When is it right to experiment?

Would you let this man do it? Picture via jbcurio, usual rules apply.

As the last post on anti-social brands alluded to, my position on what brands should and shouldn’t do is very much rooted in their history.

Ignoring history is, I think, a problem of the communications industry; it gives what’s gone before a short shrift, always trying the newest and most exciting thing, which it claims is going to be the new and revolutionary approach to branding/thinking/marketing/life. This is perhaps unsurprising; agencies are founded and built on their thoughts and approaches – to always be seen to take the lead, so they can ‘add value’.

Though it’s a bit GCSE Business Studies, what’s the damage of doing this? What benefits do you lose when you discard previous thinking? Recently, there’s been a raft of new campaigns that fly in the face of the past 10/20 years of advertising. If all you’re trying to do with your brand is ensure it’s able to be ‘remixed’, I think you ignore an important point, that brands are founded on points of view – either superior product, or a thought about the world/marketplace they operate in.

That’s not to say i’d try to stop brands from innovating, or from agencies from pitching the latest in content, but I would try to stop the relentless need for change that seems to have blighted the marketplace in the last ten years or so. Maybe it’s got something to do with the speed of technological change, or the length of time Marketing Directors have in their job, or that agencies have become increasingly like magpies – only interested in the next shiny thing.

In fact, it’s a funny thing. In a time where planners are obsessed with the psychology of loss aversion (the fear of losing something, a feeling that’s so strong, people go out of their way to avoid having things taken away) it’s surprising that we don’t apply this thinking to marketing or advertising. Why aren’t we more worried about brands trying to do away with our expertise? Agencies like being seen as cutting edge when they suggest it. But why don’t they do away with this need? Why don’t they man up, and point out the economic danger of playing with the brand, both for the client and the agency.

I think this is also wrapped up in the ‘wisdom of crowds’ (which, i’d suggest, is used improperly a lot of the time). Often, the masses have a confused opinion when aggregrated – as Jeremy Bullmore highlights. With that in mind, what hope have they of creating a coherent campaign? I’d rather one or two informed people’s strong opinion shining through the work, and that opinion disseminated to their respective agency/client sides, so there’s a sense that the brand’s position doesn’t get confused.

Wanting to be the rainmaker in your agency or industry is all well and good, but it’s not always the right thing to do. Knowing when experimentation should happen, or how conversation can enable experiments – that’s the mark of a top quality comms person.

I’m thinking of brands like Walkers, who took a commonly held truism (that their consumers all would like a specialised version of their products), asked the masses, and then aggregated it themselves. They didn’t just blindly turn the brand’s point of view and communications over to consumers. That would have flown in the face of their years of building a brand and product that is too good to share.

And, most importantly, I don’t think most people can be bothered with it. I’m in complete agreement with Tom Ewing here. Walkers worked because people wanted to get involved, and there was a commonly held thought that people could come up with good flavours.

Participating in conversations about your brand, whether they are about politics, economics or culture is surely a good thing. I worry that the magpie within a lot of comms folk leads to people to getting involved in situations which aren’t right for their brand/s.

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