How brands have been embracing ‘bad’ over the years

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Justin Bieber Calvin Klein poster

There’s been an awful lot of people gushing about 'brand love' over the past five years, but if you want real longevity, you need to tap into your inner Darth Vader.

Our psychology is a very complex arena. On the surface we might crave the silky white sheets of perfect love, but, in reality it’s a dark knight that excites and sustains us.

The big brands are all in on this: both Disney and Apple have released their inner dark side to deepen their relationship with loyal followers.

Back in 1988, he was turning up the heat as part of N.W.A with their hit ‘Fuck Tha Police’. Now he’s getting the Disney gloss over, but it’s that dangerous, edgy backstory that’ll give the Ice Cube take on Oliver Twist its depth (he’s set to play Fagin in yet another movie adaptation of the Dickens classic).

And who would have thought rapper Dr Dre would emerge as an Apple executive or Jay-Z would partner with Samsung on an album release? Or how about convicted criminal and cannabis brand owner Snoop Dogg appearing in Chrysler commercials, while Calvin Klein has featured wannabe bad boy Justin Bieber as it’s poster boy in recent years. The Playbook recently carried out a survey that showed 78% of people in their sample felt brands never emotionally connect with them. That rose to 87% among the over 45s.

Being steady, likeable and reliable doesn’t cut it with this hard-to-please crowd. Appeal isn’t won by smothering consumers in sweet nothings. They also crave danger and excitement.

David Shing of Oath only got it half right when he told The Drum recently: “Now it has become less about brand recall or recognition and more about brand truth and utility. Building brand love must be core to the DNA of the brand”.

What’s missing is the balance of darkness.

Tim Halloran analysed a young woman’s infatuation with Diet Coke in ‘Romancing The Brand’ (2014). She said: “I really think of Diet Coke as my boyfriend.” Words used to describe the relationship were dependability, commitment and intimacy.

This woman went through the full spectrum of emotions in her brand love with Diet Coke. But what didn’t get a mention was Diet Coke’s inherent bad guy image that gives it excitement and appeal.

Coca-Cola is famously associated with cocaine (whether it chooses to deny it or not) and when former president of the company, Asa Candler became concerned about the addition of cocaine in the formula in the early 1900s, he removed any trace of the drug. However Coke continued to use what is called “decocainized coca leaf extract” in its signature beverage; It’s this dark, controversial past that may well underpin its ultimate longevity and loyalty.

Consumers need to feel the Force, but that force comes from the interplay of both dark and light. Without it, things just get plain boring.

We’d never be able to bat for Luke Skywalker if he didn’t have Darth Vader and the Empire to fight.

Just like in all the American romantic comedy films, it’s the bad-ass sports jock who attracts the girl, not the weaker, Everyman protagonist. The nerd needs to get down and dirty with his dark side to score, or vice versa.

We saw it with Olivia Newton-John as Sandy in Grease dumping Miss Goody Two-Shoes for high heels and a skin-tight biker look to say “You’re the one that I want” to John Travolta’s Danny.

You don’t have to be obvious to be gangster. Part of a brand’s pulling and staying power lies in the storytelling.

The best stories involve that interplay of goody and baddy. They involve tension, struggle, drama.

Many other famous brands have backstories that herald from the second World War, yet continue to produce world famous products that are coveted;

For instance, Adidas’s Dassler brothers were both members of the Nazi party. So was Ferdinand Porsche, who joined in 1937, while Hugo Boss would supply the Nazi party with its uniforms.

Volkswagen may have brought the world the Love Bug Herbie, but both were born out of Adolf Hitler’s desire in the 1930s to create a cheap car for the masses. Volkswagen means ‘People’s Car’ in German. You might also want to cast your mind back just a couple of years to the exhaust scandal it faced, and yet Volkswagen continues to be one of Europe’s most popular cars.

Then there’s Audi, which struck a deal with the SS, according to a 500-page report authored by historians Martin Kukowski and Rudolf Boch in 2014.

There are so many world-renowned brands that continue to thrive despite their dubious historical connections to the Third Reich.

Long-term loyalty isn’t created by a fluffy love mark alone. That’s the equivalent of a one-night stand. The stronger connection comes by making an indelible mark, like a love tattoo or hot iron brand.

They say there’s no gain without pain. In brand marketing, it could be argued, there’s no longevity until you acknowledge the pain and use it to deepen your connection with consumers.

Bang On to Richard on email richard.hillgrove@6hillgrove.com and Twitter @6hillgrove

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