2020 AOY Gold, Design Gold, Digital Silver: Rethink’s secret sauce

The agency's tendency to treat everything as experiential paid off when the world became void of physical interactions.

Rethink - Group Photo

This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of strategy.

Experiential, as most people understand it, is typically tied to a physical event. However, Sean McDonald, Rethink’s managing partner and head of strategy, says experiential should actually touch upon everything an agency does.

“A lot of things are experiential – packaging design and how you hold something in your hands… Interacting with social is experiential,” McDonald says, using WestJet as an example of how the agency even applied its “everything is an experience” mindset to a TV spot that focused on the brand’s customer service, putting a spotlight on aggravating travel experiences with other airlines that treat people like cattle in airports.

Rethink’s creative approach also worked in the agency’s favour when the world suddenly became void of physical interactions. While brands were pushing pause on activations at the start of the pandemic, Rethink was behind-the-scenes thinking up socially distant ways to get Kraft Heinz inside people’s homes.

At the onset of the crisis, people turned to stockpiling comfort foods and necessities – so much so that it looked like pantry-stable brands were flying off the shelves by themselves, without much marketing required.

While panic buying did lead to category gains, this was not always the case across the industry. For example, Kraft Heinz posted a net loss, but its arm in Canada reported double-digit Q2 growth, resulting in the global CEO highlighting the country’s performance in its conference call.

McDonald believes the CPG company’s success in Canada was no accident, but, in part, a result of the marketing Rethink rolled out, even during its darkest stay-at-home days.

During the pandemic, the agency reimagined slow methodical pastimes like playing baseball and building jigsaws in a COVID environment, linking them to the notoriously slow-to-pour Heinz Ketchup.

This meant bringing the ballpark experience indoors with Game Day hotdogs and condiments (delivered through DoorDash, with an accompanying “Heinz Sounds of Baseball” playlist on Spotify), as well as designing a Heinz Ketchup-branded puzzle, all for family physically distanced fun.

According to McDonald, Rethink first identifies what makes a brand iconic or great and then contextualizes it within the framework of the current culture or climate. That strategic litmus was applied to guide Kraft messaging throughout the pandemic, and is the same approach Rethink has applied to IKEA since the agency picked up the account in 2017.

For instance, since IKEA’s focus on the home speaks to aspirational lifestyle goals and creating a comfy haven, the latest work is set in a bucolic countryside, reflecting our lockdown-triggered communal desire to get outside, create new comfort zones and be more respectful of our planet. “One Little Thing” opens up new ways to experience the brand in light of our changed behaviours, yet speaks directly to the brand’s long-term focus on the environment.

The Swedish retailer has made sustainability one of its long-term brand pillars, touting the importance of the circular economy and reusing products for the benefit of the planet. In the latest creative, environmentally friendly LED light fixtures were plugged into trees, a visual metaphor for IKEA’s planet-first ethos. That connectivity was reaffirmed by showcasing simple green-friendly behaviours, like drying laundry outside and riding bikes, all shot in a single take, in order to tell the story that little actions can lead to big results.

It’s one thing to market a brand like IKEA, which has strong affinity among consumers, it’s another to build one from scratch in a category where brand allegiances have yet to be formed.

When Rethink was asked to design the brand identity and packaging for a new line-up of cannabis-infused beverages from Truss – the joint venture between Molson Coors and Hexo – McDonald says the agency decided to take a masterbrand approach. It positioned Truss as a beverage specialist, developing the identities and strategies for its five different brands, including wellness-focused Veryvell.

“Given that they are not cannabis generalists – they are beverage specialists – the idea is to introduce Truss through the looking glass of all their brands,” he said at the time of its launch in August this year.

To draw a connection between the experience people are more familiar with (drinking a beverage) and its cannabis-infused product, Rethink worked with Truss to create rolling papers that can easily be transformed into straws. An instructional video also demonstrated the “new way” people can experience cannabis, while unique campaigns will be created for each of the brands going forward, says McDonald.

While keeping up with culture and trends is important, he says it is even more vital to keep a higher order point of view of a brand’s broader purpose and positioning. He attributes Rethink’s success with its mission to align itself with brands that it believes in, ones that have developed equity over “everything that they do.”

It is these values, he believes, that drive true differentiation.

New key business: Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation; Shaw Mobile; Kraft Dinner; Philadelphia Cream Cheese; Starbucks at Home; Classico; BonLook; Vans; Greenpeace; The North Face; Saputo; Canadian Dermatology Association; Farmboy; DoubleTree by Hilton.

Staff: 172

To see the agency’s winning cases, visit the AOY website