friend’s eyes.
10) Jane; HP
The scene: If you’re watching this at work, this one might really get to you. HP shows us Jane, once a girl who loved art, now an office worker whose dreams have been crushed by the 9-to-5 grind. It’s ironic, especially because the company producing this ad is a software company who sells printers and other office products, generally thought of as instruments of torture for the average office worker. But the twist is that with new technology, HP can also make children’s dreams come true, in particular, Jane’s art-loving daughter.
What we liked: HP chooses to start with a common feeling of office drudgery that you might associate with a company like theirs, but they spin it so that the customer can now live their dreams when they use HP products. The experience of not doing what you love is relatable for so many people, and HP empathizes with you but gently points you in a new way.
11) Not Alone; American Greetings
The scene: This American Greetings commercial is poignant. It begins with a woman who wants to become a mother, but is grieved by infertility, a sensitive subject for most people to discuss. American Greetings provides the solution by showing a woman who shares in her friend’s pain simply by sharing a card.
What we liked: American Greetings uses this touching story to show that a simple card can mean the most to people when they’re facing difficult things in life. It puts us in the position of both the grieving woman who feels alone and the friend who wants to help, and shows us the way to do that.
12) Shoulders of Giants; Nissan
The scene: Nissan shows a series of role models: an older brother, a mom, a dad, a coach, an astronaut, a firefighter and the children who admire them. The ad shows the different ways children are influenced by the important people in their life. The end of the commercial is unexpected, because you realize that in the story, Nissan’s new American Titan truck is supposed to be the child watching its role models, and Chevy, Ford, and other automobile companies are the shining examples.
What we liked: Nissan’s commercial is the opposite of what you’d expect from a new truck announcement. Instead of digs about the other companies or truck models, they use this story to convey both that they couldn’t have done it without the other companies and that their model is the new and improved thing.
13) Check the Box; LifeSource
The scene: I bet you didn’t know they could make going to the DMV a touching experience. Well, LifeSource did it. Their commercial shows a series of diverse people, all with checked boxes above them. You find out at the end that what they all have in common is being organ donors.
What we liked: LifeSource's ad worked because it set up a conflict in your mind: “What do all these people have in common?” and then resolved it by solving the mystery: “Oh, they’re all organ donors!” They humanize the choice that everyone interacting with the DMV is asked to make, whether you think about it ahead of time or not.
14) Someone Waits for You at Home; Budweiser
The scene: Budweiser shares a “don’t drink and drive” message through the eyes of a dog. The ad builds up the owner and dog’s relationship through a series of scenes and shows the owner leaving with a promise to return home, as he walks away with friends and cases of beer. His dog sits up all night waiting for his owner to return home, and you begin to think the worst, until the owner comes home and you find out that he made a responsible choice to stay the night (instead of driving while drunk).
What we liked: Budweiser’s ad tells a drinking and driving story from a unique point of view – the friends that are left behind. They use the emotion of the dog who is left behind to make you rethink what a choice like drinking and driving could mean for your friends.
What story can you tell your audience?
Consider your organization’s brand. Is there something in your value proposition that you can turn into a story? What emotion from your brand does your audience resonate with most? From a consumer standpoint, what types of stories are your favorite? We hope these ads got your creative juices flowing so that you can go create great stories, too.
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