THE BLOG

Playing It Safe Is the Biggest Risk of All

01/08/2013 16:49 BST | Updated 29/09/2013 10:12 BST

At a time when brands live in fear of the social media backlash, it is perhaps understandable, now more than ever, why many elect to 'play it safe'.

They needn't: the beauty of bad marketing communications is that, the vast majority of the time, the only risk is invisibility, blandness and anonymity. It's too often assumed that the spectrum of 'risk' runs from damaging to brilliant, with bland equally positioned between the two. If this were true, then it indeed may be reasonable to prefer the middle.

But in reality, it doesn't work that way. Bad campaigns simply disappear - we neither notice nor remember them. Consumers are extremely hard to alienate - it's just not how people are. Have you ever seen an ad or a piece of marketing and been 'alienated' from a brand you're currently loyal to? Just how wrong would the ad have to be? How misunderstood would you need to feel? The truth is, unless it's really offensive (and in which case everyone involved in its creation should be fired), the chances are it will simply be ignored or not noticed at all.

In fact, the beauty of marketing is that the potential positive benefits of a great idea massively outweigh the likelihood of creating any negativity at all.

And yet, brands' CEOs and marketing departments often shun great, ambitious ideas, with the familiar refrain: 'I like it, but I don't want to alienate my current customers'. This is ultimately code for, 'Can I have something more boring please?'

The problem is one of definition. Great ideas tend to be presented as 'brave' or 'risky', which is misleading and counter-productive. Well before getting the chance to alienate customers, this approach ensures many ideas never even see the light of day by scaring off brand decision-makers.

We need to redefine the very notion of what 'taking a risk' or 'being brave' actually constitutes. Indeed, you can argue that brands need to get things wrong from time to time in order to learn, a hypothesis brilliantly laid out by Tim Harford in his book 'Adapt - why success must begin with failure'. Andrex's 'Scrunch or Fold' campaign from last year is a great example. Received wisdom is that this is a bad campaign. But is it a campaign that should never have been made? That's harder to say.

This campaign is evidence of a brand which understands the dynamic of risk. In the Andrex Puppy they had a long-established property, and decided it was time to try something new - a reasonable hypothesis. They tried something bold and different (applause). Unfortunately, I don't think it was the right solution. But have they learnt more from it than another puppy campaign? Absolutely. Not least that the nation isn't wild about discussing how it wipes its arse. Has the brand in any way been harmed by any of this? Absolutely not.

Contrast this with a fabulous (and similarly bold) piece of creative thinking: Old Spice's 'The man your man could smell like', which immediately transformed the brand's fortunes. The corollary however is not the case; poor creative ideas in the short term do not damage a brand. Only poor corporate behaviour really has the power to do that.

Think back to the last time you watched TV. It's easy to think of great ads, and even easier to think of average and poor ones. It's very, very hard to think of anything actually capable of damaging a brand.

So; we need to re frame the debate. The axis of success isn't 'glorious success or disaster'. It is 'glorious success or status quo', and the brands which realise that are the ones that will stand out and make better use of their budgets.