Rob Schwartz, CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day, recently said:
“Every client conversation I’ve had these days is about who is going to be offended by this ad. There’s a lot of discussion about risk mitigation. What that tends to do is that it makes things very bland and not effective.”
It’s a tricky time to work in any form of communications. Marketers have to weigh the benefits of saying something that matters with the risks of potentially ruffling feathers. Of course there are legitimate blind spots to address, but also unintentional social media flare-ups that are much ado about nothing. If we pay attention only to risks, it can seem most prudent to avoid saying anything at all.
But playing it safe as a communication strategy can also be risky. This is particularly important for challenger brands, who can’t afford to be bland.
Swedish plant-based milk company, Oatly, is deliberately polarizing. Their sustainability agenda is knowingly controversial, as is the tone of some of their ads. Oatly’s first foray into TV launched last week in the UK with a funny but edgy campaign called “Help Dad”, based on the insight that middle-aged dads are the most reluctant demographic to try vegan food. It already succeeded in pushing buttons.
Here’s how Michael Lee, Oatly Creative Director, describes their approach of running ads they know will catch flak:
“You have to have a thick skin, because there’s a lot of anger and contention. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of complaining and frustration that goes along with all the people who love what we’re doing and appreciate we are taking up the battle.
“I always tell our crew when they start getting a lot of negative feedback on social channels, ‘The first people over the trench always get shot’.
“We’re getting shot left and right, but as long as we believe we’re standing on the right side of history and what we’re doing is creating progress within the climate crisis we’re happy to take the shots, because most brands won’t.
“Most companies won’t take that risk, but we’re in a fortunate situation where we can and have the full support to do so.”
British comedian Ricky Gervais famously said, “Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.”
In an environment where someone is always offended, brand teams will have to find their own north star. This is easier for brands that know where they stand.
Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years: