There are never too many ways to appear thirsty or tone-deaf, as ads like Pepsi’s protest-themed spot featuring Kendall Jenner, Nivea’s “White is Purity” and countless others have shown us time and again. Companies seem not to understand that they have a better shot at selling their goods when they genuinely think of their target audiences as real people with complex thoughts and feelings, not as gullible research subjects.
“Remember, if you’re thinking it, someone else is thinking it,” my professor Dr. Tom Guarriello would always say in his “The Meaning of Branded Objects” class, part of the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts I completed earlier this year. He urges leaders of marketing and communications teams around the world to avoid thinking that they are persuasion wizards privy to and somehow above all existing sales techniques.
It would make sense, then, for new businesses — and even those who have lost favor with consumers — to acknowledge that tired commercial slogans and clichéd taglines no longer work as well as they used to; and that companies should be doing the opposite of what people already expect.
Lately, a few brands have been swimming against the tide by being emphatically contrarian. And it seems to be working.
Diesel, frustrated that the ugly Christmas sweater trend is not slowing down, has taken steps to stop it. “Say No to Uncool Wool” is a tongue-in-cheek campaign from the brand this holiday season, a time when itchy and kitschy sweaters that look like they were sewn by our grandmothers continue to enjoy a revival pretty much everywhere. The campaign features models and a sheep wearing Diesel clothes standing victoriously atop a pile of thrown-away wool sweaters. The message couldn’t be clearer. The brand is telling consumers: Check out our new collection; fight the cult of the ugly wool sweater.
Cities across the U.S. have been falling all over themselves trying to get Amazon to set up its second headquarters in their territory. Stonecrest, Georgia even went as far as to offer Jeff Bezos his own city, where he would be named mayor. Tucson gifted Amazon a giant cactus that Amazon politely declined and donated to the city’s Desert Museum.
But Little Rock said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
In a full-page ad it bought in a Bezos-owned publication, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce coolly and cleverly explained why Amazon’s HQ2 is just not right for Little Rock. The playful ad styled as a break-up letter pointed out that Little Rock missed many of the requirements in Amazon’s RFP — and how that’s Amazon’s unfortunate loss. The stunt quickly went viral and got Little Rock more eyeballs and attention than almost any other city in the running. The campaign doesn’t just raise awareness for a small city like Little Rock; it also elevates its potential and makes its residents proud.
Forget a five-second watch rate, says Geico. Acknowledging that we probably don’t watch the pre-roll ads before YouTube videos at all, the brand decided to do something about it. Each spot in its campaign begins with the line: “The following ad is being condensed for your viewing convenience,” and proceeds to literally do so. The entire left wall of the set begins moving toward the right, wrecking everything in its path while the characters talk about Geico’s “remarkably intuitive interface” and “24/7 access to licensed agents.”
Over the past few years, Geico has successfully used the insight that nobody likes to watch pre-roll ads to inform all its YouTube campaigns. “Crushed” comes after “Unskippable,” a series of spots that disrupt the traditional commercial template and challenge you not to skip the ad “because it’s already over.” Instead of reciting endless benefits of its products or offerings like every other advertiser, Geico captures our short attention spans by engaging and entertaining us.
The notion of partaking in contrarian tactics to stand out from the crowd predates Geico’s ingenious advertising ideas. During Black Friday shopping season in 2011, Patagonia published a shocking full-page ad in The New York Times asking people not to buy its products.
Admitting the environmental cost of making just one of its jackets, Patagonia appealed to readers to consume less of everything — including its own clothing and equipment. Unlike most big corporations harping on environmental sustainability, Patagonia accepts its hypocrisy and recognizes that, well, things are complicated. Despite this — and perhaps because of it — Patagonia’s attempt to encourage thoughtful consumption seemed sincere. Sure, it may have lost a season of sales, but what it earned in the long run is fierce brand loyalty.
Campaigns that indulge in this kind of self-aware “meta-marketing” believe consumers to be discerning and intelligent people who respond to authenticity and positive intention. It signals: “They know that we know.” Brands would be wise to take a page out of Little Rock’s book and avoid taking themselves too seriously. They will in turn be rewarded by consumers taking them seriously.