Don’t be cool, be effective

As someone whose 40th year is not too far away and who finds themselves unconsciously drifting into ‘dad’ stereotypes with increasing frequency (the ‘active dad’ uniform of hoodie, shorts and scruffy running trainers is popping up more often in my clothing choices) I am coming to accept that my days of being cool (I was once even accused of being a hipster) may well be over.   

And you know what? That’s fine, because to be the best dad, husband, strategist or very amateur climber I can be doesn’t require me to be cool. In fact, trying to be cool is often a hindrance to these things. Scruffy running trainers are exactly what you need to wear a lot of the time to focus on having fun with an energetic toddler rather than worrying about getting mud on your box fresh kicks (does anyone say ‘kicks’ anymore? No idea). 

The point of the above analogy? It’s often the same for brands. Trying to be cool might seem appealing but it could be counterproductive to achieving your objectives.  

In The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness (IPA 2019) Peter Field makes the argument that the effectiveness of campaigns that win creative awards is reducing at an alarming rate. Effectiveness being the ability of marketing activity to ultimately deliver as much profit as possible. Field proposes that this is largely due to too much focus by marketers on delivering short-term sales at the expense of investing for long-term brand growth.  

There is also another likely reason why creatively awarded campaigns are becoming less effective. Some marketers, whether they are client or agency side, are getting hung up on making their brands cool. 

The marketing industry often berates itself for getting over-excited about the newest shiny thing in but there’s evidence to show that we are moving away from creative techniques that really work because they are seen as a bit naff. 

First up is Orlando Wood and his book Lemon (IPA 2019). Wood argues that there has been a shift in the style of creative used in advertising towards one that is flat, abstract, uses music that lacks melody, lacks dialogue or clear context. Essentially, it’s less human and very forgettable. Think of the adverts you often see for mobile phones or TVs. The problem with this style of creative is it looks cool and contemporary on the surface but it’s completely forgettable and leaves the viewer feeling empty. 

This shift in style has come at the expense of marketing creative that uses characters, context, storylines, melodic music, and humour. Ads where you could describe what you just saw. Think of any classic or famous ad – any John Lewis Christmas ad, the Tetley Tea folk ads, Cadbury Gorilla etc etc. These are ads that make the viewer feel something and this is what makes your ad and your brand memorable. 

As well as this general shift in creative style there are some specific elements that have fallen out of fashion too. In the paper Creativity and Effectiveness, System1 identified that, with notable exceptions like Sergei the Meerkat and Go Compare’s Gio Compario, the use of fictitious characters and brand mascots declined by 70% between 1992 and 2019. What’s more those brands that are using fictional characters are mainly using them on TV rather than consistently applying across all channels. 

Brand characters or mascots are not just an excellent vehicle for delivering a story that makes a TV ad memorable. Because they are often very distinctive it makes it easier for people to recognise other brand communication whether that’s online banner adverts or packaging. This adds up to more effective marketing and more money on the bottom line 

There is also some evidence to say that other creative devices such jingles and rhyming straplines have fallen out of favour too. Again, jingles and rhymes are very distinctive and are easy for us to remember. 

Why has this shift away from traditional creative techniques towards a ‘contemporary’ style happened? Well, that is a point for debate. 

It could be due to agencies or clients developing campaigns that appeal to them, or awards juries, rather than thinking about their audience wants. It could be due to the idea that people are more sophisticated than they were 30 or 40 years ago and won’t respond to supposedly cheesy creative. While consumers are definitely more informed than they once were, the fundamental way our brains work, and what creates an emotional response, certainly hasn’t changed. 

Our job as marketers isn’t to worry about being cool or following the latest marketing trend. It’s to think about what will appeal to our target audience, even if it is a dad joke. 

About the Author:

Ed Steele is a Senior Strategist at CreativeRace. Alongside developing client strategy, his broad experience across 13+ years in marketing includes brand management, retail marketing and insight & effectiveness roles. Ed has worked on brands including Asda, Co op, Greggs, Anchor and Cravendale.

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