By Scott Goodson, Chairman of StrawberryFrog
Originally published in the Harvard Business Review
Companies understand that to be successful they and their brands need to stand for something. This results in bold and principled declarations to the world: “At Acme Amalgamated, we’re committed to X. We believe in Y. We care passionately about Z.” Unfortunately, in the end, it all starts to sound like generic ad-speak.
Here’s a modest suggestion: If you really want to show the world what you believe in and stand for, how about telling us what you stand against?
Recently, my agency StrawberryFrog launched a new campaign for smart car that was rooted in this kind of oppositional thinking. We understood that the smart car brand stands for some pretty good things: efficiency, economy, reduced environmental footprint. But put way, it sounds rather dull and predictable.
By defining instead what smart is against — over-consumption, excess, thoughtless behavior — we began to craft a statement with more of an edge. As we boiled down the idea some more, what emerged was a simple yet powerful declaration of principle, stating that we are “against dumb.” It felt a little more gutsy and provocative than your typical ad line, which may be why the campaign immediately drew press attention. At the same time, by giving customers something to rail against (everything from gas-guzzlers to oversized Venti lattes), the campaign created a vocal community of smart car advocates. In a short period of time, the brand more than quadrupled its audience.
Marketers may be reluctant to take a stand against anything because it can feel controversial or divisive. But the truth is, some of the boldest marketers have been doing this kind of thing successfully for quite a while. Think of Apple, which in its early days came out strongly against conformity and the “Big Brother” world of computing (represented then as now by the larger, more conservative IBM). Later, fashion brands such as Diesel railed against all kinds of establishment views; in its ads during the 1990s, Diesel even seemed to be against advertising itself, which resonated well with its youthful, independent-minded customers.
The marketing writer Adam Morgan has said that brands sometimes need to create “fake monsters,” so that everyone (meaning all your potential customers) will come together to fight the monster and save the village. But I would amend that to say the monsters aren’t or shouldn’t be fake — they ought to be based in real concerns and issues in today’s world.
Wherever there’s a possibility for improvement, you can speak out against entrenched ways or status quo attitudes. Or you can defend tradition by taking on trendy new attitudes and behaviors. Either way, there’s no shortage of things worth taking a stand against. Just be sure that the cultural values and behaviors you take on do indeed run counter to your brand philosophy. These can be matters large or small, serious or playful. A campaign we once did for IKEA took a stand against being a “gray mouse” (which is to say being timid and safe in one’s choices). A more recent one, for Sabra hummus, directly challenged the bland, unadventurous eating habits of many Americans.
One caveat: Don’t simply take a stand “against” your competition. You may hate your competitor’s guts, but nobody else cares; the outside world is looking for you to take on something more meaningful and interesting.
Defining what your company is against has longer-term benefits than a compelling ad campaign. Thanks to social media, more companies now understand that consumers want to participate in a real conversation with brands. To make this conversation (or any conversation) work, there must be an honest exchange of views. A big part of that is for both sides to be willing to say, “I’m for this” and “I’m against that.”
And if you want to expand that conversation so that it becomes a cultural movement built around your brand — which is something that all marketers should be striving for today — then you need to give that movement a sense of purpose and action. The truth is, it’s often easier to rally people against something than for something. Just think of some of the most successful social and political movements through history — up to and including the current Tea Party movement. More often than not, these movements start with people protesting against or saying “no” to something.
Which is not to suggest that your campaign, or the movement you’re trying to lead, should amount to one big gripe-fest. The conversation you have with the public may start by pointing out something wrong, but ought to move beyond that to offer better alternatives, ideas, and actions you can help people take. If you can do that, it’s possible to transform negative energy into a positive force — both for your customers and for your brand.