What Is Your Brand Against?

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.

FORBES: Why smart (the car) wants Americans to be “against dumb”

"Against Dumb"

Against Dumb
By ELAINE WONG, Forbes Magazine, November 5, 2010

Let’s face it. Americans are guilty of overconsumption. We buy everything from SUVs to homes we cannot afford to even that extra pillow or blanket when one would’ve been enough. Smart, that ultra tiny, fuel efficient car brand, today kicked off an initiative (it hopes) will staunch some of that overzealous buying. Its Facebook page now has a full length “against dumb” manifestation which lists the principles of, well, exactly that. (StrawberryFrog is the agency.) Some excerpts: “Dumb is Venti when Tall is plenty.” And another: “Dumb is eating anything bigger than your head.” Yikes!

Kim McGill, smart’s vp-marketing, advertising, said the effort is really a “movement” aimed at reinforcing the brand’s relevance in a post fuel-prices-are-skyrocketing economy. While driving a smart—or fuel efficient vehicle—may have been a “smart” (no pun intended) move for most Americans in tough times, now many consumers are going back to their normal buying habits. Call it whatever you want, but initiatives like these are essentially a marketing plug for its brand—and McGill acknowledges that—but this might just be what the nation needs to keep its voracious appetite in check.

McGill spoke with Forbes this morning about how smart is tapping viral videos and word of mouth influencers to get this initiative sweeping across the country.

Forbes: What’s this new “smart” initiative you’re kicking off? And what prompted it?

We are not calling it a campaign. We’re calling it a social media initiative. Smart still remains the epitome of efficiency—whether it’s fuel, materials or space—but as we looked at a number of things about the brand, [consumers’ perceptions of it had changed.] When the brand first launched in the U.S. and fuel prices were $4 a gallon, everyone got it. But now that fuel prices have gone down, America is back to what we like to do, which is “bigger and better” [when it comes to buying] and all that. And people are saying, “I don’t know if I really need a car like this anymore.” And so, we wanted to [address that] in the context of a humorous [movement.]

Forbes: Why rally against overconsumption?

We all have junk drawers. We’ve got attics that are full of stuff. And it’s really around this idea of how much stuff we surround ourselves with that bogs us down and keeps us from being free to do what we need to do. Should we have two SUVs in the garage? Or should our other car be something more nimble and small that we can use 95 percent of the time?

Forbes: Okay.  So moderation is key, essentially. Why do you think this message is especially relevant now?

We see all these ads now as we get into the holiday season. People are overextending their credit cards, they’re losing their homes. It’s like, why did we buy all of this stuff? Did it really make us happy? How happy am I that I have all this junk? It’s like [one consumer telling us] she wasn’t sure if it was worth it to pay $2,000 to put her stuff in Public Storage.

Forbes: Not to stretch it, but industry groups have launched campaigns rallying against the dangers of over-consuming junk food or paper. How original is this message?

I don’t know that it’s so original. The idea is the conversation is going on, so we thought we would stoke it a bit more. Let’s talk about it, let’s put our brand relevance around it. It’s not so much against overconsumption, but the mindless things we do.

Forbes: We’re all guilty of overconsumption.

Yes. Here’s an example. I’m a very passionate, high-end, amateur photographer. Every time I’m standing on the sidelines of a sports event and see professionals with their huge lens, I say, “I want one.” Two years ago, I might have actually bought a $7,500 lens. But today, I may be a little more conscious of what I buy. I’ve gotten more creative and realize that I don’t need to buy one. I can rent one. You’ll see us emphasize that, too, with “against dumb.” It’s “Buy what you need most of the time and rent what you need occasionally.”

Forbes: It’s not just the hoarders or shopaholics you’re targeting, is it?

It spans all demographics. There are some people who naturally say, “I don’t need to have everything. Buying more and more material goods is not going to make me happy. In fact, it’s a burden because I can’t be free to move as I want to.” And that [last bit] might relate more to the younger generation, who is always thinking about, “I’ve got to be free to move across the country. If a job opens up, I have to be free to go.” For the older generation, you work really hard at accumulating things and there comes a point in time when you say, “I am not really happy with all this stuff.”

Forbes: How are you getting the word out?

We have two street teams we are running full time in the marketplace right now. We might stoke something around the LA Auto Show. That show is right in the middle of November, right before Black Friday. We also have viral videos and we’re looking at some Web sites and blogs where this conversation is already happening.

Forbes: Why humor? Does it fit the brand? And don’t you think the message, even if it’s delivered in a funny way, is still a bit, er, harsh?

Smart was a serious solution for the problem of urban congestion, but the brand is very lighthearted. Look at it. It doesn’t look serious…You can’t get this in a brand that is about challenging the norm. We’re not something you’d necessarily see on the road, and so we wanted to do this in a fun kind of way, whether you’re smiling with us or at us.

[Plus,] we’re not trying to preach to people to downsize to the max. We all do it. We all have drawers and attics full of junk.

Forbes: The “movement’s”  effectiveness ultimately hinges on getting more people to consider smart. So how are you measuring success?

If it makes people just think about it, that will be a success. Because right now, we get so caught up in our habits and thinking about that “what if” time where we’ll need something big. We need to get people thinking of buying not for that one time, but buying for what we need most of the time. If we can get more people talking in that direction, it will be nothing but positive for this brand.