November 28, 2018

4 Rules to Break in Marketing—And Why

Marketing is full of rules and best practices, and usually for good reason. Concepts like purpose-driven branding aren’t going anywhere because they’re universally meaningful and stand the test of time. But over the course of our careers, we’ve run into a few situations where breaking the rules has led to some of the most successful insights, campaigns and innovation strategies we’ve seen. We wanted to zero in on these situations and explain why some rules are meant to be broken.

1. Follow the beaten path of competitors

Often, we see brands replicating the activities, branding and messaging of their competitors. They look to the category to determine what’s important for messaging, believing the marketing conventions speak to what their consumers want or need to hear. It can almost feel instinctive—if it’s working for them, it must have value, right?

Certainly, there’s comfort in behaving in the same way as competitors or peers. Checking the boxes of table stakes messaging in the category gets you far, but building thought leadership by occupying white space establishes you as the one to copy. By taking a leap and trying something different, you may just rewrite the rules for everyone.

It’s important to look beyond the category behaviors and understand what your consumer actually wants. Let them tell you how they want to engage with your brand or find a way to anticipate the needs they may not be articulating. By looking deeper at your customer and category, you’ll naturally find surprising truths that will illuminate new territory for your brand.

We find this exercise helps brands think beyond their marketing. By looking outside of the competition and further into people’s lives, you may even find inspiration for a new product offering.

2. Laser focus on your existing customers

Brands often focus their marketing solely on the people opening their wallets and buying their product. These decision makers have a major influence on the success of your brand and it’s certainly worth making them your key targets. But focusing on the people who are already engaged with your brand can help you meet current KPIs, but may not future proof your company. From our experience, it’s also worth thinking about the following targets:

A) Your end user. They may not be making the purchase, but they’re the ones whose daily lives are most affected by your product. This could be the college kid eating something their parent buys, or the worker bee using software a C-suite executive chooses. Their opinion is incredibly important to generating both demand for your product and maintaining its reputation.

B) Your acquisition customer. Who isn’t buying into your brand offering today, but could be tomorrow? We can’t keep track of the many brands who missed the boat on millennials and then scrambled to figure out what this generation was looking for. Is your brand planning for Gen Z? Acquisition customers can also fall outside of age groupings. They could be people you target with a new, innovation product. For example, if Lyft suddenly started catering to the food service, they’d have a new target on their hands.

C) Influencers. They may not write the check, but they control the conversation. Who are your target’s trusted sources? The more you can align your communications to their channels, the more you’ll reach the people you need to.

When it comes to segmentation and better understanding new targets, make sure you gain insights beyond their interaction with your product and company. You want to understand them holistically as people. Look for their daily pain points, motivations, sources of emotional stress and general career goals, too.

3. Give the consumer all the information

Many brands want their marketing to be telegraphic. Their instinct is to pack as much information into a piece of communication as possible, and have it do heavy lifting to explain all their benefits clearly. This rhetorical strategy can often come off as overwhelming.

Instead of thinking just about what you want to say, consider how you can inspire and excite audiences. This sounds simple and obvious, but it’s often overlooked.

Captivating an audience takes a lot of imagination and empathy. A person might get excited by an emotionally intelligent ad that candidly captures something they have trouble articulating, like the feeling of being misunderstood by their peers. They may be inspired by an ad that convinces them they can do something they hadn’t thought possible. Often, these narratives are incredibly understated. They ask a question rather than provide all the answers. They reify something in a poetic manner that doesn’t oversell a product, but speaks to the humanity behind it. They focus on real problems, not just glossy solutions.

We often say that people like connecting A to B, and good copywriting sets them up to make that connection themselves. This copywriting isn’t just something to think about in longform contexts, but exists at the heart of company mission statements. Once you peel back all the functional and competitive benefits, you start to leave room for emotion.

4. Pick the top performer in testing

Testing brings to light many interesting insights. It helps you see what’s resonating and what’s lacking. But people don’t always know what they want. Some of the greatest ad campaigns bombed in testing.

It takes guts—and a lot of foresight to look beyond the top performer. But there are good reasons to do so:

A) The top performer is the safest and most expected. It makes sense immediately, because it’s not particularly novel.

B) The winning idea may have sounded the most like the category at large. This could mean it suits the category, but not in a way that’s differentiated for your brand. After all, your average consumer isn’t an expert on positioning.

C) When testing anything, from positioning to creative work, you assume people will respond in an artificial testing environment the same as they would in real life. This is hardly ever the case.

Oftentimes, the call is easier to make when you can look at some qualitative inputs. People may have thoughtful reasons for liking the second-place performer, but passionless reasons for liking the first. It may be worthwhile to go after the more passionate, thoughtful respondents, as they may be more influential thinkers in general. Adding a simple, open-ended question to a research survey can give your team a lot more leverage to choose the best direction for the brand.

-Becky Lang and Meredith Engelen

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