Zombie Marketing: Bringing Back Dead Ideas

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The graveyard of marketing is ripe with bodies. Print, video, and billboards are moaning in their plots, killed at the hands of social media, QR codes, and digital PR. But are they gone for good? Gareth May explores the brands and associations breathing new life into old marketing strategies.

Zombies and rock. It’s a marriage that suitably won’t die. Performers from Blondie to Bastille have embraced the pop culture trend that refuses to stay six feet under, hooking into the undead currency of George A Romero and The Walking Dead, in the hope that it will earn them some cool currency. In the US alone, the zombie industry is worth $5 billion. Who wouldn’t want a bite of that?

Marketers using the phenomenon to garner spooky wins, however, can chomp off more than they can chew. When the Center for Disease Control (CDC) took advantage of the public’s fascination with the stiff-armed brainoholics back in 2011 and updated their website to include ‘how to plan for a zombie apocalypse’ the stunt backfired. The campaign was taken so seriously, the CDC’s servers crashed. Sometimes it pays to be staid instead of smart.

Rock’s dalliance with the dead may have peaked in the late ’70s and early ’80s with bands like Iron Maiden and Alice Cooper cashing in on horror’s theatrical aesthetic, but devilish acts have proven to be timeless. The father of shock rock himself still sells out shows to this day, proving the best thrills and spills are often the oldest (and coldest) ones—and the same can be said of marketing techniques too.

While digital is eating up the budget of the majority of marketing campaigns, according to an Advertising Association and WARC Expenditure Report, after online and TV, direct mail marketing is the third largest marketing channel in the UK. Meanwhile, out-of-home (OOH) media is also having a moment. Market research from global metric and measurement company, Nielsen, recently revealed that, in America, 79% pf the population have noticed OOH in the past week. Quite the reach for something once thought anachronistic in the digital age.

So what is it about these zombie marketing techniques that have lead to them surviving the serial killer slash of social media et al? Let’s dig up a few bodies to find out.

Top billing

The Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) was founded in 1891, representing the US outdoor advertising industry. At that time, Stephen Freitas, OAAA Chief Marketing Officer, explains that outdoor was compressed of roadside bulletins and posters, the likes of which Coca-Cola has made an art form.

With the advent of the Internet, billboards could’ve easily been buried alive but they’ve kicked off the dirt, Freitas explains, thanks to record levels of consumer miles driven and passenger miles flown, both of which have helped make OOH the second fastest growing ad medium in the US, with consumers between 18-64 spending more time with OOH than any other ad media except for television.

Consumers are living in a world with click-farms, computer bots and ad-blockers. OOH has the unique ability to give brands a presence in the ‘real’ world.
— Stephen Freitas, OAAA Chief Marketing Officer

Exposure isn’t the only element at play here. As Freitas says, “consumers are living in a world with click-farms, computer bots, and ad-blockers”, whilst clients want to know how to get the most out of their money. In a world where we’re all zombified by screen time, the core tenets of OOH advertising has a unique ability. It gives brands an unobtrusive presence in the ‘real’ world where people actually live in a completely non-invasive manner. Who’s ever driven past a billboard and thought, “Just die already”?

“OOH is a literal stake in the ground that gives brands creative impact, contextual relevance, and the ability to amplify an integrated media plan,” says Freitas. “Billboards and other OOH advertising formats are always on; they can’t be blocked or skipped. You can’t scroll past them or turn the channel.”

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Support for static OOH is coming from some strange quarters, with two giants of the digital age turning back the marketing clock. Music streaming site Spotify turned heads last year with an innovative billboard promotion mocking its own users choice of playlist titles, and Apple exploited the very notion of non-stop exposure with their international OOH campaign Shot on iPhone, where the company curated real photos from real iPhone users. Both were campaigns that celebrated technology without foregoing the human touch; all too often the bogeyman of Silicone Valley.

“These campaigns effectively touted product capability while personally relating to its users,” says Freitas, and in the case with Apple, did so as a “striking, effective, and memorable” piece of static marketing.

Back from the dead

As new formats have been developed and introduced to the market, the OAAA has kept up with the changes, expanding its scope to include all OOH advertising formats. Today, OAAA represents the consolidated OOH industry comprised of both printed and digital formats ranging from billboards, street furniture, transit, and place-based media – including cinema and digital networks. But the advent of the latter, digital out of home (DOOH) and its bombastic Vegas-channelling statements, like when Oreo celebrated 100 years of cookies by taking over Times Square with a mosaic of zany animations,hasn’t spelt the end of static OOH.

