It’s time to chuck out the rule book and join the latest gold rush – subversion marketing.
There’s not the same profit in playing safe anymore. These days the nuggets come from being brave enough to leave behind the familiar, to explore unknown territory.
Big returns can be made by throwing convention to the wind and becoming an all-out revolutionary. Anonymous paved the way for this approach; a faceless organisation whose Guy Fawkes mask has become a world leader in subversive branding.
The 'hacktivist' group deliberately copied the mask worn by anarchist freedom fighter V, in the comic and film series V for Vendetta. The character's goal was to subvert the establishment just as surely as the gunpowder plot aimed to do back in 1605.
It’s hard to think of a more apt image for a subversive movement. The iconography is strong, the effect explosive.
As V for Vendetta co-author David Lloyd said in 2011: "The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I'm happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way."
As subversive brands gain ever more traction, the trend for disruptive brands is becoming a bit of a cliché. Getting onto the Disruption 100 list isn’t too cool for school anymore. Lists themselves are old school, and any brand can be disruptive.
Two things set the disruptors apart from others. They can shout louder and get noticed, and they’re able to innovate faster, always staying one step ahead of the game. But while disruptive brands make a lot of noise, they don’t exactly change the world.
Kicking the Kool-Aid
Subversive brands are prepared to kick the Kool-Aid, go the whole nine yards and drop the ‘mother of all bombs’. Subversion is turbocharged, pure grade disruption.
Punk in the 1970s was a great example. It rocked the establishment to the core with its anarchic counterculture. Today’s subversive punks are the likes of Julian Assange of Wikileaks who wields truth as a weapon. It’s his threat of transparency that rocks the status quo today.
Fashion is a famous breeding ground for brands claiming to be subversive. One that stands out as genuine is the streetwear label Vetements which eschews fashion shows for sell-out 'fake collection' garage sales. The queues lining up in South Korea last year showed the brand is on to a winner with the strategy.
But you don’t have to be street to be subversive. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman reckons that the concept of corporate social responsibility in any form is fundamentally subversive.
You can see why when you look at the dictionary definition: 'Subversive (Səbˈvərsiv/) — seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.' In the case of social or sustainable enterprises, that involves flying in the face of the 'greed is good' values of rampant capitalism.
So much for brands, here’s Harvard Business Review’s take on the business of marketing: “Subversive marketers undermine their organisation’s structures to implement new marketing practices. By improvising on their traditional skills – interacting, resource allocating, monitoring, and organising – they often took big risks to introduce unconventional practices”.
In other words, it’s all about revolution. It’s playing with fire at every level of the marketing process, and that’s too hot for some brands to handle. They want to be subversive, but fear holds them back – not so much brand warriors, more brand worriers.
Vice Magazine’s EMEA chief executive Matt Elek said in 2015 that a lot of brands want to be edgy and cool but get nervous, which leads to inauthenticity, or they hold back.
Elek says the reality is that very few brands want to do “risky stuff”. Some are daring but end up merely making a noise that has no real cut-through when you look back at it. Their campaigns turn out half-arsed at best.
BrewDog’s plan to open a bar straddling the US-Mexico border as a way to bolster its punk credentials was inspired, but if you can’t put two fingers up a US president, there is another sure-fire way to pack a punch.
Go for the negative in your campaign creative. The huge emotional charge around negativity can make for a knock-out message. Just remember to use humour to soften the blow.
Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said boundaries “keep expanding and contracting. It’s almost like a tidal thing, the tide went up and wet a little more territory on the sand, but it didn’t stay there”.
Still, there is a line that marketers shouldn’t cross. The GM commercial which appeared during the Super Bowl in 2007 featured a factory line robot so upset about losing his job he jumped off a bridge.
Shock tactics are one thing, but they should never ride roughshod over the sensibilities of a vulnerable audience.
Attention grabbing content like this is becoming more commonplace now that online viewers can ignore or skip ads. In the scramble to make waves, many marketers lose sight of their brand’s authenticity.
Culture Jamming author, Geoffrey Colon, has previously described how "provocateur" brands “provoke, poke, dig, disrupt, culture jam and don’t operate in a transparent manner even though they tell everybody that they do”.
These brands deliberately aim to outrage. If they can provoke a billion people, they might get two million conversions. That’s fine by them.
Some brands act as if they are provocateurs but are sheep in wolves’ clothing. They’re the great pretenders.
Brands like Coca-Cola use edgy messages to freshen and stimulate interest. Their disruptive campaigns are like ever changing window displays, even though their core brand values, like a static store, never evolve.
So how can you embrace the subversive in your marketing? Here’s a checklist:
- Make a very bold promise. A simple mission statement is essential
- Choose a unique icon that stands out as different to your parent company’s normal branding
- Create a powerful voice or voices with celebrity influencers, micro-influencers and customers who can authentically champion your message
- Be prepared for the long haul and let it grow. Rome wasn’t built in a day
- Constantly refine your strategies - brands need regular maintenance
- Integrate every element of your marketing to leverage all your precious, finite resources
And remember, fear is the subversive marketer’s enemy number one; fortune favours the brave.