Why context before concept matters in your marketing

Like any experienced creative type, I’ve got an unwritten list of rules that I alternately cleave to or break on a daily basis. One that proves surprisingly resilient is, “Always understand the context before wasting time on the concept.”

I was reminded of this maxim when I saw the maximum impact this creative concept had for the Swedish drug store chain Apotek Hjärtat back in 2014.

Still photo on poster comes to life as train enters station. Result: Gorgeous hair — that requires gorgeous hair products from Apotek Hjärtat.


I bring it up in 2017 because the Swedes did it again with another contextually relevant, creatively brilliant execution of concept in context. 

Smoker walks by, poster coughs, and the Apotek Hjärtat brand engages big time.


This is just so smart. The social media buzz about this work has been deafening, and what was certainly not a not-cheap project has returned on its investment in a big way and with legs for days (e.g., digital video clips for social channel sharing, PR hooks for great earned media uptake, mammoth street level discussion about a drug store for crying out loud, and a lot more).

From my POV, the best part is that until the creatives who worked on these projects talk, there’s no real way to tell which came first — context or concept — because they are perfectly aligned.

Lack of such context/concept alignment is immediately obvious. So much so that it’s spawned its own sub-genre — the internet fail. Just Google “ad fails” or some such variant and you’ll be treated to a parade of “what were they thinking” badness.

Like this:

Context fail: It’s a delivery van with an A state (door closed) and a B state (door open). An understanding of context before concept demands you design for both from the get go.

How about this one for Turkish Airlines:



But for me, here’s the real winner:

And it happened more than once:

This context/concept fail is so epic it’s launched a flotilla of conspiracy theories on Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/1ysq2c/i_blame_the_advertisement_for_what_happened_to/). Did they not know this was going to happen? Did they do it on purpose? 

Having worked on alcoholic beverage accounts in the past, I cannot believe this was an ambient advertising campaign that passed corporate legal vetting. So it remains a fail, UNLESS Mike’s Hard Lemonade was really out to:

  1. Market exclusively to vandals
  2. Determined to drive non-vandals away from the brand.

Neither option is a good idea in my book.

These bad examples above aren’t just simple, garden-variety ad failures showing typos, blatant grammar mistakes, or unfortunate media placements. These exhibit context/concept malpractice of the highest (or lowest?) order. When done right (like the Apotek Hjärtat work) and context and concept are perfectly aligned, it’s impossible to tell which came first — and to me that’s the hallmark of a truly great rule of thumb.

D.P. Knudten is chief collaborator for COLLABORATOR creative.

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