Monday 24 June 2019 5:26 am

Is honesty the best policy? Why brands should be open about their weaknesses

Jamie Williams is planning partner at the advertising agency isobel

Marketing can be complex, with so many sophisticated models, fancy processes, long words, plus various funnels, pyramids, and flow diagrams to help make people look clever.

And the growing importance of data has added complexity to the way in which we plan the strategies behind advertising campaigns.

But as the legendary ad man Bill Bernbach said 70-odd years ago, the best and most successful brands deal in simple, timeless, human truths. And this hasn’t really changed.

Brands are very much like people. Some are incredibly likable, and others are not. Likeable people tend to be honest and human. They’re not bullsh*ters. And the same is true for brands.

There is a strong history of brands generating success by being open and honest about their weaknesses. For instance, Guinness created a campaign around the fact that it takes ages to pour a pint of its beer, Stella Artois stood out by focusing on the fact that it’s expensive, and in its challenge to market leader Hertz, Avis celebrated its second-place position in the car-rental market with its “We try harder” tagline.

These brands all admitted a weakness, and people liked them for it. Perhaps it also made their other claims seem more believable. Clearly, honesty is a powerful thing.

As marketing budgets tighten, paid-for media becomes more expensive, and consumers grow increasingly hard to reach and impress, so brands need to concentrate even more on being human and likeable.

All in good taste

M&S Food is a brand that seems to understand this. With its original “This is not just food…” campaign, the retailer was able to stand out, and kickstarted a wave of similar “food porn” advertising.

But this straight, celebratory approach is now slightly dated – M&S Food’s recently-launched version is far more playful and engaging for today’s audience. The new work parodies the original campaign, poking fun at these old ads and itself along the way. It’s warm, engaging, and feels very human.

While Marks & Spencer has been fairly subtle, Carlsberg has taken this honesty strategy to a different level, with some serious bravery.  

With sales falling, and having been dropped by Tesco to make room for new and more interesting varieties, Carlsberg recognised that its beer had been repositioned in the market as a boring, tasteless lager. “Probably the best lager in the world” was, in fact, completely and utterly false, and consumers weren’t buying it. So it had to change.

Carlsberg’s latest campaign, which launched in April, is honest and far more human, admitting that its beer is “probably not the best beer in the world” after all. It followed the release of its new improved recipe and the introduction of Carlsberg Danish Pilsner. It’s early days, but openly ripping up the recipe book and starting again seems to have hit the zeitgeist and increased social media engagement levels.

The bubble’s burst

Even the mega-brand Coca-Cola is now celebrating failure.

Coke famously missed the mark back in 1985 when its New Coke product flopped. Despite a huge marketing push for its “great new taste”, New Coke was so unsuccessful that it prompted boycotts from brand loyalists, and received thousands of complaint letters and calls.

Coca-Cola admitted that the product “spawned consumer angst the likes of which no business has ever seen”. In the end, New Coke lasted only 79 days before being pulled.

Despite this failure, Coca-Coca is bringing back the product as a limited edition for a nostalgic tie-up campaign with the new series of Stranger Things on Netflix. Coca-Cola isn’t known for its playful side, but by recognising and celebrating this failed part of its history, it is in fact showing the true strength of the brand, and will no doubt connect with consumers in a new and meaningful way.

Even for global mega-brands, being human and honest can be extraordinarily powerful.

Old dog, new tricks

Honesty, playfulness, and being insightful are very attractive human characteristics, as is the ability to show a little vulnerability and not take yourself too seriously. The same is true for brands.

After all, consumers are people, and people are smart. They see through artifice and bullsh*t. And they warm to brands that are able to be honest.  

Brewdog takes it a step further by using honesty to disrupt advertising norms. In its first ever ad campaign, we produced a message for the Scottish brewer that encouraged people “don’t buy the advertising, just try the beer”.

Its latest campaign, which simply has the word “advert” emblazoned across a white background, takes a pop at the ad industry, while still benefiting from the awareness and reach that it provides. Whether consumers interpret this as “honest” is another question, but it’s working just fine for Brewdog.  

Ultimately, brands still need to be highly creative and clever in order to stand out. But by seeing themselves just like people who want to be liked by others, brands can come across as more human. And when they do this, they can really touch a nerve with their audience.