It’s been a year. A decade? Maybe even an entire millennium. What we’re trying to say is, 2020 has been a slog—but that didn’t stop the creativity of marketers, despite ever-shrinking staffs and budgets.
The year began with boundary-breaking work from Burger King and a Super Bowl that gave us Bill Murray’s first national advertising role. When everything changed in March, we brought you stories about triumphing over new challenges and business pivots. Then, the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests touched off a reckoning within the marketing world, both among agency ranks and brands confronting their problematic roots.
As 2020 finally comes to an end, here’s a look back at Adweek’s most popular online stories of the year, a chronicle of an industry having to relearn how to reach out to consumers and, in many ways, build entirely new ways of doing business.
20. Pepsi Debuts Diamond Engagement Ring Made With Crystal Pepsi
Finally, Pepsi found a use for 1992’s inglorious novelty product of the year.
19. These Brands Are Still Tapping Into Nostalgia for Slavery, Whether You Realize It or Not
We’re not saying we’re responsible for several big-name products pledging to rebrand this summer after senior retail reporter Lisa Lacy reported on their nostalgic connections to slavery-era stereotypes. But we’re not saying it didn’t help to nudge brands including Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s and Eskimo Pie off the shelves.
18. After 8 Years of ‘Two Guys’ Ads, Sonic Moves in a New Direction With Mother LA
In February, one of fast food’s longest-lasting power couples was retired in favor of real customers talking about their experiences with Sonic. It was a pre-pandemic advertising shift that now seems eerily prescient of the kind of consumer-focused (and, often, consumer-generated) content that many brands have come to rely on.
17. This Bloody Clever Dracula Ad Gets Creepier as the Sun Goes Down
Before many of us stopped going outside because of Covid-19, the out-of-home advertising world had a bloody good moment using the sun and shadows to promote the BBC’s Dracula miniseries. But just because we weren’t commuting, doesn’t mean OOH marketers took 2020 off.
16. Investors Ask Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo to End Relationships With the Washington Redskins
In a year of crisis, brands felt the pressure of consumers demanding more than platitudes. And, if they needed an extra push, public companies also took heat in their boardrooms as activist investors weighed the hit to their bottom lines. Whatever the motivation, this was the year purpose-driven marketing began to transform from niche projects into corporate philosophy.
15. Apple’s iOS 14 Brings Us a Cookieless Future Sooner Than We Thought
The marketing world kicked off 2020 in a panic with Google signing the death warrant of the third-party cookie. In September, advertisers got another shock when the ad-targeting apocalypse came for mobile, with Apple making its IDFA system opt-in as of iOS 14. How to identify users to serve relevant ads will be the biggest marketing quest of 2021.
14. Don’t Look Now, but Companies Are Giving Away Everything They Used to Sell
The beginning of the pandemic was a time of shortages, from hand sanitizer and toilet paper to pasta sauce. That presented an opportunity for CPG brands to get people to try their products if they couldn’t find their usual brands, while scoring some good PR for giving things away during a time of genuine need.
13. Brands Are Creating Zoom Backgrounds to Class Up Your Quarantine
How do you market when budgets are slashed, people aren’t in the streets looking at out-of-home ads, and the only meetings are happening over Zoom? Branded virtual backgrounds, which were arguably the first marketing innovation of the pandemic, came as many of us were desperately looking for a way to hide our living room clutter from colleagues.
12. Not Every Brand Will Survive Covid-19, According to Hotel Executives
Home and apartment rental companies like Airbnb and Vrbo rebounded as lockdown-weary Americans sought socially distanced ways to vacation, but the economic pain is ongoing for hotel chains. They’ve turned to everything from marketing rooms as offices to selling amenities like robes and pillows to make it to 2021 when, they hope, business travel can resume.
11. Google Kills the Cookie, Leaving Digital Media Companies Craving a New Way Forward
Just after 2020 began came news that sent shockwaves through the $5.2 billion digital advertising ecosystem: As of 2022, Google would end support for the third-party cookie in its market-leading Chrome browser. The rest of the year would be a mad scramble among ad-tech players to come up with another ID solution, and a push to collect first-party data among publishers.
10. With MeidasTouch, 3 Brothers Are Creating Visceral Ads by Using Trump’s Words Against Him
Political advertising is an ugly business that was very profitable for media companies of all kinds in 2020. But as far as creativity, they don’t tend to stand out—until MeidasTouch, a PAC created by three activist brothers (one was an attorney for Colin Kaepernick) that created a series of blockbuster ads simply juxtaposing the president’s callous words with the dire state of the U.S.
9. TikTok Users Abandon Carts En Masse on President Trump’s Online Store
Protests took all forms in this turbulent year. Case in point: TikTok users decided to disrupt what President Donald Trump seems to value most: capitalism. Specifically, TikTok users took on the intricate online marketing tools that have built up around getting us to spend more and more by showing how a few thousand full virtual carts can disrupt a vast supply chain.
8. 5 Lessons Burger King Learned by Unleashing the Moldy Whopper
Everyone wanted a peek under the hood of the most fearless brand in fast food, and Burger King global CMO Fernando Machado’s first-person account of the biggest ad sensation of 2020 was a go-to resource.
7. Nike Once Again Dares to Take a Stand, Boldly Addressing Racism Head-On in New Ad
When racial justice protests erupted this summer, many brands pledged to listen and learn. But Nike, which had made Colin Kaepernick the face of a 2018 campaign soon after the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback became a pariah for taking a knee during the national anthem, had a head start and met the seemingly impossible challenge of what to say.
6. Apple Just Made the Definitive Ad About Working From Home, and It’s Hilarious
Working from home during the pandemic is a privilege—though it didn’t really feel like it as the weeks dragged into months, with homeschooling and lockdowns. But the actual “working” took some getting used to, and Apple pretty much summed up its pitfalls in a hilarious WFH sequel to its smash hit “Underdogs” office ad from 2019.