Rather, as Freitas says, the two have fed off each other – and not in a neck-munching “give me your blood” kind of way. They work together, providing advertisers with “multiple layers of ad options and tactics”.OOH has survived as a key marketing strategy because it has been able to evolve into a new digital framework. As the Nielson report found, one in four OOH viewers have used a smartphone to interact with an OOH advertisement through a QR code. Who said old and new couldn’t get along?

OOH is the perfect complement to online and mobile advertising, directing consumers from big screens to the small screens in the palm of their hands.
— Stephen Freitas, OAAA Chief Marketing Officer

“DOOH allows for dynamic, real-time content, with flexibility and immediacy; while printed OOH is ideal for eye-catching brand awareness that sustains brand building over time,” says Freitas. “OOH is the perfect complement to online and mobile advertising, directing consumers from big screens to the small screens in the palm of their hands.”

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The apex of this modern blend is at its best when DOOH uses technology and data to “better inform campaign executions” says Freitas, citing a recent campaign by Target Stores, which used real-time atmospheric data to serve relevant ads based on the weather. If it was raining, for example, umbrellas would advertise on digital OOH locations. If it was sunny, the ads could promote gardening supplies. Dove used similar weather-based data in a campaign that showed a woman showering when it rained. Both are examples of new metrics working with old techniques – and it’s a relationship that’s a two way street.

Mail from beyond

The Joint Industry Committee for Mail (JICMAIL) provides metrics for direct ad mail; both door drops, such as leaflets, and addressed mail to individuals. This data is then used by marketers to help plan media campaigns. As a young enterprise JICMAIL are riding this new wave of back-from-the-dead media channels, pushing evidence-based data to numerous clients. In just six months JIC has been integrated into standard data planning sources like TGI and IPA Touchpoint.

Mark Cross is the organization’s Engagement Director. He says that direct mail has been the third biggest channel for a number of years but has silently been going about its business without much hoo-ha. But with the fallout of GDPR leading to a suspicion toward digital content and an ensuing shift in trust, the old fashioned channel has come into its own.

“The consumer experience of the first wave of digital marketing has not been great,” Cross says. “It’s been a case of chasing people with cookies, of intrusion, fakery, and a lack of transparency and this has led to an appreciation of things that come through the door, that are addressed to the consumer, and that create relevance to the individual.”

Contrary to popular belief, ad mail doesn’t get dismissed, Cross says. It gets picked up, stored, handed around, put on a table or stuck to the fridge. If we take the example of a pizza leaflet, whereas a consumer might find it stuffed through their letterbox and see it as something to stow away for a Halloween movie marathon, from a marketer’s point of view that leaflet is so much more than the promise of a quick snack in front of Scream 3. Once it’s taken inside it becomes “a poster in the home” and in that sense it is delivering value by simple existing in the household.

The future dead

Cross says JICMAIL have “revealed the hidden audience of mail” and their inaugural report certainly backs up that position: nearly 69% of all mail is opened; 12% of mail is discussed with someone else; 11% of mail prompts a website or store visit; and 8% of mail is used to make a purchase.

We have a much more holistic understanding of how mail is working. The whole journey throughout the home and across the purchase funnel is much wider than people have been able to see.
— Mark Cross, Engagement Director, JICMAIL

“The core assumption of ad mail is that if one item comes through the door, we count its response once. So if I mailed a million households I would count that as a million. But what our research shows is that typically a mail item will be seen by about four people in the house and it will stay live in the household after a month,” explains Cross. “We have a much more holistic understanding of how mail is working. It’s not an audience of one, it’s an audience of four, and the whole journey throughout the home and across the purchase funnel is much wider than people have been able to see.”

Direct mail and door drops, Cross says, are “creating new communicating opportunities in what is an otherwise overwhelming online bombardment that the consumer is exposed to”. With billboards too, marketers are finding new ways to exploit old channels. Proving that just like zombies, these old school tactics are resilient to a fault.

“OOH will continue to develop new formats to serve communities, use data to better target consumers with relevant messages, and expand digital offerings to ensure OOH is a nimble media option,” says Freitas. “The OOH audience is growing and the industry will continue to evolve and follow the trends where people are headed.”

Wherever that may be, you can bet your bottom dollar that you’ll pass a billboard on the way. Justdon’t forget to look in the rear-view mirror, because sometimes what you thought was dead and buried, is kicking up the earth and coming back for more.


Gareth May is a freelance journalist. He specializes in food and drink, sex and relationships, and gaming and tech.

He's covered everything from hijab porn and the rise of brosecco, to the representation of mental health in video games.

Read more from Gareth or follow him on Twitter


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