Modern Marketing Brand

How to put the backbone back into advertising

By Richard J. Hillgrove VI | Founder

February 7, 2018 | 7 min read

Super Bowl has well and truly put the cap on a year of marketing industry turmoil.


The fireworks were all in the game for a change, as the underdog Eagles soared to victory and their first ever win.

Usually it’s the adfest and entertainment punctuating the game that make people sit up around the world. This is American football, after all.

Not this year. The annual showcase for adland’s crème de la crème offered little more than a damp squib at the weekend.

Super Bowl ads cost $5m for 30 seconds offering a reach of 100 million people viewers. It’s a chance for brands to make their mark big time. But where was the balls-out bravura that gets tongues wagging?

Have advertisers dropped the ball, become spineless after all the controversies of last year? Gentle humour is all very well, but sock-it-to-me hard ball can pack a far greater punch.

Even price-crash advertiser Ryanair seems to be going soft and is losing its brazenness after its melt-down that grounded flights last year.

The ASA may have ruled that the carrier can still call itself Europe’s No 1 airline, but the Michael O’Leary stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap approach to marketing is set to tone it down a tad.

Ryanair says it's going to be focussing on customer service improvements and building its travel content business. But when you come down to brass tacks, is this what Ryanair customers really want to hear?

Despite everything, Ryanair has just been able to announce a 12% rise in profits to €106 million for the third quarter of last year. The old strategy might not have been so off the mark.

It’s important to know what’s at the heart of a brand’s DNA before heading off-piste, that single-minded proposition that is the epicentre of what the brand stands for.

This year’s Super Bowl ads seemed to draw on a mix of humanitarian issues, Hollywood stars and gentle humour, all of which can be tricky.

Want a celebrity as a brand ambassador? Then you’d better make sure their values stack up with your brand’s.

Feel the need to get behind a humanitarian issue? Great, but does it really sit well with your brand and market?

As for humour, that’s often a marmite question. People will love it or hate it according to taste. The real danger lies in watering humour down for a broad audience so that no-one gets any satisfaction.

These days it’s beginning to look like brands are running so scared they’re in danger of weakening before a threat of moral retribution. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Maintaining a strong backbone, while making the most of hybrid marketing disciplines, is key to success and maintaining pole position.

The late rock icon David Bowie knew all about how to stand tall with a powerful backbone, how to create longevity and durability in a fickle media market.

It takes a lot of work to develop that power frame and calls for strengthening your brand’s central core.

Think of it as a person. How do you grow your image from infant persona to adolescent and finally to fully developed adult? Or think of the classic graphic showing the evolution from ape to homo sapiens.

It’s hard not to cower in fear when you find your brand under fire from an often-hostile media, always ready to find the negative rather than the positive – especially if the brand is a person.

We’ve all seen how people’s images can be mauled by the media. Russell Brand annoyed The Sun while he was dating Jemima Khan by suing them for damages.

So, the paper started to choose menacing photos of him whenever they mentioned him, and lambast him for hypocrisy. It’s at times like this that a strong backbone comes in useful.

It’s also worth remembering that it can take a while before a brand finally takes off. Freddie Mercury waited for years for his bus to come along.

Sir Elton John initially achieved little fame in this country. He only achieved real traction when he went to America and got into a red double-decker London bus at Los Angeles airport. That was daring and flamboyant then.

In today’s 24/7 media powder keg, lighting the flame of ignition lead to a bomb blast, an almost hostile act that can set off a wildfire of chain reaction. If that backbone is weak, it’s a wildfire that can be put out just as quickly.

Today we’re also seeing an element of shock fatigue. Elon Musk selling flame throwers? Whatever. The Brewdog boys changing their name to Elvis by deed poll? So what?

It’s never been more important to keep a sharp eye on current social trends to stay in the driving seat and pre-empt attacks from audience and competitors out to destroy your brand.

Pulling the other guy down is human nature, but if you play it right, you can use the attack on your reputation and position to elevate yourself higher and higher.

Madonna has reached the end of her natural life cycle as a personality many times. But each time she has evolved and elevated her image, attaching herself to something new that still packs a punch.

This constant renewal doesn’t just take backbone, it takes guts. It also takes a self-deprecation or knowingness to win through when your brand does come under attack, as it very likely will.

The most successful brands harness this. They learn not just to roll with the punches but to come back hard with a laser-honed, killer campaign.

Bang On to Richard on email and Twitter @6hillgrove

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