Campaign Trail is our analysis of some of the best new creative efforts from the marketing world. View past columns in the archives here.
In the nearly 200 days since OpenAI launched ChatGPT, the marketing world has become overrun with advertisers, agencies and tech companies rushing to embrace generative artificial intelligence (AI) in all its forms. Yet with few exceptions, brands have yet to publicly embrace AI as a part of their ad campaign creative.
For Waterloo Sparkling Water, utilizing AI to jazz up the latest iteration of its "Water Down Nothing" campaign was a natural evolution in line with a brand positioning that brings together its product, company culture and consumer base.
“AI was perfect to bring to life the idea of full-flavor artistry,” said CMO Kathy Maurella. “A lot of the elements you see in the video dovetail into a lot of insight we have on our consumers.”
The campaign, a “2.0” expression of an effort that began last year, launched last month in the U.S. across paid and organic social, video and display ads, connected TV, billboards, in-store shopper marketing programs and retail displays. At the heart of the campaign is a 30-second spot that features a main character amid a crowd of office workers whose styling and appearance changes every time he sips from a can of Waterloo, morphing him — with help from AI — into a stylish jet setter, race car driver, soccer player, chef and rock star.
Andrew Donoho, the ad’s director, explained in a press release that the “flickering effects” created by AI are meant to mirror the carbonation of Waterloo’s sparkling water. Physical props and the video’s color scheme were also enhanced by the technology.
“We wanted to visually communicate how flavor can ignite the senses — to break you out of your reality and to elevate and heighten it,” said Donoho in a statement. “It made sense for us to use AI to create this world for Waterloo because we could translate both the full flavor and textured experience you can expect from the product itself.”
Doho added: “With the different flavors from Waterloo, you can wear them like an outfit — allowing us to express the inner narrative that we all have when we try something new.”
Consumer insights and agency trust
Ad agency Agent A helped Waterloo launch “Water Down Nothing” last year. When it was time to iterate on the campaign, the agency brought the idea of using AI to the brand.
“We didn't actually set out to use AI,” Maurella said. “It fit with the idea of the campaign and the brand positioning, but it also fit with the idea of [how] we really pride ourselves on the innovation we bring to the category and doing things a little different.”
For Agent A, AI provided both a degree of creative control and the right amount of surprise that kept the creative in line with the brand positioning and with a sense of "joyous, unexpected personal discovery," said Alex Rodriguez, the agency's founder and lead strategist, in emailed comments. The approach also helped level up the agency's output.
“In our case, we were able to create animation for our commercial and images for our [out-of-home] campaign in a fraction of the time it would take with traditional CGI methods,” Rodriguez said. “This freed us up to explore and present a wider range of creative options and truly deliver on the creative vision.”
Speeding up the process worked for Waterloo, a challenger brand whose quick work rate is not always for the faint of heart, Maurella explained. While it wasn’t the typical storyboard and shooting process that the marketer was used to, being able to see the AI elements in rough cuts demonstrated that the final product would come together smoothly.
“There was a lot of trust and faith in the partnership from start to finish,” Maurella said. “It fit with us trying to lean in on innovation, it fit with quick timelines and we could see that transformation happening right in front of our eyes.”
For Waterloo, the latest leg of “Water Down Nothing” is part of a significant marketing investment that is up 46% year-over-year, according to Maurella. The brand outperformed the dollar sales growth of the category by 10 times and is pushing “all levers down” as it moves into the summer season, a busy period for beverage marketers, the executive added. That spend will likely put Waterloo — and AI-assisted creative — in front of more consumers.
“AI can be a gimmick or an indispensable tool,” Rodriguez said. “I am excited that we had a chance to show what the current technology can do in combination with more established animation and image creation techniques. I love the combination of approaches that allowed us to create something truly unique and compelling.”