When Pinterest found itself stuck in a period of stagnation it developed a compelling, strategic, challenger narrative that is helping drive momentum and attention, explains Shane O’Leary, Director DTC International at Zoetis

“Social media used AI to create the new big tobacco. It has addicted all of us  but especially young people…today, social media has made us more distracted, more depressed, and more divided. It has turned us against our neighbours and focused us on our differences rather than our commonalities.”

When the CEO of one of the world’s largest social media services says something as pointed as this, it’s worth taking notice. The above quote was written by Pinterest CEO Bill Ready in a searing recent Linkedin post in which he took aim at competitors like TikTok and Meta.

But this isn’t a rogue throwaway comment from a frustrated CEO. It’s a page from Pinterest’s new playbook to go after some of their more illustrious competitors.

Sharpening their elbows

Pinterest has become a ‘forgotten child’ of digital advertising. While TikTok and new retail media entrants like Amazon & Walmart have gotten column inches and eaten up ad spend, Pinterest still boasts 450 million monthly users and a significant $877m in quarterly ad revenue according to its latest results. The problem is it doesn’t command its fair share of attention from media or ad buyers.

Pinterest has been stuck in slow growth mode without a really compelling story to tell. It can’t compete with the cultural impact of Twitter, the algorithmic magic of TikTok, the ‘new kids on the block’ effect of Netflix and Amazon nor the advertising scale and simplicity of Meta. According to analyst Eric Seufert, Pinterest’s ARPU ('average revenue per user' – a key metric for social media platforms) stands at only $1.96 compared to Meta's $10.86.

Now, Pinterest management has clearly recognised that to shake up their business, they need to start sharpening their elbows in an increasingly diverse digital marketplace.

Their approach is to take aim at some ‘Goliaths’.

Success in the modern C-Suite is heavily reliant on the stories you tell and your ability to set a clear, compelling corporate narrative to entice the stock market, engage customers and to elicit fire in the belly of your employees.

Buoyed by the arrival from Google of new CEO Ready, Pinterest has developed a compelling narrative that runs through its business. It has begun positioning itself as a ‘positive’ online space where users can be themselves, avoiding condescending negative people and bad news. It has built up its diversity credentials and painted the platform as a reprieve from social media toxicity, where users can expose themselves to new ideas and trends.

Advertisers seem to be embracing this. It certainly plays into a key advertising trend. After a decade of programmatically following people around the dark corners of the web, there’s also been a slow shift back to emphasising quality contextual placement and brand safety. Compared to TikTok (which recently came under fire for launching a filter that promoted unrealistic beauty expectations) and Meta, Pinterest is deemed a more positive, safe and happier place for advertisers. Their new positioning embraces and emphasises that benefit.

‘Evil enemy’

One of the first rules of good narrative is having a clearly defined, hammed up, evil enemy that stands for everything you don't stand for. This new approach has come with subtle, often heavily implied nods to the darker corners of the internet found on competitive platforms.

Nothing unites people like having a common enemy. It's the cornerstone of any good movie or political campaign. Imagine Jaws without the shark? Or Star Wars without Darth Vader? A sharply defined enemy is a far stronger argument for your side than all the words you could possibly put together.

Most marketing practitioners will recognise this tactic instantly. It’s a time honoured ‘challenger’ approach. Avis famously calling out Hertz is the original example, Virgin taking on British Airways is another. But it’s also a tactic that modern, big tech brands have used to subtly attack competitors. Shopify’s mantra of ‘arming the rebels while Amazon tries to build the empire’ is a great example. Apple’s corporate judo tactic of espousing a pro-privacy stance while destroying billions in Meta’s shareholder value with tracking changes is another. Pinterest is clearly trying to tap into anti big social sentiment amongst the media, users and media buyers and from CEO down, the company isn’t afraid to call out big competitors.

A new narrative brought to life

Like all good positioning stances, it’s also delivered a narrative that Pinterest have consistently and delivered against right across their business.

One of the best examples of this was Pinterest’s late 2022 campaign urging people to believe in themselves by advising them to ‘Don’t Don’t Yourself’. Across multiple executions, the campaign prompted people to avoid feelings of fear and negativity and some to the bright side. One video spot even poked fun at ‘doomscrolling’ and implicitly called out Pinterest’s big competitors.

The positioning has come to life at big showpiece events like CES, SXSW and Cannes Lions, where last year the Pinterest beach invited attendees to try something new like a hairstyle, new clothes, learn some new skills or even get a new tattoo, with the purpose of making people feel like they feel when using the platform.

Pinterest has also followed this up in product, with new ad formats designed around discovering new pastimes and beauty trends and promoting the innate ‘brand safety’ of having your content surrounded by positivity.

For digital advertising budget holders, Pinterest’s positioning should serve as a reminder that the digital ad space is far more diverse and interesting that it has been for a while. The duopoly of Meta & Google is declining and there’s a lot of high quality inventory available if you care to diversify your spend. Research has shown that investing in advertising in trusted, positive environments can deliver a halo effect for brands, particularly in an era of divisiveness.

This example should also give us heart that marketing as a discipline should maintain its place at the boardroom table. Data about the length of a CMO tenure is cliched at this stage and our discipline faces major challenges to be taken seriously by C-Suite power and purse string holders.

But this is an obvious example of a marketing team helping a CEO to craft a narrative and communicate it in a compelling way. Pinterest found itself stuck in a period of stagnation and has built a compelling, simple strategic story is vital to generating momentum and attention. As experts in customer insight and communications strategy, the marketing department has the right to be at the forefront of this effort.

It seems to be working so far. According to Eric Seufert, Pinterest saw 4% year-over-year revenue growth in Q4 2022 vs. 0.15% for Snap and -4% for Meta. Across 2022 as a whole Pinterest increased its revenue by 11.9% to $2.6 billion, whereas Meta’s (albeit much larger) revenue contracted 1%.