A great idea isn’t enough: Why an earned-first approach is key to breaking through 

Joy Farber Kolo

Chief Brand Officer


It’s a hard time to be a brand builder.  


CMOs, according to Gartner, are under pressure to do more with less to drive profitable growth, with 86 percent noting they’ll need to make significant changes to how the marketing function works to achieve sustainable results. Increasing data privacy regulations, content overload and ad blocking all add up to difficulties even being seen. The bottom line: even with the most brilliant idea breaking through in the real world is more challenging than ever.   


Facing rising pressure and multiplying obstacles, marketers will need to earn their way to achieve success. Campaigns that earn coverage and conversation over the long-term (9+ months) drive greater business impact by every measure, according to The Weber Shandwick Collective’s recent Earned Effect Study, conducted in partnership with The IPA Effectiveness Data Bank. 


Instructive, but not simple.


Achieving the kinds of success highlighted in the study means flipping the script on the all-too-common planning timeline, which often leaves the approach to “earned” at the end. The imperative for earned should be in the briefing, building not on the heels of an advertising-driven idea, but at the very core of the concept – one that inspires brilliant advertising and activation. And one that requires a real understanding of conversation, context and communities. Are you saying something compelling enough to get your audiences to slow their scroll? And more importantly, are you doing something meaningful enough to get them to talk about it?  


Yes? Great. You’re halfway there.  


Engineering for Earned 


Even the most brilliant born of earned ideas and the most masterful craft will underdeliver its full potential if not engineered for earned. Because it takes art and science (data, imagination and expertise) to carefully choreograph a campaign’s entry into – and travel through – the hyper-fragmented media environment. Media has evolved from top-down, concentrated influence to constantly shifting networks of digital communities. So, if you’re only talking about reach, you’re missing some crucial pieces of the making-an-impact-in-media puzzle.  


When choreographing a campaign for success, consider these five questions:  


1. What community do you need to activate?   


The media landscape is dense with engaged and passionate digital communities. For every idea, a brand should ask: “What community are we activating?”  


McDonald’s* “Famous Trays” has proven to be a tremendous way to inspire fandom by unlocking the power of community. Every time a collaboration is announced with an artist – a roster ranging from BTS to Saweetie to Travis Scott – their fan community creates a groundswell of excitement that earns attention within media and social spaces. It recruits a community to the brand and lets them take part in defining the brand’s role in culture.   


2. Who are the most influential voices within that community?  


A brand’s influencer strategy should be tied directly to its community strategy. And there is no better way to activate fans than to let an influential voice authentically share their advocacy on their own terms. Pop-Tarts*’ mission is to demonstrate how its iconic flavors and designs inspire the TikTok generation. The brand identified thrifting not simply as a trend, but as a culture to grow share within. But to build an authentic presence, they needed the right partners. Enter Emma Rogue, NYC’s reigning thrifting queen, who became a collaborator and way into that growth. She instantly agreed to curate a Depop collection inspired by Frosted Strawberry, and then proposed hosting a block party at her shop for the Lower East Side’s coolest residents. Her enthusiasm translated into designing a hype-worthy custom box, building a 10-foot Pop-Tarts throne that legions of fans lined up to share on social, and name-dropping the brand as the ‘perfect’ partner in aNYMag feature. That kind of authentic collaboration does more to earn credibility with a community than buying any ad. 


3. How are you bringing value to that community?  


To earn value – and fans, followers, love, loyalty and business – you must contribute value. Brands need to identify the specific value they’re bringing to the community. And not just an activity for attention – but an action that fuels the passions and meets the needs of the people. Take eBay’s* recent Swap ’Em Out pop-up shop in the UK, which was designed around the sneakerhead community’s habit of trading sneakers. The event allowed collectors to swap an old pair for another, more valuable set. That’s the kind of activity a community wants to take part in because the value is tangible.  


4. What is the call to action to that community?  


Consider the call to action – or the “call to co-creation.” The makers and creators within online communities want a role in the story, not just an invitation to watch. A great recent example is Pringles’* Big Game ad campaign with Meaghan Trainor. The singer rallied TikTokers to create their own version of the commercial’s premise – getting your hands stuck in a Pringles can – and fans responded with countless creative videos. The power of co-creation in action.  


5. What’s the cadence?  Where is the story and how does it spread?   


There’s no single formula to follow, but planning with intention matters, as does having the ideas and assets to respond in real-time – whether you’re fanning flames or dousing them. Plot proper story phasing – from a sneak peek, to launch, to sparking a second-day wave of stories about the internet’s reaction to the news. And use data to help direct your efforts for maximum impact. 


When the Mattel* team planned the launch of the first Barbie doll with Down Syndrome, they did so with the knowledge that 59 percent of the stories from the previous year’s launch came from syndication. This meant the most successful syndicators became the most valuable targets. In addition to a clear community strategy, command of media content syndication deals is key to building a winning plan. Coordinating one package with a broadcast network newsfeed can land hundreds of local affiliate placements across the U.S. 


Breaking through isn’t simple. It takes a blend of creativity, choreography and a deep understanding of a shape-shifting media and digital community landscape – making it more important than ever to brief for earned, build for earned and engineer for earned.   


*Client of Weber Shandwick