No more Mr Nice Guy: why every brand needs an enemy

My clients often ask me what I consider the biggest challenge facing today’s marketer. My answer almost always surprises them. It’s not that they’re too slow (although they sometimes have been). Or that they’re too timid (although they certainly can be). Or even that they’re too traditional (although they most definitely are). One of the biggest issues for brands today is that they are simply too nice.

Many marketers today are trying to define their purpose, their role in the world, and what they stand for. That’s a big step forward, and a welcome (and long-overdue) advancement from the era of product claims and unique selling propositions. But the biggest mistake brands now make is neglecting to define their antagonist, their enemy, what they stand against. That’s where the creative and cultural tension comes from. That’s where marketers can make a bet and take a stand. That’s where brands can break through the clutter and stupor of today’s marketing landscape — and actually get noticed.

In other words, if you’re truly standing up for something, then you must — by definition — also be standing up against something.

Think of classic storytelling convention. Every story needs a villain. Why? Because without one, nothing happens. There would be no tension, no conflict, and, ultimately, no interest. Ask any actor and they’ll tell you that the juiciest roles are those of the villains, because that source of tension is the most interesting part of the story. It’s no different for brand narratives. You only need to look at Fearless Girl, which once stared down Wall Street’s Charging Bull, to understand my point. Without the bull, she would be just a stubborn kid with crossed arms. With the bull, she’s a powerful icon of feminism, courage, and conviction.

Every story — and every brand — needs an enemy.

Challenger brands inherently understand this. Their whole proposition is based on defining an enemy — often the category status quo and its shortcomings — and clearly and systematically fighting those norms. T-Mobile’s “uncarrier,” JetBlue’s “jetting versus flying,” and Mini Cooper’s “motoring versus driving” are classic examples of challenger brands taking aim at their respective category defaults. Leadership brands should also adopt this approach; their need to define an enemy is even more pressing because their core proposition is not based on one.

The biggest objection to this argument that I hear from clients is around negativity: “I don’t want work that’s negative.” But knowing your enemy doesn’t mean being mean.

Enemies are not just competitors, although they can be. More often, they’re ideals — conceptual counterpoints that can give brand ideas the tension they so desperately need. For example, a brand that stands for flavor and variety stands against the bland, boring, and banal; a brand that stands for openmindedness stands against prejudice; a brand that stands for caring stands against today’s empathy deficit; a brand that stands for human connection stands against modern human isolation. These are all powerful, positive thoughts, and knowing what you’re against gives you something to fight, and that means there’s something to fight for.

Too many clients fall prey to what I like to call the “world peace” trap—they chose to stand for something totally benign and utterly unobjectionable—therefore something totally generic and utterly forgettable. Even world peace needs a conflict to resolve.

So, no more Mr Nice Guy—it’s high time brands pick a fight and find an enemy.

Jennifer Zimmerman is global chief strategy officer of mcgarrybowen

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