Famous PR Campaigns
A good PR campaign should be memorable for the right reasons. The coverage should scream ‘innovative’, ‘memorable’ and ‘ground-breaking’. Get it really right, like Red Bull did with their record-breaking Stratos campaign, and the media will call it ‘the best marketing stunt of all time.’
However, some brands completely miss the mark with their PR efforts and hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Remember when skincare brand Nivea accidentally promoted white supremacy? Tone deaf, insensitive and poorly thought out, their ‘White is Purity’ campaign resulted in global condemnation and long-term damage to the brand.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at four famous public relations campaigns that did it right (at least for the most part) and the PR lessons we can learn from them.
Nike scores a slam dunk with Michael Jordan
First up on our list of famous PR campaigns is Nike and their partnership with basketball legend Michael Jordan.
Back in 1984, the sports clothing retailer was struggling to compete with the likes of Converse and Adidas. In an attempt to level the playing field, they took a gamble on signing a young Michael Jordan, who had just entered the NBA, to an endorsement contract.
It proved to be the wisest decision Nike ever made. Jordan’s talent and natural ability made him a star on and off the court, propelling Nike to new levels of fame.
The collaboration resulted in the creation of the now iconic Air Jordan basketball shoes, which flew off the shelves. Nike aimed to sell $3 million pairs after four years. But in the first year alone, they sold $126 million worth.
In 1996, when Michael Jordan starred in the movie Space Jam, (which could have easily be mistaken for a ninety-minute Nike commercial), Nike capitalised on it by releasing Space Jam themed clothing and footwear, enabling them to infiltrate pop culture and the streetwear market.
It’s no surprise that Nike’s boosted brand awareness resulted in a hefty increase in revenue from $6,470.6 million in 1996 to $9,9186.5 million in 1997.
Nike would go on to acquire rivals Converse and Reebok in 2003 and 2005 respectively and by 2022, the brand had the largest market share of the sportswear industry, with 38.23%.
They continue to sell 780 million pairs of shoes each year, attributing to 66% of Nike’s total revenue. Wow.
Back in 1984, Nike had no way of knowing the star power Michael Jordan would bring. But they recognised his athletic potential, made the strategic decision to sign him to represent their brand, and the rest is history.
This partnership goes to show how powerful strategic partnerships can be for public relations. You can also see why it made our most famous PR campaigns list.
However, not every endorsement deal has a fairy-tale ending. Take Nike’s collaboration with footballer Mason Greenwood. In 2019, Nike started sponsoring Greenwood, and things ticked along nicely until he was arrested on suspicion of rape and assault in January 2022.
Nike immediately withdrew their sponsorship, issued a statement saying they were ‘deeply concerned’ by the allegations and distanced themselves from the Manchester United player before any long-term damage was done.
The quick reaction no doubt saved their PR bacon.
To read more about working with brand ambassadors, read: How to use influencers to supercharge your PR.
Always does PR like a girl
What does it mean to do something ‘like a girl?’
Always – the well-known hygiene products brand owned by American firm Procter & Gamble (P&G) – asked this question in 2014 and set about changing the perception of the often-used derogatory phrase.
The #LikeAGirl campaign was designed to raise awareness and spark discussion around the issue of sexism towards women. And it aimed to reframe the negative connotations associated with the phrase as an affirmation for young girls to use as a statement of positivity. “We took like a girl — this derogatory term used by many — and flipped it on its head. We turned it into an anthem for positivity around all the behaviours of a girl,” said AG Lafley, who was P&G CEO at the time of the campaign.
Delivered through a combination of video, social outreach and celebrity engagement, the campaign was a huge success, racking up 85 million YouTube video views across 150 countries, and winning eight D&AD Pencils in 2015, including the prestigious black Pencil in the ‘Creativity for Good’ category.
More importantly, it empowered young women to be proud of who they are, and initiated conversations about what it means to be a girl in a male-dominated world, and the need for societal change so young women are able to thrive.
Always conducted market research prior to the campaign, and found that 56% of girls experience a dramatic drop in confidence when they hit puberty, and only 19% of women have a positive connection with the term ‘like a girl’.
These statistics informed the direction of the campaign and helped to define the narrative.
The success of the campaign can be seen from the results of a follow-up survey, which found that 94% agreed that #LikeAGirl has encouraged girls to be more confident, and the number of girls who have a positive association with the phrase as a result rose from 19% to 76%.
Considering the campaign was born from the brand’s need to increase its appeal to millennials in the face of growing competition, we can safely say that Always hit this campaign out of the park and has more than earnt a place on our famous PR campaigns list.
