And finally, imperfection can be aesthetically pleasing in its own right, as the success of Dove with its ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ shows. The Japanese even have a word for this – wabi-sabi – a view that celebrates the allure of the imperfect and incomplete. The wobbly line, the cracked leather, the faded patina – all draw, rather than repel, us.
Standout, empathy, attractiveness and trust – these are all qualities that define successful brands. So maybe it’s time for brand owners to embrace the power of imperfection.
There are advertisers that get this, and their ‘bravery’ is rewarded by more powerful communications than their perfect ‘everyone looks awesome’ adland competitors. Think of the overweight construction worker pole dancer (Moneysupermarket), Southern Comfort’s Whatever’s Comfortable’ beach hero, or the sweating women in ‘This Girl Can’. Their imperfections draw us to them. The brands feel more authentic. And we trust them more because of it.
So where are the ‘flaws’ in the personality descriptors that we craft for our brand definitions? We seem terrified to consider them – tying ourselves up in knots and qualifications to avoid any chinks of vulnerability or imperfection. Aspirational yet accessible’, ‘Strong but warm’ – we’ve all written them.
Research shows there are many psychological processes at work which together limit the effectiveness of brainstorming. ‘Social loafing’ – a group situation encourages and allows individuals to slack off. ‘Evaluation apprehension’ – we’re nervous of being judged by colleagues or looking stupid. ‘Production blocking’ – because only one person can speak at a time in a group, others can forget or reject their ideas while they wait. We’re also learning more about the power of our “herd’ tendencies. As humans, we have innate desires to conform to others with only the slightest encouragement. When asked to think creatively, these implicit norms are invisible but powerful shackles on our ability to think differently.
No wonder so few ideas emerge.
Early in the ‘Love/Hate’ Marmite campaign, an ad showed a couple on a first date going back ‘for coffee’. After eating toast and Marmite in the kitchen, the girl returns to the sofa. They kiss. Her boyfriend retches violently at the Marmite taste.
Most people in research thought it was hilarious. But older Marmite users didn’t. You could say it ‘alienated them. But the ad ran. And the older users changed their view when they saw how popular it was. In fact, it turned out to be the ‘lift-off’ ad of the now-famous campaign, awarded for its creativity and for its results. Market research overestimates people’s resistance to change and boldness, and underestimates ‘herd effects’.
Alienation worry isn’t just wrong, it’s also dangerous. Because it can kill the bold, penetration-gaining ideas that you need for brand growth. So relax: it’s actually quite hard to win friends and alienate people.
Here’s a cautionary tale of how ‘humankind cannot bear too much reality – especially in the world of women’s fashion. Despite what people in research might say…
Back in 2000, M&S were facing a slump in sales. Brand appeal was declining Women’s clothing was key to turning this situation around. In an attempt to be brave and zig against the zag of women’s fashion, M&S decided to celebrate the fit of their clothes – whatever women’s shape and size.
Their new ad broke in the Autumn of that year. It didn’t show any of the new M&S fashion range. In fact, it didn’t showcase any clothes at all. But it did show a real, size 16 woman. In the now infamous ad we see the woman casting off clothing as she runs up a sun-drenched hill. On reaching the top, she stands naked, arms outstretched, proudly shouting ‘I’m normal’ The voiceover tells us that M&S has conducted the largest ever survey of women’s bodies, and, ‘You’ll be pleased to hear that if you’re not average, you’re normal’.
In groups, women loved it. They were fed up with seeing women advertising fashion brands who looked nothing like them, they said. It was a great idea to instead show ‘someone just like them, they said. And with 68% recall soon after airing the ad clearly made a big impression
But sales in M&S women’s fashion tanked. And the campaign was replaced the next year by a new, more conventional fashion campaign featuring a stellar line-up of models including Twiggy. Lizzie Jagger and Erin O’Connor. They were all wearing M&S new fashion lines. And they were all several sizes smaller than a size 16.
So be very careful when people say in research that they want to see people like them. What they really want to see – especially in the world of fashion and beauty – is their ‘Idealised Self’: the person they strive to be. Them at their very best. Not the warts-and-all ‘Actual Self’ they see when they look in the full-length mirror.
Be careful with reality. And be careful with what people say in research. It might not be what they mean.
So when word got out that the main tea competitor, Tetley, had a bizarre new product up its sleeve, we and our client weren’t unduly worried. PG Tips came in square tea bags, like the rest of the market in those days. Tetley’s new tea idea was round bags. This made no sense at all to us. The tea would taste just the same, wouldn’t it? We gave it a few months, at best. But how wrong we were. People loved the new round bags Tetley shot to brand leader in a year. We were reminded of this when we visited a Paul Smith exhibition. Among his mantras was: “Don’t make sense”
Next, it’s argued that Millennials represent the future. What they do now, everyone will be doing one day. This is probably the weakest argument of all. Our job is to sell to society as it is now. Not as it will be in 10 years’ time. Young people change behaviour as they grow older, so they’re not always a reliable guide to the future. We need to distinguish ‘life-status effect’ from ‘cohort effect’. Just because young people watch less TV than average, TV viewing is not necessarily bound to decline in the future. Young people have always watched less TV than older viewers because they go out more.
