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Each year, the YouTube Works Awards program partners with Kantar to celebrate the most innovative and effective YouTube advertising in the industry. 2021 presented unique creative challenges as marketers faced the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, digital privacy concerns, and new privacy regulations. Undeterred, the brands with the six winning campaigns produced fresh, groundbreaking ideas that masterfully combined creative storytelling and YouTube. “In years past, there have been some category winners that were just brilliant video. When I look across this year’s winners, everyone innovated and used the platform,” said judge Colleen Leddy, chief engagement officer at Droga5.

The brands with the six winning campaigns produced fresh, groundbreaking ideas that masterfully combined creative storytelling and YouTube.

Let’s look at four major takeaways from our winning campaigns and how they ingeniously used YouTube to drive impressive business results.

Hurdles can spark a winning idea

BLK, a dating app for Gen Z and young millennials in the Black community, wanted its users to go from online connections to safe, real-life interactions. However, the COVID-19 health crisis still loomed and the COVID-19 vaccine remained a point of contention in the Black community. BLK decided to tap into Gen Z and young millennials’ enthusiasm for streaming music to encourage its audience to get the vaccine. The brand launched a music video on YouTube called “Vax That Thang Up,” which was inspired by a classic hip-hop song.

In this more than 90-second music video, dating app BLK partnered with rap legends Juvenile, Mannie Fresh, and Mia X to turn the iconic rap classic “Back That Thang Up” into the new vaccine anthem, “Vax That Thang Up.”

Though the video stood at roughly two minutes in length and could be skipped, it still received over 3 billion media impressions in the first day. New registrations on the BLK app increased by 30% week over week, and first-time paid subscribers grew by 22% week over week. “They leveraged skippable and made you engaged enough to not want to skip,” marveled one of our judges.

In contrast to BLK’s longer content, travel metasearch site Kayak used quick, 15-seconds-or-less videos to address the effects of COVID-19 on travel. Using its own research and Google Trends, Kayak discovered that, even though many travel restrictions were still in place, Americans actually wanted to travel but needed the reassurance of more flexibility and options when booking trips. In response, Kayak created multiple campaigns that highlighted free cancellation and encouraged viewers to “skip town” instead of hitting the “skip ad” button.

In Kayak’s 15-second spot, a woman books a vacation with free cancellation for her and her partner, who is confident cancellation will not be necessary.

The campaign proved a huge success, driving incremental conversion rates as high as 7.5% and raising purchase intent by 20%. John Deschner from Maximum Effort was impressed: “They helped you get over travel hesitancy in different ways and targeted people that were searching for these things.”

Mine familiar territory to reach new audiences

BlendJet, a blender company with a mission to make healthy food fast, easily appealed to women 24 to 54 years old, but knew it could reach a wider audience. For the launch of its new blender, the brand created a fun, out-of-the-ordinary campaign, which tapped into two wildly popular YouTube trends: “oddly satisfying videos” and autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). BlendJet’s campaign, called “Oddly Satisfying ASMR Blends in a BlendJet 2 Portable Blender,” featured a voice-over whispering clever statements while the blender hypnotically pulverized entire heads of cauliflower, chunks of ice, and more. To make sure this campaign would be seen by people most likely to buy its blenders, BlendJet focused on a custom intent audience segment, using its top converting keywords in Google Search.

BlendJet’s nearly two-minute ASMR video shows the product whizzing through a variety of fruits, vegetables, and more, accompanied by a whispering voice-over.

Viewers ate it up. The video became a viral sensation that generated millions of dollars in sales. As a result, BlendJet’s return on ad spend grew 569% year over year, and its revenue surpassed its initial target by 413%. Amanda Richman, CEO of Mindshare, praised BlendJet for turning a product demo into “something so different through the voice-over, the copy. They created content that is spot on for YouTube viewing.”

Effective advertising never sleeps

New to the U.S. market, cat food brand Sheba needed an impactful campaign that would resonate with American cat parents. During its research, the brand discovered that cats often woke up their owners at unreasonable hours, like at four in the morning. Google Search data and YouTube analytics showed Sheba that roughly 1 in 3 people turned to their mobile phones during these moments. So Sheba created a soothing, five-hour video that used scientifically proven techniques to get people back to sleep. To promote the video during the day, Sheba released “subliminal” bumper ads. At night, it launched TrueView for action ads that were tailored to people’s middle-of-the-night viewing habits on YouTube. A simple call to action in the ads would then lead tired cat parents to Sheba’s sleep video.

Embracing the ASMR trend, Sheba made a five-hour video, called “4AM Stories,” that lulls cat owners back to sleep after they’ve been awakened in the wee hours by their feline companions.

The campaign resulted in a 100.9% uplift in brand recall and a 635% increase in searches for Sheba brand terms among those who had been exposed to the campaign. “It really was the best use of creative and media that I’ve seen in a long time,” said Traci Spiegelman, VP of global media at Mastercard. “When you have a good insight, and find the right creative and media approach, you nail it.”

Let diverse voices speak for themselves

Online dating app Tinder wanted to help the bisexual and bi+ community get more recognition and own the narrative around what it means to be bi+. It launched “Once Upon a Bi,” a campaign that featured YouTube Creators reimagining well-known fairy tales based on the bi+ community’s experience within the Tinder app. The brand then used TrueView for action to focus the campaign on affinity audience categories that overlapped with the creators’ audiences.

In this video from Tinder’s “Once Upon a Bi” series, YouTube Creator Anna Akana reenvisions familiar stories through her own experiences growing up and dating as bi+ person.

The campaign received 3.2 million impressions, 2 million video views, and an average view rate that was 9% stronger than Tinder’s previous campaign. “Taking stories that have been passed on for generations and showing how they reinforce stereotypes, and using influencers and creators to tell the story was a really good use of YouTube,” said Sheryl Goldstein, EVP, chief industry growth officer at IAB.

A winning combination of clever storytelling and the YouTube platform can produce both viral sensations and enviable business results.

Department store Target also partnered with a YouTube Creator to help diverse communities share their own stories. “Convos with CEOs,” a video series moderated by creator Hallease, centered on the entrepreneurial journeys of the Black-owned business founders whose products are in Target stores. Along with using paid media, Target promoted the campaign organically on YouTube by posting customer teaser content on its brand channel and publishing a playlist for the series.

YouTube Creator Hallease introduces her video series, in partnership with Target, “Convos with CEOs.” She talks about the growing presence of Black women–owned brands and asks what her viewers want to learn from the business leaders she interviews.

The campaign garnered over 6.4 million views across all of the videos, over 107,000 hours of watch time, and over 20,000 total engagements on YouTube. “Those convos were really rich and did the job that an ad could not have done,” said Britt Nolan, president and chief creative officer of Leo Burnett.

In a tough year, YouTube Works Awards winners turned hurdles into inspiration, reimagined content people already loved, appealed to their audiences 24/7, and gave the stage to diverse communities. They proved that a winning combination of clever storytelling and the YouTube platform can produce both viral sensations and enviable business results.