We may be living in the 21st Century, but misogyny and sexism towards women remains a persistent problem around the world.
Always put themselves front and centre of the conversation, turning a historically negative phrase on its head, and promoting discussions around this important societal issue that needs to be tackled.
It was less about brand building and selling products, and more about supporting and empowering young women to be the best they can be.
This approach to PR and marketing can transform a brand. Not only did they make a difference, but they experienced a positive boost to brand perception, resulting in a 50% increase in purchase intent as a result of the campaign.
The success of ‘Like a Girl’ goes to show how important it is to understand your target audience, and how, by getting involved in the discussions that matter most to your customers, you can effectively market your products without actually marketing your products.
Dove gets real
Another famous PR campaign which aimed to change perceptions about women’s beauty was launched by Unilever-owned health and beauty brand, Dove in 2013.
It was developed in response to market research conducted by Dove that suggested that only 4% of women around the globe felt good about themselves and how they looked.
A short film entitled Dove Real Beauty Sketches was released as part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which aimed to change the way women see themselves, by comparing their own self-perceptions to the views of strangers.
The results of this social experiment confirmed what we already knew. That women are often overly self-critical and view themselves with a much less rosy tint than others do. In the video, the portraits drawn based on the strangers’ descriptions depicted the women in a far more positive light than those drawn by the women themselves.
The campaign drew a strong emotional response from the public and the video quickly became the most-watched online ad of all time.
That’s not to say that the campaign did not receive any criticism. Some people saw the cosmetics brand praising natural beauty as hypocritical, and called the brand out for the focus of the video being on ‘mostly thin, mostly young, and mostly white’ women.
Despite the backlash, the campaign is still seen as one of the most successful in history, winning numerous awards and being championed for its positive influence in the years since.
Much like the #LikeAGirl campaign, the Real Beauty Sketches campaign used emotional marketing to connect with Dove’s target audience and sell their products without actively selling anything.
It’s another example of a brand opening the door to difficult conversations that impact the lives of its customer base. This combined with insightful market research and some inspired creative minds, resulted in a hugely successful campaign that touched hearts and attracted a whole new wave of awareness and brand loyalty.
Yes, there was criticism directed at the ad, and the authenticity of the campaign was brought into question. But this is to be expected when dealing with such a sensitive topic.
The lesson here is that regardless of the good intentions behind your advertising, or the positive results it provides, there will always be those who do not connect with your message.
That’s not to say that the complaints were not valid, of course. The campaign did provoke legitimate questions about inclusivity and diversity for sure. But you shouldn’t shy away from tackling tough subjects for fear of attracting attention from a handful of naysayers. Just proceed with caution.
Budweiser asks ‘Whassup?!’
When thinking of famous PR campaigns, beer brand Budweiser’s memorable 1999 ‘Whassup’ campaign is a firm favourite.
The American pale lager brand’s unforgettable TV commercial depicted a group of friends talking on the phone while ‘watching the game and having a Bud’.
The campaign was a phenomenal success. Slurring out the phrase ‘whassup’ with your tongue hanging out became the cool and funny thing to do amongst young people across the globe.
There are few better examples of a brand’s campaign appealing to people of all cultures. It even achieved notoriety in countries that don’t sell Budweiser.
The commercial truly penetrated pop culture, and was referenced online, on TV shows, on the radio, and ‘Whassup’ even made it on to The Simpsons TV show – the pinnacle of fame. Some brands might have responded to such infringement of their intellectual property with legal action. Budweiser, on the other hand, were overjoyed, and viewed it as validation that their campaign was a hit.
When formulating their PR strategy, Budweiser recognised that their target market was 21 to 27-year-olds. They wanted to capture the attitudes and behaviours of this market by projecting camaraderie, fun, watching sports on TV, and of course, drinking beer.
If there’s a lesson we can learn from Budweiser, it’s to know your target audience.
Budweiser’s ‘Whassup’ campaign makes our most famous PR campaigns list. The company did their homework and devoted time to establishing their customer avatar (and no we don’t mean the blue CGI people from the movie). They analysed the age, interests, behaviours, and values of their target audience, and tailored their marketing campaign to resonate with them perfectly.
Not even Budweiser could have predicted how successful the campaign would become. ‘Watching a game having a bud’ became integrated into popular culture, and the catchphrase is still widely used today.
Want to read more about PR in the food and drink industry? Read: Food and Drink PR: Serving Up The Best Stories To Your Audience
Last word on famous PR campaigns
We’ve looked at a few of the most famous PR campaigns in history and discussed what went right and what went wrong. Make sure your next PR campaign is famous for all the right reasons.