This week we look at some of the most impactful but inexpensive marketing moments from the past decade, and break down what the secret to their success was.

Advertising on a shoestring

How you can be a marketing genius without breaking the bank.

Michele Edwards



3 minute read

Good advertising slots can come at a hefty price. This year a single 30-second slot in the Super Bowl cost upwards of $9 million, with brands like Google an Amazon spending $23.5 million on their Super Bowl ads1. However over the last decade, some of the most iconic marketing moves we’ve seen have cost the brands behind them nothing. Let’s look back at some brand examples and see what we can learn from them.

In short
  • Fighting for the best slots in traditional advertising is costly.
  • Some of the most iconic marketing moments of the last decade cost brands nothing. 
  • If you put creativity first you can find ways to strike gold on a budget.
Wendy's: Don’t be afraid to engage in public online conversations

Is the hashtag #NuggsForCarter familiar at all? In 2017, a teenager in the US named Carter Wilkerson took to Twitter to ask Wendy’s how many retweets he needed to win 365 days' worth of free nuggets. Wendy’s responded and before you knew it, Cater had 3.6 million retweets2. That is a lot of Wendy’s Twitter mentions, and it didn’t cost the brand a cent.

The takeaway: Creating an online persona for your brand is a great way to build brand loyalty. And if you're clever about it and your interactions get noticed, you can end up reaching huge audiences. 

“You might’ve thought the [Starbucks] barista just had trouble spelling the name Lucy, but this actually a clever marketing move.”

Starbucks: Incite User Generated Content

Everyone is familiar with what happens when you order Starbucks. You order your coffee, give the barista your name and wait for them to inevitably spell it in the most bizarre way possible. You might’ve thought the barista just had trouble spelling the name Lucy, but this actually a clever marketing move by Starbucks. Because when you get your coffee and see how your name is spelt, you probably take a photo of it and either send it to friends – or better yet – post it online. Along with millions of other customers. Free, authentic marketing. Done.

The takeaway: Right now when consumers are hyper aware of lack of authenticity in marketing, being able to get them to voluntarily post your product without asking is a huge win.

Oreo: Hijack a conversation that everyone is already having

In 2013 during the second half of the Superbowl, there was a 34-minute blackout at the stadium. Oreo jumped on the opportunity fast and reaped the rewards. The brand tweeted a poster showing a dimly lit Oreo with the words “You can still dunk in the dark”. Audiences who were already eager to engage in all of the buzz around the blackout, engaged heavily with Oreo’s ad, commenting on and sharing it3.

The takeaway: The easiest way to get engagement is by taking advantage of viral moments and joining a conversation that everyone is already voluntarily taking part in.

Zara: It’s quality reach, not quantity

Have you noticed you’ve never seen a Zara TV ad, poster or Instagram pop-up? The brand doesn’t do any traditional marketing and instead uses other tactics like influencer endorsements. Not only do these endorsements give them a greater ability to reach the correct audiences more directly, but they take advantage of the pre-existing control that these influencers have on their followers. Although they still require payment negotiation, factors such as low production cost and high engagement mean infleuencer collaborations tend to be a smart financial move for businesses4.

The takeaway: Influencer endorsements are a way to reach your target audience more directly through voices they already trust.

So if you don’t have a spare $23.5 million sitting around to buy a Super Bowl slot, remember these brands. Keep creativity at the forefront and you could end up with one of your own magic marketing moments. 

on the most expensive ad of all time
The ad with the highest production budget in history is Chanel 'The Film' which cost $42 million to create in 2002. Taking inflation into consideration this would be $65 million today. Directed by Baz Luhrmann and staring Nicole Kidman, the two-minute film was created to sell Chanel’s most iconic scent, Chanel No.5.

Written by Michele Edwards, editing by Adelaide Anderson, 52 Words by Adelaide Anderson, key visual by Laura Murphy, page built by Alice Guo.
  1. Eliza Bavin, $9 million for 30 seconds: Most expensive Super Bowl ads (2022)
  2. Tess Koman, Checking In With Carter Wilkerson, The Kid Who Got Free Wendy's Nuggets For A Year (2018) Delish.
  3. Kyle Yu, “Dunk in The Dark.” A single tweet is all this brand needed to win the Big Game! (2020) Valens Research.
  4. Edward East, 4 Reasons Why Influencer Marketing Is Very Cost-Effective (2018) LinkedIn.
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