The Warc Blog

The Warc Blog

Don't fear a radical idea
Mythbuster, Les Binet and Sarah Carter, DDB

Les Binet and Sarah Carter of DDB get a little bit angry about some of the nonsense they hear around them… like the idea that we should be very nervous about 'alienation'.

There is one word that crops up very regularly on creative briefs - the word is ‘without’. It seems that communication involves a precarious balancing act. We want our brands to appear ‘confident without being arrogant’ or ‘traditional without seeming old-fashioned’.

Last week, we saw an old favourite example of this ‘a without b’ syndrome. The brief for a new campaign warned: ‘We want to appeal to new younger soft cheese users without ‘alienating’ existing loyal users of our brand.’

Grrrrr… Alienating loyal customers would obviously be a bad thing for any communication. But does it really happen? We've been evaluating advertising for nearly 25 years, and neither of us can think of a single campaign that has appealed to new users but actively turned regular users away from a brand. Nor can we think of any campaign that ‘alienated’ us so much that we stopped buying the brand.

The fear of alienating existing customers is understandable, but it is misplaced because it is based on two fundamental misconceptions about how marketing works.

The first, which we discussed two months ago, is that real people don't have strong opinions about brands. People don't tend to care enough about brands to feel alienated by them, or to have any strong feelings about them, good or bad. Working in a world where brands are everything, that's hard for us to understand. Picasso said it took him 60 years to see like a child. It seems that most marketing people don't do it long enough to be able to view their brands like a real person.

The second misconception is that users of a brand are very different from non-users. Empirical data tends to show that within a given category, the ‘non-users’ you want to attract are pretty similar to the users you are worried about alienating. In fact, it's usually misleading to call them ‘non-users’. In most cases, they've probably bought your brand before, and were quite happy with it. It's just that they don't happen to buy it very often. It's pretty hard to come up with communication that appeals to non-users and ‘alienates’ users. They are basically the same people. And even if they are not, and you are going for a radical repositioning, we know habits are hard to break. People who are regular, long-term users of your brand are unlikely to defect just because they dislike a couple of new ads.

Many years ago, Supernoodles was radically repositioned away from a children's tea-time food to a post-pub blokes’ snack. Some irreverent ads were made, showing, in one instance, a dog licking the noodles off a plate. They sensibly understood that the risk of alienating the regular buying mums was pretty low. And they were right. Usage for children's teas went up nearly as much as for late evening blokey snacks. Good ads tend to work on everyone.

A lot of this alienation paranoia is fuelled by the artificial nature of market research. Force people to analyse a new, more provocative way of talking about your brand, and you may well see signs of ‘alienation’ in your research. People, by and large, don't like change. They prefer the ads they are used to.

As part of the ‘Love it or hate it’ Marmite campaign, we once came up with a brave ad designed to appeal to new younger users. It showed a young couple on their 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 taste of Marmite.

Most people in research thought it was very funny. But older Marmite users hated it. It seemed too irreverent. You could say they felt ‘alienated’ by it. But the ad ran, and those older users changed their minds when they saw how popular it was. In fact, it turned out to be the seminal ad of a famous, long-running campaign, awarded both creatively and for its sales success. Market research overestimates how sensitive people are to change and boldness, and under-estimates ‘herd’ effects of this kind.

Alienation paranoia is not just misplaced, but dangerous, because it can kill the bold, penetration-gaining ideas that are the key to brand growth. So relax: it's actually quite hard to win friends and alienate people.

Subjects: Advertising, Consumers

04 March 2011 10:58

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