Why so serious, marketers?
How risky is advertising and should we care?
Too many marketers play it safe. Resulting in boring advertising and communications. In my last post I already addressed this issue, talking about the role product delusion and fear play in this matter. But I don’t think that is all there is to it. Sure, reason and logic get in the way of creativity, but there’s something underneath that. Marketers, and often times their superiors too, perceive certain risks that hold them back and prevent them from making daring decisions, from trying something new. So what are these risks? And more importantly, are they legitimate? Should we be scared of disastrous results or can we be more bold and creative in our marketing endeavours? That’s what this article will delve into. Firstly, to clarify this matter for myself. But I hope I can enlighten other marketers too and push them out of their comfort zone a little.
We see risks, so clearly there must be examples of when sh*t hits the fan?
“This campaign will damage our brand reputation, shun away customers and insult our employees, we are not doing it.” I’m pretty sure many marketers have heard something like it at one point in their career. So there must be ample evidence of advertising campaigns that caused serious harm to brands?
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Turns out: those are pretty hard to find. Sure, Pepsi’s marketing team had a bad week when their infamous Kendall Jenner campaign launched. And I think Dove’s team questioned their judgement after this advert went live. Or when Burger King tried to be funny on International Women’s Day by tweeting ‘women belong in the kitchen’. And I presume Nike must have had some meetings after their Colin Kaepernick campaign caused their stock to temporarily plummet.
However, the reasons these campaigns damaged the brands are, mostly, very clear. Racism, tone-deafness and sexism shouldn’t have their place in advertising, so clearly these campaigns should never have seen the light of day. The story gets more interesting and difficult when we talk about Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign.
Risky campaigns cause a stir, but is that always a negative thing?
Nike’s ad with Colin Kaepernick launched in 2018. Kaepernick had been unable to find a new football team since he started taking the knee to protest against police brutality in America, especially towards minorities. The campaign sported the pay-off “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”, which of course had been exactly what Kaepernick had done.
The day after launch, Twitter was flooded with angry tweets of people burning Nike shoes and many articles were written stating Nike stock had dropped 3% or more. I suspect Nike expected this backlash and knew it had launched a risky campaign, to say the least. Oddly enough, fighting racism is a controversial topic. In hindsight, this might be the most purpose-led campaign a big brand has launched in recent history. And purpose campaigns, like Mark Ritson says, are risky because for most brands “it will cost money and require sacrifice.” (Ritson, 2022)
The purpose of purpose is purpose. You deliver it because you believe in it. You deliver it even when it costs you something – everything, even your whole company. - Mark Ritson (source: MarketingWeek)
This does not seem to have been the case for Nike, though. Sure, some people lost their Nike shoes, but the social media storm blew over and Nike stock kept climbing, reaching an all-time high just 10 days after launching the campaign. Not all controversy is the same.
The previous examples are common in many articles that talk about the biggest marketing fails ever. I don’t need to elaborate on why racism, bigotry and misogyny are risky business and should be avoided. But what about risk in terms of humor or silliness? Do they have a place in advertising? And how is B2C different from B2B? Do we risk alienating our clients by having a little fun? And how far can we go?
B2B needs to take a closer look at B2C
B2C is much more familiar with humor and silliness in advertising. Brands like Old Spice strike a chord with their humoristic campaigns and get people talking. It makes something as boring as deodorant a wanna have product. But what’s even more impressive is that the Old Spice spots featuring ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ has reinvented the brand by changing its positioning as an old man’s deodorant to a product many young men wish to use. I bet many people know the campaign and the ad even has 60 million YouTube views. An insane amount for a brand.
Another example is Poo-Pourri. They shook the advertising world with a campaign that really got people talking. An extremely uninteresting product like air freshener just got way more interesting when their ‘Girls Don’t Poop’ ads launched. A fun video of over 2 minutes, that people actually like to watch, was Poo-Pourri’s way to stardom.
What these examples indicate is that being fun and entertaining is a way to a customer’s heart. If they're entertained by ads, they might just lean a little bit more towards your brand. Not just because they like it better, but because they remember it when the need to buy arises. So when you’re shopping, you’re more inclined to pick Old Spice because it pops up when you think about deodorant. And you might just try out Poo-Pourri, because its ad made you laugh.
So why are B2B brands so afraid of acting a bit silly and entertaining their clients? Why do we think a bit of fun is childish and will alienate our audience? Salesforce seems to be doing fine, even with their fairly childish looking brand characters. So does Docker, a huge IT-company sporting a cute looking whale as their mascot. There are more examples, but they’re not abundant. In 2018 HPE made a daring attempt at personifying IT troubles in companies by launching the 'Tame I.T.' campaign, including a huge red furry monster.
