If you ever thought for a moment that advertising was a simple case of shouting the loudest and most often to embed a brand in the consumer’s mind, you’d be half right. But what if you want to reverse that?
What if, after successfully drumming your message home for a decade, that message encapsulates what consumers think about your brand in a way that you now want to challenge? Think of Joey from Friends presenting Top Gear: he will always be Joey from Friends in our minds.
I shall name brand, and would like you to consider what comes to mind: Lynx deodorant.
If decades of advertising have irreversible permanence, you’re probably thinking of svelte, half-naked women gathering in a harem around some beta male after spraying the eau de teenage bedroom, unlocking the mysterious power of the Lynx Effect within.
But, if ad giant TMW Unlimited has succeeded effectively, you’ll be thinking of the award-winning campaigns of the last two years highlighting issues facing young men, such as suicide, and the idea that men shouldn’t cry or show vulnerability.
Turning a tanker in choppy waters is an understatement, and one that TMW chief executive Chris Pearce was all too aware of.
“I must admit when we first started talking to Calm [Campaign Against Living Miserably, dedicated to preventing male suicide], there was a part of me that thought it was a bridge too far. I was worried about the credibility gap. You can’t go from chasing bikini-clad women down a beach to discussing male suicide, it’s quite a leap. And I genuinely was worried that we’d bitten off more than we could chew, that there might be backlash, and credibility issues.”
He wasn’t alone. Executives at Unilever weren’t so sure of the quantum leap either. But the brand was in decline – people above the age of 12 simply weren’t purchasing the product. In fact, those under the age of 12 weren’t either – their mums were.
By older men, it was seen as outmoded and childish, a bit nineties and laddish, a relic of the FHM era.
“So that’s a massive problem,” says Pearce. “Sales in decline – the ‘get the girl’ stuff just wasn’t resonating anymore. They’d all moved on. There were more mature, interesting choices out there.”
Perfumers reformulated the product and the packaging grew up. Now the ad campaign needed to be mature too. But how to overturn deeply entrenched associations? Pearce is, he tells me, obsessed with behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology. The firm’s mantra is “intelligent influence” – both a philosophy, and an approach to communicating with consumers at the heart of every campaign, including its work with Lynx.
“What actually kills me is that so many agencies talk glibly about behavioural change – getting consumers to do this that and the other, without the faintest idea of how comms actually works on us as a species. One of my passions is understanding human behaviour, how we make the decisions we do.”
I ask him whether, like the government’s nudge unit, good advertising is about influencing consumers without them realising they’re being influenced?
“That’s a really interesting philosophical question. Because the whole idea behind behavioural economics was not to trick people, it was to give people tools that empower them to make decisions that, in the long run, will be better for them and their lives.
“One of the things we talk about in influence is that it’s not about one-off transactions, it’s about enduring change. Anyone can trick someone into trying a new product or making a decision once. We want to make sure they continue to be a customer, buy more, stay longer, don’t churn. And you can’t do that by trickery.”
The solution to Lynx’s woes has been an enduring campaign of association with the very converse of consumer expectations: show the brand has been listening, that it realises the perceptions of sex and identity, notions of politics and gender, have grown up, and that the brand has grown up with them.
The outcome is intelligently influencing consumers.
“It happened, it started getting good press, and it was winning truck loads of awards. Suddenly Keith Weed was all over it, Paul Polman was talking about it in internal conferences, and it was seen as the best in class marketing. The brand is in turnaround, the hockey stick is pointing back up again.”
A resounding success, but one Pearce refuses to take credit for.
“Both of those individual campaigns are successful, but they’re part of a much bigger picture. I think it’s important that we can’t claim success entirely. Success has many fathers. That work happened because there was an incredibly passionate brand manager in the UK who fought tooth and nail on our behalf with us to get that work through and approved.
“It’s amazing to think how great work still depends on individuals who make a stand. If there’d been a different type of person in place, they’d have been brow-beaten by global, they’d have been too afraid to run with it, and it would never have happened.