Simply this: Ginsberg, in addition to penning ground-breaking poetry, knew how capture the attention of the public and the media. It wasn’t just his offbeat poetry; it was also his manner of dress, the way he presented himself, his courage, and his unapologetic lifestyle. It was that he tried, and sometimes failed, to capture some essence of life.
It was in a letter to biographer Michael Schumacher that Ginsberg spoke of ‘following one’s inner moonlight.’ Specifically, he spoke of the value of “talking about something that’s intensely important to you,” and listening closely to that, rather than seeking approval from others.
It seems weird to imagine that this might apply to marketing, as well as personal expression, but I think it’s not only true, but more vital than ever.
There’s a reason millions of us use PVRs to fast forward through TV ads, and millions of others sign up for “do not call” lists. You can’t turn on the TV, surf the internet, turn on your car radio or pick up your phone without being confronted with a tsunami of ads that mostly sound the same: scripted, predictable and somehow old-fashioned, even when they’re not. You can avoid TV, and the radio, and choose digital options–sure. But even there, you’ll find brands doing backbends to get your attention.
So, how do brands cut through the noise to resonate with prospective customers? For me, often, they get me by doing something I don’t expect—something that takes me a bit by surprise and makes me want to hear more. Most often, for me, it’s about expressing something real or true. Sounding human. Perhaps even admitting mistakes, or failures. Admitting a curious passion.
I’m by no means advising any brand to go against the grain for the sake of it, or to be brutally honest in every regard. Not every risk will pay off. Brands that are successful with bold expression tend, rather to be those that align out-of-the-box thinking with clear strategy, considering everything from gathering accurate demographic and psychographic data to creating sound buyer personas to effective A/B testing. They express themselves, and do their strategic homework, too.
Take these four brands as key examples:
1. Be Unabashedly Old-School: Casper
If you’ve listened to any podcast lately, you’ve heard it: your host is telling a compelling story or in mid-conversation about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, and then–sometimes laughingly–take a break to talk about their experience with their own Casper mattress, or about how their team started using Mailchimp two years ago and think it’s great. They banter about it with their co-host. They’re enthusiastic about the product, but generally don’t sound crazed, or fake. It’s kind of great.
Audiences tend to like the messages (although they also like to make fun of them–some of these parodies are spot-on) because they generally like the host delivering them—and, I think because they’re so up front about what they are. They’re unashamedly old-fashioned. There’s nothing hidden: Casper wants to sell mattresses. And their marketing partners discovered that podcasts were a great format for that, enabling the podcast host to take a bit of conversational license in doing just that.
Just for fun, here’s a clip of Johnny Carson messing up his shot at a new sponsor.
2. Creating a Message as Bold as the Product: Dollar Shave Club
Back in the day, when they were just out of the gate, Dollar Shave Club set some lofty goals: they were going to create shaving solutions through e-commerce (when there weren’t any) in a virtually saturated shaving market.
Their first move: a one-minute-30-second video that walked viewers through the most annoying aspects of shaving, and that included the signature (and somewhat ballsy) line, “Our Blades are F***king Great!” They raised eyebrows and turned heads. Marketers’ jaws collectively dropped. The video ignited one of the most successful marketing campaigns of the decade, and in just three years, the company went from unknown status to a $1billion all-cash acquisition by Unilever.
Of course, that campaign would have fallen flat if Dollar Shave Club hadn’t also offered something consumers wanted: an affordable shaving solution delivered right to their front doors. Indeed, the straight-talking campaign was built on the simple, sweet, common-sense logic of that offering. Like all successful risk-taking brands, Dollar Shave Club found the sweet spot where effective marketing strategy and brilliant self-expression meet.
3. Putting Real Social Responsibility First, Really: Warby Parker
One way to endear yourself to consumers is to demonstrate—and I mean prove—that your business genuinely cares about more than making profits.
Colgate did this way back in 2004, when the company (in coordination with the Indian Dental Association) launched its wildly successful “Keep India Smiling” campaign, the goal of which was to enhance oral health throughout the subcontinent, and to show consumers in the developed world that it cared enough to do so.
Brands like Colgate, and Tom’s Shoes, touched off a wave of corporate responsibility that unfortunately devolved into brands trumpeting their social consciousness … without putting a whole lot of thought into how or why they were doing so. As HBR reports,
“Anheuser-Busch and Hyundai even devoted this year’s Super Bowl ads to lauding their philanthropic efforts with decidedly mixed responses. Critics questioned Hyundai’s decision to spend $5 million to advertise the $15 million donated to its Hope on Wheels program in 2017 (although in fairness, it has donated $130 million over its 20-year history). And Pepsi caused an outrage a few months earlier when its attempt to appear politically aware in an ad with Kendall Jenner seemed to exploit the Black Lives Matter movement. Trying too hard can backfire.”
Even Tom’s Shoes—commonly cited as a marketing success for its “Buy One, Give One” program (which helps ‘people in need’ by donating shoes)—may be doing more harm than good to local economies, critics say, creating dependencies and possibly harming local businesses.
Brands like Warby Parker have addressed this with a longer-term plan for expressing their brand mission, using money from every pair of glasses they sell to train local people in giving eye exams (they work with a like-minded non-profit, Vision Spring, to do so), and to then sell their glasses at a much-reduced rate, thereby turning “an otherwise needy beneficiary into a responsible consumer, which Warby Park co-CEO Neil Blumenthal says empowers rather demeans the recipient.” (Source: HuffPo)
4. Adding Your Brand Voice to a Real Conversation: Dove
Everyone used to know how to sell beauty products: you show us other women who we’re trained to think look a lot better than we do, and make us buy stuff so we can look like them. Bleagh.
This was wrong, and awful, as far as most alive women, and Dove, were concerned. Hoorah! In 2004, Dove marketers (led, ahem, by a man, Joah –but underpinned by a 3-year strategic research phase in partnership with three universities) recognized that attitudes were changing, women’s primary among them. Years before #metoo, the brand stood for women that felt, or at least wanted to feel, that they didn’t need to think or be spoken to like that any longer.
Here’s how Advertising Week 360 sums up their winning strategy:
“Dove’s ground-breaking Real Beauty campaign is perhaps one of the most celebrated examples of an FMCG brand swimming against the tide and reaping the rewards…Dove created a campaign that tapped into something more relatable and empowering that disrupted the norm and made women sit up and take notice…it showed women’s growing confidence in how they looked and felt…The lesson? Beauty comes from within.”
Ten years after the campaign began, Dove’s campaign still has its fans and critics. Some see it as a brand’s powerful statement about women. Some see it as a marketing trick: a way to sell products not by talking about the product, but rather by talking about the power of the person buying the product.
Any way you see it, Dove contributed to, and amplified, a conversation that was going on around the world.
Ginsberg urged us all to be unafraid of our madness. We all have it, don’t we? Something we feel within us that doesn’t quite seem like what everyone else is feeling. And yet we intensely admire those who speak up. Those who try to express what’s real, and true. Especially when it’s hard to say.
Ultimately, trying to say what matters, does matter—even (or especially) in marketing. People sure don’t expect it.