The road to unconventional advertising in 2021

Mihai-Alexandru Cristea 27/12/2021 | 13:10

The myriad of adverts bombarding consumers every day has made people virtually immune to commercial messaging. This is why advertisers are trying to find new, alternative, and creative ways to reach customers.

By Romanita Oprea


Throughout the years, the idea of an unconventional marketing or advertising campaign has evolved, especially around the amount of technology that was being used to reach a campaign’s target. From guerrilla marketing and flash mobs to geofilters or from using the environment as the unconventional element (sky/coffee cups/lifts/escalators, etc.) to today’s TikToks and NFTs, unconventional has been evolving in terms of both the messaging and the means of expression and interaction. And if we were to take a look at the field’s specific literature, we would find that Kaikati and Kaikati (2004) identified six main types of unconventional advertising techniques: viral marketing, brand pushers, celebrity marketing, bait-and-tease marketing, marketing in video games, and marketing in pop and rap music. However, they consider these strategies to be part of the larger category of stealth marketing. For Pavel and Catoiu (2009), the unconventional advertising category includes the following: elevator advertising, taxi advertising, bathroom stall advertising, mirror advertising, aerial advertising, ambient advertising, body advertising, and graffiti advertising. This area changes constantly in the pursuit of new ways to break through the advertising clutter. Technology and the digital realm are playing huge roles in changing it and allowing it to keep up with reality.

In a world where every consumer is suffocated by commercials that all sound and look alike, unconventional advertising is a breath of fresh air, delivering messages in unexpected forms that usually entertain viewers. In fact, unconventional advertising is supposed to be unexpected and catch people off guard, in places and situations where they aren’t expecting to be targeted by ads. Furthermore, unlike traditional ads, unconventional ones don’t use persuasive messages designed to convince the audience to buy, but rather address the customer’s subconscious by building memorable images that stick in the consumer’s mind for a long time.

According to Web Market Media, unconventional advertising means that any space with a certain level of visibility, whether static or mobile, can become the carrier of an advertising message. What makes it unconventional? It’s either the space being used to promote the message or simply its form of production. Anything that departs from traditional communication media and anything that surprises us due to its location, format or idea can represent unconventional advertising.


Digital and technology driven

Adrian Diac, creative director at Ogilvy Romania, says that unconventional has become interlinked with technology. It is a game of spotting the right technology in order to deliver a powerful message. “Each tech hit immediately turns into a platform for creativity and, of course, our industry is at the forefront of exploring these platforms. We did it with the Sound Codes of Romania project for Globalworth, where we linked Spotify to traditional carpet design, delivering a surprising experience. People could practically listen to traditional sound codes of Romania by simply accessing a QR code placed on these carpets,” Diac explained.

In Andreea Timofte’s view, unconventional advertising is mostly digital nowadays, due to the important role mobile phones play in our lives and the easy access to mobile internet. Brands that are looking to approach customers in a special way today will almost always think about reaching them through their phones. “From this point onwards, the power of IoT (internet of things) in our lives will add to the advantages of taking a digital approach for most projects. Ten or fifteen years ago, it was enough to put a special 3D production in the centre of Bucharest to get a wow effect. These days, such a project requires an internet connection in order to interact with customers via their mobile phones and offer them something more, even if it’s just information,” the general manager of Motion Vision Communication explained. How much have digital and technology changed unconventional advertising and offered new ways of exposure/creativity/innovation? “Technology and the internet are always in customers’ pockets, so there are plenty of touch points where advertising can interfere in customers lives. As such, brands are choosing to have a higher number of less intensive touch points with their prospects. Nonetheless, innovation will bring new ways of connecting things around us. A few years ago, we couldn’t think that the fridge door could be used as a digital ad display,” Andreea Timofte said.

Anything seems to be possible in the digital world – just take a look at the Snickers AdWords Campaign, which was based on misspelled keywords. The ad copy based on the same concept helped the brand connect with their audience in a humorous way. As pointed out by Social Media Today, upon clicking the banner ad, web users were taken to a branded website built solely around a hunger/typo message. The campaign didn’t sell the candy bars directly, but it had 558,589 impressions on various misspellings in just two days.

“Advertising has become dependent on technology, as all of us have. As we spend several hours a day on our smartphones, it is obvious that we have to be there, offering experiences and entertainment, taking advantage of new tech, and interacting with audiences more and more,” Ogilvy’s creative director added.



“Conversational AI will have an important role in personalising advertising messages for prospects, and so will IoT, so there could be lots of nice surprises coming from these two areas.” – Andreea Timofte

“There’s a shift towards simplifying digital ecosystems. That means a return to a simpler, iconic way of communicating, with a strong emphasis on craft, but always paired with a technological feature that will enhance the dialogue.”- Adrian Diac

Interaction is key. Getting the audience involved creates memorable experiences and gives people something to talk about.

Personalisation. Like for every other type of advertising in 2021, personalisation is one of the most important aspects of keeping your consumer close to your campaign and brand and it proves that you know your target.


Experiential and entertaining

So what should an unconventional advertising campaign look like these days to get attention and stay true to its name? For Adrian Diac, the entertainment factor has to be the focal point of audience engagement. And he may have a point, as consumers are asking to be entertained every step of the way. “Consumers are numb to digital advertising. We sat in front of screens, locked in our homes, for most of 2020. Brands need to think beyond this go-to media format to re-engage with their customers in unique ways. Out-of-home advertising will be a very effective format to achieve this once the vaccine is available, as people will be rushing outside and will be more aware of their surroundings,” said Skye Suttenfield, managing director of Seen Media Group, for Forbes back in 2020.

“An unconventional campaign must have a strong experiential approach, with at least a minimal digital component,” Andreea Timofte argued. Experiential marketing means involving the audience in the event or campaign and it produces great results, because it creates something that’s immersive and interactive.

On the other hand, are clients willing to invest budgets in unconventional techniques, in innovative and surprising campaigns? Or has the pandemic changed their priorities? Timofte says that during the pandemic, a lot of brands decided to put their communication efforts on hold. And that is why the two categories of ads that did well in this period were retail and telecom, and they were mainly focused on financial results and less on the wow effects. It’s true though that some new categories, being uplifted by the context, are more interested in surprising customers.

Ogilvy’s creative director agrees that clients are not investing large budgets in unconventional. “Most of the time, innovation comes up as a creative idea that needs to be explained, sold to the client, and implemented. It is a difficult process that requires lots of meetings, persuasion, and trust. In the best and most successful cases, the client and the agency come together to make these projects happen,” Adrian Diac argued.

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