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Embracing the shadows: Why brands are increasingly revealing their dark side

By Ed Silk, strategy director

July 3, 2015 | 6 min read

Over the last 35 years, the branding world has undergone a revolution. The once false, perma-smile perfection of beautiful people smiling at us from a fabricated place where the sun always shines and everyone is happy has been trumped by a darker, realistic, if more uncomfortable, truth. This truth is manifested in all corners of our culture – from the products we use to the docudramas we watch.

Brands are now toying with and exploring the darker side of their identity in order to be more distinctive, relevant and believable. Traditional notions of beauty have been subverted, imperfections are being celebrated, the taboo is becoming permissible. What was once deemed ugly, undesirable and unacceptable is now being used as a means of unlocking emotion and empathy in a way that consumers may truly relate to.

These ‘shadows’ are qualities that might elicit negative feelings. In essence, they are the problems, associations and contradictions that every brand faces. Brands that win in the shadows and embrace them are brands that resolve these contradictions and thus create much stronger relationships with their consumers.

Great brands have become adept at resolving these contradictions. Persil made dirt good, Adidas told us ‘there will be haters’, and Skittles let you taste ‘the other side of the rainbow’, appealing to a more sinfully sophisticated and sensual palate. Dove meanwhile repudiated traditional notions of beauty by celebrating the diversity of the female form in its iconic ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’, which sought for women to accept and embrace their individual looks and love their natural shape rather than strive for an unrealistic ‘ideal’.

This clear and increasing trend for ‘embracing the shadows’, where brands are pushing and challenging our perceptions using campaigns with real shock factor and punch, could be attributed to the recession. For it was at this point that the advent of a more risqué, grimier and even sordid type of aesthetic came to the fore, infiltrating every corner of our modern culture through advertising, TV, film, book and visual art. Consumers became more primed to accept the colder, harsher realities of life – from death and dirt to graphic sex, villainy and violence.

So what is the recipe for brands successfully embracing their dark side? How can brands ditch the glossy, ‘chocolate-box’ fail-safe ideal and re-engage with consumers using a franker and more uncomfortable truth?

Firstly, brands must be honest with themselves and their consumer and then welcome and embrace negativity. Nature is governed by opposites, and to accept and appreciate the good we must also acknowledge the bad.

Take a look at Pot Noodle’s down and dirty ‘slag of all snacks’ positioning, which saw a pantomime-style WAG transvestite called Brian releasing his own celebrity perfume inspired by his first love: the new Piri Piri flavoured Pot Noodle. Marmite embraced the divisiveness it created among consumers who either passionately loved or hated its tarry wares; in fact it paved the way for a series of comical adverts that dramatised this passion and even spawned a number of rather unsavoury sounding spoof products – from Marmite toothpaste to Marmite fabric softener.

In the mainstream, another poster boy of a brand that ‘embraced its shadows’ is Yorkie. Having always been promoted as a men-only snack, the Nestlé brand controversially took this a step further by categorically ‘banning’ women from eating its chocolate bars. On April Fools' Day, Yorkie launched a campaign with the slogan: ‘It’s not for girls’. It was done as a deliberate antidote to the “feminine silks and swirls and indulgent images of most confectionary communications,” said the then-marketing director, Andrew Harrison. It was supported not only by TV, press and poster advertising (one execution telling women to: “save your money for driving lessons”), but the packaging was also changed to incorporate a new logo in which the ‘O’ of Yorkie featured an illustration of a lady with a restrictive red line running right through it alongside the tagline: ‘It’s not for girls’.

But did courting controversy pay off? Absolutely. Within 12 weeks, the brand had an uplift in sales of 30 per cent [according to ACNielson]; focusing on a negative certainly had positive results.

Secondly, in this process of embracing the dark side, brands must ‘flip’ the unexpected. Impactful campaigns take common perceptions, subvert them and then present them in a way that portrays a different truth. Jaguar’s ‘Good to be bad’ campaign celebrates the dangerously seductive charisma of the Hollywood villain – the anti-hero if you will – intelligent, smooth, fearless and unflappable. Mirroring its British heritage and tagging this alongside the elite of filmic villains (who are also always British), the campaign juxtaposes these slick attributes with that of its brand spirit in order to promote its range of luxury saloons and sports cars.

Thirdly, in order for brands to win in the shadows, they must not be afraid of the dark side of their identity. Ice cream brand Antonio Federici’s advertising offensive featured two enrobed gay priests eating a tub of ice cream; they are composed in such a way that strongly suggests they are about to kiss. The seductive advert’s accompanying tagline, ‘We Believe In Salivation’ was deemed insulting to the Catholic Church and was swiftly banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Yet despite this, the Antonio Federici brand become an overnight sensation; it became the most shared story of the day on the BBC News website and even made the headlines on the US Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report.

These are just a handful of examples, but this trend is manifesting across all kinds of brands – from Peperami’s sadistic and cannibalistic ‘Animal’, to Thug’s Kitchen’s healthy food served with punk swagger and F-bombs. Whether it’s the use of brutal honesty or the acceptance of a darker more twisted sensibility, using darkness to your advantage is an effective way to stand out from the crowd and, conversely, will actually allow your brand to step into the light.

Ed Silk is strategy director at global and brand and packaging design agency Bulletproof

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