The seven most important lessons about marketing from 2016

Feelings trumped facts, and even the most innocuous brands found themselves dragged into public conversations they never intended—or wanted—to be part of

No one cares about the truth

The Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” the word of the year—the notion that “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Thanks to social media, people are able to filter out perspectives that don’t match their own, creating an environment in which, disconcertingly, fake news appears valid. Marketers should pay attention—not because bogus claims boost profits (ask Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes how that turns out) but because it’s clear we’re in a moment where emotions resonate more than fact.

Scarcity sells

In the era of on-demand everything, it seems we’d all forgotten that low supply and high demand are good for business. But this year has reminded us that some of the most coveted things and experiences are ones that are, well, hard to get: the Tragically Hip’s farewell tour, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Pirelli’s über-exclusive limited-edition promo calendar. And then there’s Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award–winning hip-hop musical about America’s founders. As buzz around the play—shown only eight times per week in New York, and consistently sold out—swelled, so too did a panic among wannabe viewers, many of them millennials unaccustomed to not being able to access something they want. A new touring production and a bestselling cast album have helped sate demand, but the eye-watering prices of the rare Broadway tickets that come up suggest that, in 2016, there are few consumer drivers more potent than FOMO.

Suspense slays

On a Saturday night in April, Beyoncé fans clustered around screens, hungrily watching an HBO special simply titled Lemonade. It was the culmination of months of perfectly crafted marketing designed to escalate fan anticipation. It started with Beyoncé’s surprise release of the single “Formation” in February; at her Superbowl halftime show the next day, millions of viewers sang along to a song they’d not heard 24 hours prior. After that show, she announced a world tour; then came mysterious trailers for the HBO special. It all left fans ready to throw their money at the star—the album Lemonade went platinum in two months, and the tour sold out—and proved no one uses suspense to sell as well as Beyoncé.

Any brand can be co-opted in a single vulgar remark

Speaking of Beyoncé, her R-rated reference to Red Lobster in “Formation” was just one of several instances in which brands were unwillingly brought in to massive pop-culture moments. In September, Skittles became synonymous with Donald Trump, Jr.’s anti-immigration rant. Weeks later, Tic Tac was quick to distance itself from the elder Trump’s “locker room talk” brand-drop. Any publicity is good publicity? Tell that to the marketing grunts who had to write an official statement defending a breath mint’s honour.

Notoriety is a hard thing to lose

A year after a disastrous 2015, Toronto-based infidelity website Ashley Madison underwent a kinder, gentler makeover. Gone was the cheeky slogan “Life is Short. Have an Affair.” In its place, the blander “Find Your Moment,” and ads targeting women, which the company says created a 20% spike in female sign-ups. But the site kept the Ashley Madison moniker, even though its parent rebranded from Avid Life Media to Ruby in July. Scandal may come and go, but a household name is priceless.

Good endorsements can quickly go great

Reitmans, purveyor of moderately priced officewear in malls nationwide, scored the endorsement coup of the year when the brand ambassador it hired early in 2016, moderately famous Suits actress Meghan Markle, started dating Prince Harry (you know, of Wales) in the summer. Just days after news of the romance broke in November, Reitmans released—with unusual fanfare—a capsule collection that had been designed with the actress. While Reitmans deserves no credit for, let’s face it, sheer luck, it warrants kudos for quickly pouncing on the opportunity when the star it hired became a supernova

No one knows how to sell pot

Entrepreneurial types raced into what they hoped would be a sticky business on the heels of amendments to medical marijuana laws and Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise to legalize recreational pot. But as many keen dispensary owners found out—some after being raided by cops—that legal loophole they were hoping to exploit was illusory. Unlicensed businesses—i.e. all those dispensaries that popped up overnight—are still prohibited from selling weed, even if a customer has a prescription, and law officials are proving disinclined to look too hard. It seems only licensed users will cash in until rec use is legal—at which point upstarts will likely be competing with such giants as Shoppers Drug Mart. Way harsh.