By Tom Aschauer, Vice President, Executive Creative Director
“Well, that was unexpected.”
In the world of branding, we strive for consistency. We preach over and over again that only through consistency can you build a strong brand. Doing something that your customers would never expect from you breaks the trust you’ve built up with them and sends them scurrying to your competition.
And yet you want your messages to stand out. You want to zig when others are zagging. The last thing you want is for your message to blend in. Right? So you look for something “unexpected.”
Being unexpected doesn’t mean being off-brand. Don’t get me wrong, it can. It was the great David Ogilvy who said, “If all you want is to attract attention, then you put a gorilla in a jockstrap.” But that’s what makes great advertising different from the run-of-the-mill drib drab. Being clever and unexpected, while still be on-brand, is quite a chore.
The Go Daddy work strikes me as an advertiser who, not only has questionable tastes, but is also a client who would have no qualms about putting a gorilla in a jock strap at the drop of a hat, just to get attention. (And no, that’s not some bad Danica Patrick crack.)
So what makes a great ad “unexpected”? It can be a visual. It can be a piece of music. It can be an odd casting choice. It can be unusual video direction. It can be a really well-designed piece in a sea of mediocrity (it all depends on which sea your brand swims in.)
It can be a unique offer. It can be a timely tweet. It can be a great article in the paper, or online, about your company that makes people think, “You know, that’s why I’ve always liked those guys.”
It can be lots of things.
And to be unexpected, the first thing you need to know is what is expected. You need to be consumers of the world. You need to be well-read. You need to be well-rounded. You need to be constantly “on,” looking for ways to twist the world into your favor.
It’s not easy. But then nothing good ever is. And just because you’ve found a great twist for creating unexpected work, that doesn’t mean your client’s gonna buy it. Because if it’s challenging for the consumer, it’s just as challenging for the person paying the bill. I dare an MBA school to show me a curriculum that includes the course, “How to take chances with your marketing and advance your career.”
Being unexpected is not for the faint of heart. It takes a leap of faith to not feature your product until the last few second of the TV spot — like VW did with its Darth Vader spot. Or to get people to laugh at you while laughing with you, like Old Spice has done.
But the success stories do exist. We’ve got a few to tell ourselves. A zoo spot that’s 90 percent race car and only 10 percent animals. A world-famous NFL running back who had his knee surgery done in Elkhart, Ind. A Secretary of State pushing what appears to be investment scams over the internet. They’re all on-brand but just a little bit off-center. And those are the ones people pay attention to.
All that said, I feel like I need to tell the story of an art director friend of mine who had a client that wanted her to come up with a direct mail piece announcing that they were going to be having a live monkey at their next trade show. My friend tried to tell them that having a live monkey at their trade show was “off-brand.” It was a software manufacturer whose products were technically on the leading edge. The client needed to be perceived as the wizards of the world. It was anything but a chimpanzee. It was man’s future, not man’s past. Etc, etc, etc.
But they wouldn’t hear of it. They had a chimp on hold and wanted a direct mail piece to announce it. My friend ended up not doing the work, which as a freelancer is an option that most agencies can’t take without risking the overall relationship.
Well, the two of us were walking to lunch one day when we ran across another friend of mine. This was a guy who I’d used as an IT expert in the past. He was a computer wiz. A real smart guy. He’d show up, and minutes later, it was like nothing was ever wrong. He’d try to explain what he’d done, and I’d always just shake my head in agreement, having no clue what he was talking about.
As we were chatting about one thing or another, he seemed a little distracted. A few minutes go by, and finally he breaks in the conversation and says, “Look I don’t mean to rude, but I should probably get going. There’s this trade show in town, and some software company’s got a live monkey that you can get your picture taken with.”
“Well,” I’m thinking as he walks away, “That was unexpected.” Then I look over at my friend, who says she’s got an advertising story she’d like to tell me.