You and your colleagues have put a lot of work into building your brand. Maybe you’ve attracted a reliable customer base, established a great reputation, and have a well-oiled marketing machine. Your safe and reliable advertising strategy has done well so far by focusing on promoting your pricing, value, or differentiation. So if you want to take your business to the next level, just keep doing what you’re doing, right?
For many companies, the answer is no. If you want to give your brand the opportunity to explode with new business, stop being so safe. Why? Because in the age of the Internet, competition is getting fiercer. Brands are getting bolder. Everyone is looking for a way to stand out, and some of the most forward-thinking, risk-taking advertisers can be the ones that get the most attention.
When it comes to online advertising in particular, risk-taking can be an immensely helpful strategy to get your product or service noticed by new demographics, industries, and influencers. But it can also be difficult to determine what types of risks are best for your business.
A Range of Risk
A “risky” move in online advertising can take many forms, some of which are fundamentally different in how they impact your audience and what is actually being risked. Here are some of our favorite forms of risk-taking in advertising that can have an impact on businesses large and small…
These are the kinds of risks you see most commonly in TV spots, with extended online versions. The underlying message of the ad itself is relatively unchanged from your typical strategy, but it’s presented in an unexpected and sometimes shocking way. You probably remember how GoDaddy made headlines in 2013 by featuring Bar Refaeli and “Walter” making out in a commercial to represent GoDaddy’s combination of sexy and smart.
Although GoDaddy’s premiere campaign was a viral success, they did incur some collateral damage. It drew mixed responses from its audience, some of whom felt the ad was very sexist and offensive, while others thought it was creative and funny. At the end of the day, Greg DiNoto (Chief Creative Officer of Deustch New York, then agency partner of GoDaddy) made their position clear: “We understand that a spot like this will be polarizing and controversial. There are others that find it silly. But everyone finds it memorable—and that’s important.”
More recently, Coke launched its highly controversial “America is Beautiful” campaign, featuring the song “America the Beautiful” sung in a handful of languages—set to video clips of citizens of various ages, ethnicities, religions, and orientations. The point of the commercial was to celebrate diversity by saying that “The only thing more beautiful than this country are the people who live here” (Coca-Cola).
But reactions to this campaign were as diverse as the people in it, some praising the soda manufacturer while others proclaiming that it tarnishes the “American song” to represent it with non-English languages and with non-stereotypically American cultures. However, at nearly 12 million views on YouTube beyond its Super Bowl viewership, you have to wonder if this campaign didn’t accomplish exactly what it said out to do: increase Coke’s brand exposure through a topic that gets people talking.
Some of the risks worth taking in online advertising are a little bit more hyperbolic—creating new worlds or exaggerating the existing one. Such an exaggeration-based risk involves taking an idea surrounding your product, or an issue facing your industry, and intensifying it to comedic, emotional, or dramatic effect.
Chipotle’s recent “The Scarecrow” ad campaign is perhaps the most striking recent example of this. They saw an opportunity: A large portion of the population dislikes industrial farming and food production methods. With their brand already positioned as an alternative to these practices, they created a fantastical dystopian world where food culture has no humanity. The video is somewhat dark, but arguably brilliant.
An important reason why this risk worked out was because the brand went “all-in”: It wasn’t just a single video meant to go viral (though it certainly did). There was also a tie-in mobile app with fully consistent themes, branding, and aesthetics—and even had a Chipotle coupon for you if you beat the game. Even if the commercial wasn’t 100% accurate to modern day practices, it sent a very strong message about where the company stands in regards to food quality and process.
Risks in Disguise
Another (and perhaps the least inherently “risky”) type of advertising risk is creating an ad that doesn’t even look like one. Now, this isn’t to say you’re trying to fool your audience—you’re simply cloaking your sales message in something a little more subtle.
The “Red Bull Stratos” event published in 2013 is a good example of an “advertisement” veiled in an extreme event: a world-recording breaking jump to Earth from the stratosphere. By sponsoring a live webcast of Felix Baumgartner’s historic free-fall from space, Red Bull reinforced its brand values and memorable tagline “Red Bull gives you wings” (you have to connect the dots, but that’s an easy correlation) and embraced the technological capabilities of the Web, all while driving sales.
The primary risk in this strategy is coming off as disingenuous. A portion of your audience may very well see through the veil, rendering your ad ineffective to them. The key here is to be genuine in how you integrate your brand into the ad, such that your sponsorship aligns with the values of your brand—and Red Bull did a great job with this.
Not all advertising risks relate to the content of your ad. Indeed, even your broad business decisions in advertising can make or break your marketing goals. Here are a just of the many few examples:
Find Value, Even in Failure
Simply put, your risks aren’t always going to be successful. Sometimes you’ll make a mistake and lose more customers than you tried to gain. Or you’ll spend a lot of money on a risky creative but won’t see a substantial uptick in sales. It’s inevitable—but the key to turning risky failures into real value is to measure their results to inform future decisions. In the online advertising world, this means paying close attention to your lead sources, click-through rates, conversion costs, and overall sales revenue tracked back to these campaigns. And you’ll certainly be able to measure the reactions of your audience by monitoring social media responses.
But then sometimes, your advertising risk will pay off and you’ll find yourself earning huge dividends in sales and brand awareness—well beyond the period of the campaign. That’s the ultimate goal!
In online advertising, you’re always taking risks. The key to success for marketers in 2014 is to not just take risks, but to take the right kinds of risks. Know your audience, know the formats available to you, and take calculated chances that align with your values and support your business goals. And of course, don’t hesitate to hire a knowledgeable ad agency or consultant to measure the potential return on your boldest jumps and to help soften your landing—Felix did have a parachute, after all.
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