Breaking new creative ground: 3 branding lessons from Åkestam Holst

Karl Wikström, senior strategist at Åkestam Holst, outlines how they combined honesty, innovation, and surprise to break new creative ground in branding.

The year is 2018, and branding is struggling.

In a world of innovation, where marketing is evolving at breakneck speed, branding appears to be standing still. Despite new digital touchpoints, new formats, and endless new possibilities, there’s a sense of sameness coming out of an industry that promises creativity.

At Åkestam Holst in Stockholm, we see ourselves as exploring the new horizon of branding. We’ve created print ads you can pee on; branding films for furniture about divorce, dementia and teenage angst; helped pharmacies fight for reduced sales tax on menstrual products; and forged a new metal made from illegal firearms.

Our aim is to build a toolbox for branding in the digital world. By partnering more deeply with Google and other digital thought leaders, we strive to translate the vast amount of data available every day into human stories that have warmth, life, and impact.

Why is branding struggling?

Branding in its true sense is the engineering of future probabilities. It’s about increasing the likelihood that more people want to buy your brand, or are willing to pay more for it in the future. This is mainly achieved by making the brand more famous and emotionally significant. This has become much harder as the media landscape and customer mindsets have shifted.  

Branding in its true sense is the engineering of future probabilities.

Which is why the most important horizon of branding we seek to explore at Åkestam Holst is finding and adding unexpected emotions to marketing. We do this by producing honest feeling in a world of fake emotions – either by doing something delightfully surprising, or by throwing an emotional sucker punch that hits you when you least expect it.

Here are three simple lessons we’ve learned from some of our favorite projects.

1. Paint with all the shades of emotion

The first successful branding experiment we conducted focused on honesty. The advertising tradition is heavily geared towards creating a make-believe world; promising unattainable lifestyle goals to the customer. However, this has become increasingly easy to see through as the world grows more transparent.

Our insight was that we had a better chance of connecting with our audience and showing the impact of our clients’ brands and products by being honest; by showing a picture of life as it really is, warts and all.

IKEA is the perfect example. To increase the product affinity for IKEA in Sweden, we launched the concept of ‘Where Life Happens’ – showing the small but important role IKEA products play in real life.

One of the stand-out pieces of ‘Where Life Happens’ was the IKEA Pee Ad; a print ad that used innovative paper technology to work as a real pregnancy test, revealing the low family price on a crib if you were pregnant.

By humorously contrasting the big emotions of having a baby with the absurdity of asking customers to literally pee on IKEA's ad, we helped draw attention to – and strengthen – IKEA’s role as a destination for new families.

The concept not only created strong and unexpected emotions, but it also helped IKEA move the needle on product affinity (+6%), brand affinity (+6%) and increased marketing effectiveness (+3%).1

2. Carefully learn the rules. Then find the right way to break them

The second branding experiment was about surprise. One ‘rule’ of the new media landscape is short attention spans. People don’t have the time or patience to take in what brands are throwing at them, and you have to compress your message into 6-second chunks in order to cut through.

We decided to turn that rule on its head. By intentionally creating what we called ‘Irresistibly Boring TrueView Ads’ for IKEA, we made long, boring, and strangely compelling ads that actively encouraged the viewer to stop watching.

By being deliberately unengaging, we created a record-breaking engaging experience! People watched boring ads for an impressive average time of 3 minutes, with 39% of viewers watching the whole ad to the end.2

To create surprise, we also looked into repurposing existing formats of communication. Consequently, we used Google AdWords – a touchpoint often used for tactical relevance – to tell more emotional and brand-building stories.

The result was IKEA Retail Therapy, an initiative where we renamed IKEA products after common searches on relationship problems. A reversal of everyday AdWords usage, IKEA could become a hero and entertainer for people Googling their everyday struggles.

3. Actions speak louder than content

The third and final branding experiment was about innovation, and aiming your creativity at the business itself. Sometimes, the best way to build your brand is not about what you say, it’s what you do. Be willing to go outside your brand’s comfort zone, into new issues and areas where the brand can help solve a problem.

Sometimes, the best way to build your brand is not about what you say, it’s what you do.

One example of this is the Humanium Metal project, which we created together with our sister agency Great Works, for the aid organisation IM (Swedish Development Agency). Through long and sustained effort, we created a new product to finance the fight for a safer society in countries troubled by violence: a metal made from melted-down firearms. Humanium is essentially a sustainable economic ecosystem to support efforts for more peaceful societies.


The campaign garnered global attention, was praised by media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC News and El País to name a few, and received support from leading global figures including Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  And recently, a Kickstarter by Swedish clockbrand Triwa promoting the first clocks made from Humanium overshot its goals by 1800%.3

The evolution of a new branding toolbox

But these three branding experiments and their lessons are just a small piece of the puzzle; the big challenge still remains. For branding to stay relevant in the digital age, we all have to unlearn the thought habits of a pre-digital world.

Only then will we be able to build a new branding toolbox that covers the production, distribution and reception of creative content in a digital world, which will help businesses grow and thrive.


About Åkestam Holst

Åkestam Holst was founded in 1998 as an experiment: their founders wanted to see if they could combine a pleasant and sustainable work culture with world-class creative work. Twenty years later, the experiment is still going.

Åkestam Holst has grown into one of Sweden’s largest agencies, and has won a host of awards. Taking home six out of Sweden’s total of 12 Lions in Cannes in 2018, and half of the Golden Eggs in Sweden’s big creative awards the Golden Egg 2018. They were named AdAge’s International Agency of the Year 2017 and ADC’s Boutique Agency of the Year 2018.

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