The campaign brings the IT monster to life as a big, red, furry, disruptive character who personifies IT complexity and specific customer pain points with humor – demonstrating the company's empathy and deep understanding of its IT customers’ challenges. - The Drum (source)
The campaign was short-lived, though. The monster, unfortunately, didn’t stick around long enough to get into the audiences mind and hearts, but I’d say it certainly had the potential. So why did HPE stop the campaign dead in its tracks? Were they afraid it’d do the brand harm? How much proof is there that advertising campaigns can hurt a brand?
Don’t worry, be silly
In 2015, Les Binet and Sarah Carter published an opinion piece in WARC about the risks of advertising. They invited Paul Feldwick, advertising veteran, to their agency to discuss the subject, asking him which campaign of his had failed spectacularly. He couldn't really think of any. Field and Carter explain that you have to “get it spectacularly wrong to generate significant hostility to your advertising; the worst that usually happens is indifference or mild hostility.” In fact, they argue that even campaigns that cause unwanted reactions from consumers can be positive for a brand due to the mere exposure effect. In all their years of advertising research, they never bumped into a campaign with bad consequences.
In nearly 30 years of research, we've never seen a single example of an ad campaign that was shown to have a negative effect on sales. Not one. - Les Binet and Sarah Carter (source)
I doubt the people at Dutch law firm Van Doorne mentioned the mere exposure effect to one another after their ‘Maar dan werk je wel bij Van Doorne’ ad got scolded on via Twitter. The law firm posted a recruitment ad in the magazine of the Amsterdamsche Studenten Corps (Amsterdam Fraternity) showing a grandfather looking unhappy, accompanied by the text “The last time Sophie ate here was July last year.” The ad implied that you won't see your friends and family very often, but ‘at least you work at Van Doorne’.
Many thought the ad was of foul taste, but others applauded the honesty of the firm, however controversial it may be. One of their board members at the time said they expected backlash, so clearly they intended to make some waves with the ad. And succeeded. In my honest opinion, this ad is so over the top that it’s funny. But clearly not everyone thinks about this the same way. One might argue that if you really want to stand for something and have some effect with advertising, you’re bound to offend some people.
Offended. A business model
That’s exactly what Dan Kelsall, founder of Offended. Agency, thought when he founded his marketing agency. It’s an interesting way of doing business. But there’s truth in it. Kelsall describes it best on their website:
You see, we’re not called Offended because we set out to offend people. We’re called Offended because we believe if you take a stand, say something different, back an underdog, and go balls to the wall with your marketing, there’s always a chance you’ll offend someone.
And not only is that OK… …it’s why you’ll win. (source)
Kelsall’s philosophy is that if you put yourself out there and try some new stuff, you’re bound to cause a stir. But he’s also very convinced that’s what’s necessary in order to get people’s attention. “Because the world doesn’t need any more dry, vanilla, boring agencies", is what he says. And he’s right because a lot of marketing is the same nowadays. Which makes you blend in. And that’s the exact opposite of what you're trying to achieve.
Try new things
“[..] the most universally safe ideas run a serious risk of being forgettable.”
Nathan DeSelm - (source)
This quote illustrates the conundrum of risky advertising. The point of advertising is to make sure your client knows you’re out there. That you have something they might need to buy. So you want them to know it’s you, to make an impact and an impression. And for them to remember after a while that it was your brand that provided something they need. And for that, you need to grab their attention. You won’t be able to do that if you don’t stand out. If you sound like everyone else, look bland and don’t make an effort, you won’t be noticed.
Let me entertain you
The second most important factor of marketing effectiveness, after size (which you can’t really influence), is creativity. Creativity involves risk, and vice versa. New ideas are exciting and will get people’s attention. But they can be scary, because you don’t yet know how your target audience will react. But I suggest you try. Iterate. Learn from it and try again. Until you get comfortable with venturing into new territories. And yes, I’m speaking to myself here, too. But I sure hope it will make advertising less boring and more engaging. Because as brands, we have to be more interesting for our customers.
As marketers we have to keep reminding ourselves that people don’t care about our brands. They’re very insignificant and people rather not spend their time and attention on them. Just imagine how eager you are to skip the next ad on YouTube, or how often you walk away during commercial breaks on TV. But that’s different if a brand makes something worth seeing, or that people want to talk about. This quote by Martin Boase, from the book Why Does the Pedlar Sing by Paul Feldwick, says it all:
"We believe that if you're going to invite yourself into someone's living room for 30-seconds you have a duty not to bore them or insult them by shouting at them. On the other hand, if you can make them smile, or show them something interesting or enjoyable -- if you're a charming guest -- then they may like you a bit better, and then they may be a little more likely to buy your product." - Martin Boase (source: Why Does the Pedlar Sing)
So, in the spirit of Robbie Williams, entertain your target audience, don’t bore them. They might just like you a little bit better.
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