Conformity does not win customers

Conformity does not win customers, as the new Ipsos Effie report clearly shows; the best way to have a real impact on an audience is to break free of convention. Yet too many brands continue to follow the rules because, in a polarised society, they choose to shy away from friction and its negative connotations.

Brands don’t want to rub up against anything, because it feels like too much of an uphill struggle. But it’s only when ideas collide that the best creative output is made possible, as winning campaigns, including KFC, the Army and Santander, demonstrate.

It’s what we at Engine call “truth and friction”. The aim is to work with clients to find the most enduring and authentic truth you have to tell as a brand, and then find a disruptive, memorable way to bring it to life. It’s a simple but effective strategy, as the Effie results prove, and it holds true for CX and data just as much as it does for an ad campaign.

Not that I’m advocating a sudden rush to breaking rules just for the sake of it. That would lead to inauthentic, contrived campaigns that are low on effectiveness. An unconventional path needs to stem from a truth that lies at the heart of a brand, one that gives licence, platform, fuel and credibility to even the most unexpected expression of that truth.

KFC’s truth is that they are the market leaders in their category, which places them permanently under threat from the smaller players who plagiarise and undercut them. Instead of trying to undermine their rivals, KFC subverted the rules and displayed the confidence of the market leader by proudly celebrating “every chicken shop out there”.

The Army hit on the truth that a generation of potential recruits is tired of being talked down to and labelled as snowflakes. Karmarama introduced a friction by appropriating a derogatory term and using it to poke fun at people who look down on the younger generation. In a strategic jujitsu move, they spun a negative attack into a call to arms to prove the doubters wrong.

Karmarama took their truth and amplified it to the max, then switched it into a powerful, disarming positive that people would remember. The campaign drove a 71% increase in applications after a month, because it’s speaking a truth that resonates – not just disrupting for the sake of it.

Our own Santander campaign tuned in to the truth that the business has more than 70 years of heritage and expertise in lending in the UK and promptly broke category conventions by taking Ant and Dec – the two biggest mainstream entertainers of our time – and putting them into a shamelessly populist campaign. It makes no sense within the traditional semiotics of the banking ad, but it increased mortgage applications by 24% and grew market share by a whole percentage point.

In an age of clutter, distraction and media overload, it seems obvious that your work should stand out, but many advertisers still prefer to play it safe, seeking an imaginary sweet spot that allows you to get noticed without rocking the boat. Timid brands want their work to be similar enough within their category for customers to know what they are getting, but different enough that the customer will pick them out.

We’ve seen a lot of frictionless advertising over the past year – brands telling us they are here for us and then totally failing to deliver, because it’s an abstract promise that is not tied to a truth. It’s no surprise that advertisers who were brave enough to ditch the established rules and take unconventional approaches have performed better, achieved their marketing goals, and won Effies.

Ete Davies is chief executive officer of Engine Creative and a UK council member of Effie


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