In her recent book From Marginal to Mainstream: Why Tomorrow’s Brand Growth Will Come from the Fringes – and How to Get There First (2023), Helen Edwards laments the fatigue that has set in within marketing. Brands are increasingly devoid of original ideas and instead are playing it safe by copying the incremental innovations that their closest competitors come up with.
A perfect example of creative risk aversion is the fragrance industry and its swerve into surrealism. How many celebrities standing on rooftops or riding a motorbike through Paris or seductively stepping out of a pool of gold must we imagine smell good before someone (anyone!) decides to do something differently? Brands rely on sales from a handful of iconic fragrances, such as Chanel No5, and turn their noses up at defining a differential. Dalziel-Pow, who specialise in brand innovation, echo Edwards when they posit that one of the main problems within the fragrance industry is that “Too many brands offer the same uninspiring product and experience”.
Often, the problem is that for brands to feel like they belong to a product category or industry segment they need to stick to what other brands in that space are doing. Additionally, there are some recent examples where innovation didn’t go so well, such as Bud Light’s attempt to reach out to a new consumer segment by partnering with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. This led to a backlash from the brand’s traditional consumer base and a forecast 26% earnings drop for Anheuser-Busch in 2023, so perhaps it’s understandable that brands are risk-averse to innovation.
Are brands being sentenced to an innovation-free existence? Not necessarily. On the Advertising Will Save Us podcast, the VP of Creative at Liquid Death Mountain Water, Andy Pearson, spoke about how their brand broke all the rules in the bottled water category. The very first rule they broke was to not bottle the water, instead they decided to use cans which were more environmentally friendly and gave the brand a point of differentiation. Additionally, their out-of-the-box thinking led to some truly innovative marketing, for example, they partnered with adult film actresses for a sustainability campaign and the CEO of the brand got a tattoo of a very dedicated customer’s face (watch the video here.)
It may be a firm yet naïve conviction I hold, but I believe good marketing is about entertaining consumers. Above and beyond anything else, marketing is art. As marketers, we have a constant presence in the lives of consumers. This imbues us with a responsibility to make the time that consumers engage with our content worthwhile. Back in 2007, Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery was a call to reset how we present ideas. The ethos of Reynolds’ book was that first and foremost the presentation should provide a positive experience for the audience. I think we need a similar and much wider reset in marketing, where we refocus our intentions on entertaining consumers and not on measuring effectiveness and margins.
But what went wrong with Bud Light? Why did their attempt to innovate and reach a new consumer segment fail so spectacularly? My personal view is that they were inauthentic to their brand. Consumers claim ownership over the brands they love, and by realigning the Bud Light brand into a space that the existing consumer base felt less comfortable entering can create the sort of backlash we have seen in this case. The key caveat to innovation then is that the innovation needs to be authentic to the brand. It doesn’t mean it needs to be informed by consumers (it’s doubtful we would ever innovate if we just listened to consumers), but at the same time, it should not be something that your existing consumers will passionately oppose.
Written by Dr. Nethal Hashim, Strategist at big group.