By Alex Smith, Planning Director
It’s a marketing truism [that I just made up] to say that if your approach seems totally alien to your category, then you’re probably on the right track.
A Pedigree Chum restaurant for humans? A cycle to work initiative brought to you by Ford? The Toni&Guy cat grooming parlour? Heaven knows what the brief would be to create such concepts, but they all seem quite interesting, and therefore already a few steps ahead of the majority of campaigns out there that are gently dying a quiet, unsung, death.
But then maybe that’s just me. After all norms are norms for a reason; not all of them born out of lack of imagination. Naturally, in a commercial environment there’s always an argument to stick with the status quo. Nobody’s going to get fired for doing an unsuccessful campaign so long as it has the insurance policy of predictability and continuity behind it (“hey, it’s what we’ve always done”). Another marketing truism, but this time I didn’t make it up.
Don’t be afraid to challenge your category
However, to indulge the point for a moment, funny things tend to happen when you attack category norms. Often you end up eroding the problems carried around by the category in the first place, and prejudices, which all things drag around by the bucket load, can start to melt away.
These were just throw away examples, yet you can see how each, although at first glance very “wrong”, would all make interesting comments on category preconceptions. The Pedigree Chum restaurant could, in theory, make a compelling statement about, say, the lack of horse meat in their products. The Ford cycle to work scheme could talk up the brand’s green credentials, and the Toni&Guy cat grooming parlour could celebrate the group’s versatility and creativity.
These examples are not only creative concepts (for example, you could do a poster campaign about the Toni&Guy kitty salon), but are also, in experiential terms, executional concepts.
Brand experiences are judged not only for what they say, but also how they say it. With so many different structural and logistical possibilities, this is a very important additional consideration for experiential agencies. Sadly, it’s also one that can often be neglected, with campaigns tending to attempt to communicate with only one dimension (“key messages”) as opposed to two dimensions (“key messages” and the much more powerful “implied messages” that will come across from the campaign structure and execution).
Inverting norms is good
Because of this, “inverting norms” applies just as much to experiential campaign structures as it does to the brand category.
What we did with vitaminwater was is a case in point.
We had to distribute a lot of samples. Samples mean freebies, and freebies can’t help but communicate lack of value. That’s just the way of the world, and most brands can live with that. After all, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
The problem with vitaminwater was that the whole point of the campaign was to drive a feeling of “exclusivity” among the creative classes. See the issue here: Make this product exclusive and niche by giving away half a million units of it.
This is a perfect example of where prejudices about what you’re doing (sampling a soft drink) need to be subverted. So that’s just what we did, by attacking the tried and tested approach of the “office drop”.
Office drops are pretty democratic things, spreading the goodies out evenly among all present. Creative talent however, isn’t. It’s rare, isolated and profoundly undemocratic. As this is what vitaminwater wished to fuel and to celebrate, it made sense to mirror these characteristics – not those of every office drop that had gone before. Hence the mechanic: the one man drop.
Leading by example
We made a beeline for the pre-identified creative leader in various work spaces, conspicuously (though politely) ignoring their peers to deliver a one-to-one festival of inspiration: eight varieties of vitaminwater and a cloud-fed Little Printer, that was primed to issue left-field inspiration from that day forth.
This subversion of activity norms allowed us to frame the product in such a way (niche) that directly contradicted the main prejudice of the medium (everyman). From that point on, more mass drops could be conducted with the conceptual heavy lifting already accomplished.
The reality is, every brand and every brief is worth two minutes of asking: “What would be the exact wrong thing to do for this brief?” As Paul Arden said: “Whatever you think, think the opposite.” It might not be immediately right, but it will send you in an interesting and often rewarding direction.