We suspect that advertising’s obsession with youth is partly due to lack of perspective. We all tend to assume the average person is someone like us. And people who work in advertising are mostly young. Now there’s less TGI analysis and fewer focus groups going on, young planners are often disbelieving of how old the people buying their brands actually are (TGI reveals, for example, that the average new car buyer in the UK is 56).
Domestos kills all known germs. Dead’ was an example. But in a world where functional advantages are quickly matched by the competition, brands rarely own these claims for long. In fact, any bleach could make the same claim of Domestos.
And this takes us to the nub of how branding works. Brands succeed not by being different, but by being distinctive. Brands need a distinctive style, tone of voice, and personality. They need to have their own way of saying what they do. An end-line’s job is to sum that up in a memorable way.
Think about two great brand end-lines: Nike’s “Just do it” and Tesco’s “Every little helps”. There’s nothing inherently ownable about these words. Or the sentiments behind them. You couldn’t come up with a more ordinary bunch of words if you tried. But each of these lines reflects an attitude to the category in question that’s clear, distinctive and memorable. And over time, they’ve become inextricable linked to the brands in question.
And that’s the point. “Ownership” takes time and money. The smart marketing directors who bought those successful long-running campaign ideas and end-lines weren’t agonising over wether they were ownable.
In a social media-driven and 24-hour news world, how on earth do you give 60,000 people a preview of what millions can’t wait to see… yet manage to persuade them to keep schtum about it for five days? The answer: you choose your words smartly. Danny Boyle, London 2012 Olympics Artistic Director, displayed a genius understanding of both human nature and the power of the right word when he asked the lucky attendees of his Opening Ceremony dress rehearsal to “#SaveTheSurprise”. Because amazingly, everyone did. How different would it have been, though, if instead had Danny asked them to “Keep It Secret”? The words seem so similar. But the canny choice of the word “surprise” rather than “secret” made all the difference. Everyone wants to know and tell a secret. We can’t help ourselves. It’s human nature. But no-one wants to spoil a surprise, or have a surprise spoiled. The persuasive power of the words we choose… Choose them carefully.
Well, because there is evidence from the IPA Databank that better objective setting leads to more effective campaigns. Best practice is to identify exactly what business results you want. And exactly what you need people to think, feel and do in order to deliver those results.
The Databank also reminds us that reach and ‘Share of Voice’ (SOV) are crucial. No matter how well thought through your objectives, or how good your creative work, a campaign can’t deliver unless it reaches enough people. It’s also unlikely to succeed if it doesn’t outshout the competition. These are basic hygiene factors, but too often ignored by the wishful thinkers of marketing.
So let’s stop dreaming. By all means let’s be ambitious. But root your ambitions in knowledge and reality. Remember: ‘A goal without a plan is just a wish’.
Our ‘beliefs’ about brands are nowhere near as stable and consistent as we think. As Ehrenberg-Bass’s work with re-contact surveys has shown, individual opinions about brands are much more volatile than top-line tracking data suggests.
The overall percentage of people who agree ‘Pepsi tastes better than Coke’ might stay the same from survey to survey. But that doesn’t mean that individual respondents are answering the same way each time. Look at the data more closely, and you’ll see that people answer research questions in a ’probabilistic’ way. They may lean slightly in favour of one brand or another, but they don’t have fixed beliefs.
Behaviour patterns are similarly fluid and messy. We like to think that people divide into distinct buying groups. But look at long runs of data, and you’ll find that real-life buying behaviour is much more ’agnostic’. Buyers of premium brands also buy Own Label; low-fat buyers also buy full fat; Coke buyers buy Pepsi.
Our opinions about brands fluctuate depending on mood and occasion. And so do our brand choices. In the morning, we feel healthy and go for low fat. In the afternoon, we want chocolate.
Macho marketing language is common, but dangerous. And objective setting is where it’s perhaps most dangerous. Marketing plans are littered with words like ‘disrupting’ and ‘transforming’. Plans hardly ever use more modest, but more realistic, words like ‘nudging’, ‘reinforcing’ or ‘reassuring’ – they just don’t sound impressive enough. It probably doesn’t help that the box on the brief titled ‘objective’ has often been replaced nowadays by one called ‘ambition’ or ‘vision’. And when the brand plan writer won’t be there in two years’ time anyway, they may as well write wishful bullshit.