Today’s boldest marketing successes come from the stodgiest of industries: insurance. The affable Aflac Duck has transcended its TV presence by waddling onto T-shirts and coffee mugs. Progressive’s bubbly Flo is one of the most recognizable faces on television. And Allstate’s darkly humorous mayhem guy is so entertaining that viewers stop their DVRs to see what he’s doing.
The imagination behind the selling power of a charming duck, an aggressively cheerful woman with shellacked hair, and all manner of violent accidents personified by a calm, rugged leading man is noteworthy: Bold marketing works. The juxtaposition of humor, likability and entertainment with old-school, boring insurance is a big part of the boldness in these marketing campaigns.
The other bold ingredient is the image choice. Because we recognize these faces and are drawn to them, we recognize the names of the insurance companies themselves. Over time we start to feel like we know the companies in the same way we feel like we know their spokespeople… or spokes-ducks. That’s Marketing 101: Choose a face for your company that people will like, show it to them over and over, and they will be drawn to the company that image represents. That’s why bold marketing works—because it sticks with us and inspires us to act.
History Versus Imagination
Can you recall a TV commercial for a bank, a car dealership or any laundry detergent that isn’t cut from the same unoriginal cloth of industry norms? Probably not, because most marketing is stuck in a rut of repetition based on ancient records of formulaic success.
It’s not just TV ads that fall prey to those worn-out formulas. Cheesy billboards for lawyers are still common. Realtors still mass-mail refrigerator calendar magnets that don’t stick on stainless steel, the top-selling appliance material for 20 years now. And many people default to the WordPress-o-Matic webpage even though most children can whip up a customized website in an afternoon.
Marketing is largely a nondescript mass of things we’ve seen countless times. And a big reason is that marketers are forever challenged by a strategic choice: Do they build a campaign out of an organization’s history or out of their imaginations? This is a conundrum largely because in marketing “new” is synonymous with “risky.” There is safety in knowing that some amount of success will be achieved through proven methods even if that success is small.
It boils down to a choice: Do you want to be a little successful? Or are you willing to be bold in the riskier quest for large-scale success?
Bold Don’ts and Do’s
Let’s say you’re ready to be bold. Bring on the risk… you’re up for it! How exactly do you achieve successful bold marketing? After all, you don’t want clients to view your boldness as obnoxious.
A quick review of local TV ads serves up proof of how many marketing screw-ups occur, especially those commercials featuring the owner and founder of car dealerships. You can imagine the thought process that led to these promotions: “We don’t need some big-city marketing firm telling us how to make a TV commercial. I can make my own, and everyone will love watching it!” Uh-huh, like everyone loves watching a train wreck. It’s a bold decision that proves annoying.
For a classic misfire on the national stage, you need look no further than J.C. Penney. A couple of years ago, the department store chain attempted to change its image, presenting itself as hip and contemporary, with designer brands and in-store boutiques. In addition, Penney changed its pricing strategy, putting a well-publicized halt to the series of markdowns that consumers had come to expect on merchandise ranging from fine jewelry to blue jeans.
The disconnect between what the chain communicated in advertising and what its customers actually wanted in its stores was profound. After bleeding a sea of red ink, J.C. Penney’s ads are once again less hip and more middle-America, restoring the sales that traditionally brought price- and value-conscious shoppers through its doors.
So how do marketing campaigns hit the sweet spot of successful boldness? Where does boldness end and insufferable begin? Figure it out by determining whose interests are being served. Do the creative ideas in a bold approach 1) appeal mostly to the members of a marketing department or 2) truly serve customers?
Properly mounted campaigns do a lot of 2) and just enough of 1).
Consider Allstate’s mayhem guy. Behind the clever displays of pandemonium, the ad offers a call to action: Your coverage might be deficient, so you better check on it. Allstate boldly tells us danger isn’t just an abstract idea but a real threat that we need to address right away.
In addition, bold marketing must align with the company’s core principles; failure to do so all but guarantees a backlash.
Southwest Airlines provides a great example of a company that stays attuned to its values in all of its messaging. No other company can advertise like Southwest Airlines because no other company is Southwest Airlines. Southwest values and showcases its well-established cultural quirkiness (flight attendants might rap the safety briefing, for instance), a quirkiness that spills into marketing campaigns. And any other airline would come off as unprofessional or copycat if it advertised as Southwest does, with a photo of peanuts representing both its snacks and its fares.
A business must retain its authenticity even when it markets boldly.
Finally, test your bold marketing approach.
1. Take your marketing ideas, including that likable image for your campaign, to the non-marketing-minded people in your company. Ask for their opinions about and reactions to new ideas. If you own a sole proprietorship, solicit input from business mentors as well as friends and acquaintances who fit your target demographic. You need to do this because 1) marketers don’t think like normal people and 2) anyone invested in the campaign is going to be predisposed to like it.
2. Ask yourself and those whose opinions you value: Is this us? Does this campaign represent our company’s core values?
3. Answer honestly: Are you marketing to real solutions and for real people? Clever ideas can be clever solutions, or they can be just clever marketing. Genuinely serve your customers through your marketing, and you’ll change their world.