by Erna George (@edgeo23) A friend recently sent me the Tom Fishburne cartoon below. I smiled, as the number of times my brave agencies have said this, gotten frustrated by us doing something similar or actually just dished up two options (“the one we believe works” vs “the one we think you will go for”) is too many. It made me wonder: is marketing losing its bravery?


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“Innovation and Risk” – new cartoon and post on the catch-22 of how organizations approach new ideas #innovation #cartoon

A post shared by Tom Fishburne (@marketoonist) on

Are we being too cautious or overthinking so much that we miss opportunities? There is clearly more to take into account these days and here three elements which I believe are critical considerations and/or intimidating hurdles.

Consumer power

Has the fear of a lone consumer objection ever caused you to be too safe? You know that consumer who abuses their power, who calls and threatens social media exposure if you don’t pay them xyz or if you don’t give them a year’s supply of the same product that they’ve just told you made them ill.

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Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t real and highly valid consumer complaints which we must make us sit up, listen to carefully and respond to well. Unfortunately, there are those who’re known to be serial complainers — those who earn well from threats and multiple complaints. Call-centres are full of such stories.

I wish I could tell consumers with valid queries about these complainers, especially when they get hurt or frustrated at having to supply “proof” of their complaint. However, at the same time, I also know that there are companies and brands far less honourable which will do almost anything to avoid taking responsibility for valid complaints.

So, what’s the answer here?

Receiving complaints isn’t the issue as we should always do all we can to proactively manage quality to optimal requirements and, if safety is compromised, brands must respond with great seriousness and act to correct. Nevertheless, while legal isn’t the only solution for managing what the right thing is, the letter of the law may sound harsh and doesn’t build warm relationships — it was never meant to. So, stay within the law but respond as a member of the human race.

Check with gut and values and test what ifs for areas you’re concerned about. If you’re close to the wire, get a PR agency to assist and balance this with legal reality and with human considerations. Have clear and consistent processes for dealing with consumers that are aligned to ombudsman so brand and consumer are protected. You have to keep reminding yourself that consumers engage with brands that connect. A staid brand that never stands out or engages their hearts and minds doesn’t warrant interaction and will disappear over time.

The brand matters, and brave brand managers must remember this always

Immediately, I can see everyone thinking of sexy brave brands like Nando’s and its edgy communication. Yet plucky, edgy comms is only one part of the equation and doesn’t fit all brand personalities.

Bravery is also about the action or risks you choose (or choose not) to take. It’s about doing what’s right for the brand to secure its sustainable future. Fight for this rather than end up being swayed by people’s personal opinions and wishes — like the brand that sponsored the sports event the bosses wanted when the brand wasn’t about sportiness, or paying for a brand advert in a publication purely to help sales manage a customer relationship.

It’s about fighting for spend to be cut in areas that impact less. It’s about making choices between what’s fancy vs what fits. Consider, too, if short-term commercial astuteness and justifying the bottom line wins over what is right for the brand. Does ROI (and budget cuts) dictate more marketing strategy than the consumer does? If yes, brands are being sent on a slippery slope to inconspicuousness or schizophrenia. With the economy being under massive pressure, who’s been brave enough to protect the brand story over short-term ‘wins’ and everyone’s opinion? Remember, being daring is not done at the risk of brand.

The fear of forever is here with us… probably forever

When I started out as a marketer, testing theories could be done more publicly without the fear of publicity blowing up the internet; unless the media picked it up for being salacious news, the worst would be someone having caught it on a VHS recorder or still-photo printout — not so easy to share. Nowadays, a mistake becomes a meme or is copied and shared (or, rather, regurgitated) by anyone the brand name or a search word matches.

Brand managers don’t want to be known as the ‘BM who killed Brand x’. However, I can tell you I learnt to ask the right questions as a result of my mistakes. You also don’t want to be known as the ‘BM who had no impact’. All I can say is no one remembers the brand custodian who changed the red border from pantone ABC red to pantone XYZ red! What are you doing to strengthen and build your brand despite the fear of social notoriety?

It’s incredibly tough to be brave in 2020 and beyond. But daring and spirited marketing, based on strong insights, is what makes brands truly breakthrough. To help with your process towards or back-to bravery:

  • Ensure connectedness with consumers and insights to build a good, strong gut feel for what’s right and counter what others see as right
  • Gut feel will build your confidence, and always surround yourself with strong, expert partners
  • Establish control by testing what ifs, sense-check with legal and, if testing something edgy, get back up with a PR agency ready to go

Remember Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Forge ahead and leave the right mark for your brands.

See also


Erna GeorgeAfter starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@edgeo23) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her regular “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.

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