Oscars 2020: Retail marketing lessons from the red carpet

It’s Oscar time once again. And, more than just predicting the winners and losers of the best picture race, the big question on everyone’s mind is: Who will be the best and worst-dressed stars on the red carpet this year?

As both a digital strategist and avid pop culture consumer, I tend to watch these award shows with interest. After all, celebrities in today’s culture are more than just people; they are actively managed brands. Retail brands can learn a lot from Hollywood celebrities this season: How to make a splash, how to project confidence, how to generate positive buzz without compromising their reputation, and how to get a return on their often considerable investment.

Here are 4 lessons from the Red Carpet that retail brands can incorporate into their digital marketing strategies:

1. Be a trendsetter.

In 2019, as one celebrity after another rushed to copy the pink puffy dress trend, it was Billy Porter’s gender-norm challenging tuxedo ballgown that made the biggest statement.

Retail marketers can learn a lot from Porter. Many brands rush to embrace the newest channels in digital media. However, simply copying other strategies will not get you ahead of the crowd.

Voice search. AI chatbots. TikTok. It’s easy for brands to get “trend anxiety” as they read about the percentage of dollars being directed into new channels. Rather than following trends that may be wrong for your business, pause and analyse the data. Where is your target audience today? Can you buck the trend, or, better yet, create an entirely new trend?

Ultimately, the trendsetters are the ones we remember.

2. Play up your strengths.

Is your brand classy and elegant like Helen Mirren? Cool and understated like Emma Stone? Playful and bold like Bjork?

The celebs who make the best dressed lists are inevitably those who know their personal brands inside out and understand what will work best for the image they’re trying to project. They know their best camera angles. They work with stylists to play up their most memorable “trademark” features and to perfect their signature look. The same style that perfectly suits one star perfectly might look desperately wrong on another.

For retail brands, the success of your content and campaigns similarly depends largely on how your customer base receives them. The same campaign that comes across as perfectly plausible from one brand might seem false, desperate or fake coming from another. The best and most memorable campaigns are the ones that play up something unique about a brand. When REI implores people every Black Friday to #OptOutside, it rings true, because this is a value shared by the brand and its target audience. But when Burger King ran its now-infamous #EatLikeAndy Superbowl ad, it landed like a thud, mostly because Burger King is about the last brand anyone would associate with Andy Warhol – now or in 1975.

The lesson for retailers? Learn your camera angles. Know your signature looks. Understand your audience and why they buy. And opt for messaging that speaks to who you are.

3. Take risks.

The safe, conservative dresses rarely capture much attention. The celebrities we’ll be talking about around the water cooler on Monday are those who took a risk – with their outfits, with their speeches, with their political statements.

Likewise, safe, conservative marketing in 2020 is also highly forgettable. If you’re looking to capture new audiences or generate organic buzz, you need to be bold.

According to Kantar Worldpanel’s annual Brand Footprint report, 55% of the world’s top performing brands said they took risks with their brand and marketing strategy last year.

Will it always pay off? Not necessarily. Is it possible you might alienate some customers in the process? Sure. But brands can mitigate the risk by truly understanding their core brand values – and those of their target audience. When celebrities make controversial speeches at the Oscars, they know they’re speaking to a friendly audience – and that those they might alienate are people who were never going to be their fans anyway. They’re not trying to polarize people; they’re trying to use their platform to spark conversation. Retail brands can learn from that.

As Mark Zuckerberg said: “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

4. Want to play? Prepare to pay.

Fame isn’t free. That’s the first tough lesson of Hollywood.

Celebrities spend major dollars on their stylists, outfits, and public relations. Likewise, films vying for awards launch big-budget campaigns to generate enough buzz for a nomination. A 2017 New Yorker story estimated that studios spend up to $15 million months-long lobbying campaigns that studios launch to “earn” their Oscar nominations. Of course, these nominations – especially for the “biggie” categories like Best Picture, Actor, or Director, pay off in spades; a Variety report in 2017 estimated the ROI of a nomination for Best Picture to be anywhere from 125% to 880%.

Similarly, if you want to make a splash with your digital media, you need to put some dollars behind your product. It’s 2020. Most social media channels are mostly or exclusively pay-to-play. Organic visibility can’t shoulder the load alone. If you want to reach your customers in the channels where they are, you need to invest the dollars – in media, in content, and in strategy.

After all, what good is it to have an amazing product – or an amazing indie film – if nobody’s heard of it?

Buzz that’s meaningful

Cult classic or big-budget blockbuster, every brand has the potential to generate buzz in a meaningful, measurable way. All it takes is some sharp thinking—and even sharper execution—to make sure you end up with a digital strategy that’s less Cats, more 1917.

Note: This post was originally written for, and cross-posted from, the DAC Group Blog in February 2020.