Did virtual BrandSmart 2020 deliver the brilliance we need for a changed world?


JULY 2020

A year ago, we started our BrandSmart 2019 recap with this quote from MediaLink Chief Transformation Officer Dana Anderson’s opening keynote:

“Last year was the least amount of change you’re ever going to experience.”

Are we psychic, or what?
BrandSmart 2020

From the vantage point of mid-2020, every earlier year feels boring and predictable. All the changes brand marketers have experienced in the last few years might add up to about two days’ worth of 2020-level change. So far.

Naturally, BrandSmart 2020 was vastly changed from all its previous iterations. It was virtual, of course, and split into two half-days rather than packed into one. Not a single handshake, business card or coffee cup changed hands. That said, our team had a lot to say about how BrandSmart 2020 was as essential as ever, while also showcasing some of the changes brand marketers need to absorb right now.

As essential as ever: Branding brilliance

We’ve come to expect brilliance from the longest-running brand marketing conference in the country, and BrandSmart 2020 did not disappoint.

Chair Tonise Paul of Energy BBDO stirred our souls with her “Timeless and Timely” keynote. When everyone is feeling risk-averse, she reminded us that what’s really risky is to have a puny objective. Commit to total brand growth driven by “the superpower of creativity” and fearless ambitions, and we might produce something as emotionally unforgettable as her agency’s Give a Little Extra” campaign.

She emphasized that it takes time to create a solution that connects in a strong emotional way with the audience. I love the quote from one of her clients: “Do something to make my palms sweat.”

Mark Schneider

Senior Creative Director, StudioNorth

I was inspired by Tonise and her bravery to push to the real “why” about what your brand means—especially emotionally. It’s not features, benefits and safe statements that drive behavior, but true, authentic emotion.

Doug Duty

Executive Director, New Accounts, StudioNorth


Another timeless lesson in branding came from Erik Vaveris, VP of Global Marketing at Shure—the sound reproduction company best known for high-end microphones (including the iconic “Elvis mic”). He gave us an exciting recap of the brand’s recent refresh from “Legendary Performance” to “Sound Extraordinary,” built around a core message proclaiming “We get it. We got you. You got this.”

Their new tagline was thought through from a global perspective—they didn’t just develop a brand and hope it would translate well to other cultures. Cultural inclusion shouldn’t be an afterthought, but a deliberate connection point for your brand.

Eric Pound

Executive Producer, StudioNorth

Changes we need now: A clear-eyed look at a critical topic

Since the murder of George Floyd, most brand marketers have realized we need to reevaluate everything we do.

We got a sharp blast of reality from Dr. Akilah Cadet, founder and executive coach of Change Cadet. She challenged the—let’s face it—predominantly white BrandSmart audience to understand how we’re privileged by being white, middle-class and U.S.-born.

“Privilege is invisible to people who have it,” she said. “They think they have earned it, and that everyone can get it if they work hard enough.” Once we recognize our privilege, it’s clear that it’s not enough for brands not to be racist—we must be anti-racist. Simply posting a black box on social media doesn’t make everything right.

It was especially important to hear these words as a marketer. It’s easy to go right back to your regularly scheduled content, but as Dr. Cadet said, “Privilege is posting a black box and nothing else after that, going back to regular content. That’s a cop-out. Do the work. Be uncomfortable.”

Shannon Lee

VP, Creative and Engagement, StudioNorth

I enjoyed the powerful Day 2 keynote presentations from Tonise Paul and Akilah Cadet. They both impacted my heart and mind with lessons on building brands through emotion and exploring what matters to people’s lives.

Becky Li

Senior Designer, StudioNorth

Adapting strategy and tactics

From new twists on old tactics to adapting—and flourishing!—during COVID-19 quarantines, these sessions stuck with us:

Andy Crestodina—cofounder and CMO of Orbit Media Studios—showed once again why he exemplifies the term “thought leader.” Key takeaways included the power of doing original research you can own and be known for—including examples from his own work on finding the average lifespan of a marketing website and calculating an average bounce rate.

Dan Gutknecht

Content Director, StudioNorth

I really believe in activating employees to share company content and be thought leaders, so I enjoyed this session from Social Jack Developer and Chief Visionary Dean DeLisle. Great point: “Customers want to feel like they’re a part of the brand, and social communities can help make that connection. That’s where employees can be powerful ambassadors.”

Stacy Goebel

Marketing Director, StudioNorth

The Tennessee Tourism Vacation Matchmaker (shared by Tonise Paul) was amazing! It used geotargeting and other social data to hone in on the video imagery and experiences that would be most relevant to individual tourists considering Tennessee. This is what we mean at StudioNorth by a human-to-human connection.

Erin Johnson

Project Manager, StudioNorth

The session from VP of Global Brand Design Peter Borowski, AT&T, was a great look at how his brand design team worked to stay creative and motivated during quarantine. Creating a staff cookbook and celebrating birthdays parade-style were just a couple of unique and creative ideas. “Bring fun back”? Yes!

Marie Kittler

Associate Producer, StudioNorth

Mat Zucker, a partner and marketing practice leader from Prophet, had a strong message for those of us who’ve been in marketing for a long time: We need to abandon old ways of thinking about our familiar marketing channels. Every channel—from email to websites to social and chat—has evolved from its original form and purpose, and we need to embrace new ways of looking at each.

Dan Gutknecht

Content Director, StudioNorth

Virtual expos and roundtables: What we learned

As a Gold sponsor of BrandSmart 2020, StudioNorth hosted both an expo booth and a virtual roundtable. These virtual mini-venues built into the event platform were designed to simulate the spontaneous, between-session connections you’d make at sponsors’ live booths and roundtables.

So, how did they go?

“I’ve attended a lot of virtual sessions in the last few months, and this was the first one that actually felt like a conference,” says StudioNorth’s Stacy Goebel.

“We had some nice conversations with those who joined the booth and turned on their camera and audio,” adds Shannon Lee. “It was fun getting to know people and, conversationally, it felt like we were right there in the same room talking to one another.”

Yet not everyone was comfortable joining in. Lee notes, “We saw that there were more attendees observing the booth, listening to our conversations, but not turning on video or audio to join. Some people are more comfortable joining in the conversations, while others prefer to observe from afar.”

As Doug Duty emphasizes, “No platform will replace the interaction of people. For virtual events to excel, more people need to put themselves out there by purposefully interacting—opening their mics and cameras and commenting. As marketers, our challenge will be how to coax that behavior more.”

If future events as essential as BrandSmart continue to happen online, we hope more people click to join these conversations. The content remains terrific, but connecting is what a great conference is all about.

Want to talk over ideas for driving active engagement with your brand at virtual events? Give us a shout!

Jeff Segal

Jeff Segal

Senior Copywriter

Senior Copywriter Jeff Segal writes blogs and social content for several SN clients, while crusading tirelessly against the words provide, quality, strive and utilize.

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