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Hilton Hotels Brand Strategy Oatly

Bastardized by best practice: the counter-creative manifesto

By Paddy Smith, Executive Creative Director & Partner



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July 4, 2023 | 11 min read

Is digital creative in a race to the bottom? Maybe, says Paddy Smith of Born Social (part of the Croud family) – but our saving grace will be rule-breaking and anti-best-practice. Call it counter-creative.

The Duolingo logo

Born Social's Paddy Smith on the need for anti-best-practice counter-creative / ilgmyzin via Unsplash

Let me paint you a picture. Your audience is one homogeneous group of goldfish with opposable thumbs, so you must say everything you need to say in 5 seconds.

You do and, as expected, it’s an absolute migraine. People swipe past it faster than their ex on Tinder. Then, the window closes slightly. You now have 3 seconds. So you dial up the abuse. People still value their eyeballs, so they give you just over 1.8 seconds of their time. The window closes slightly, again.

You see where I’m going. As a creative in the social space, I’ve lived this reality for nearly a decade.

Too often, our obsession with short-term measurability creates a race to the bottom, where ‘paint-by-numbers’ creativity is favored over originality.

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Duolingo and anarchist creatives

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are beacons of hope that emerge when an ‘anti-best practice’ anarchist(!) claims the social spotlight and marketing moths gather around the light, gently bouncing off it.

To be clear, I’m no better than most. Desperately scrambling to ‘codify the creativity’ of Duolingo, forgetting it’s just a funny person doing whatever they want. That’s why it’s so inspiring to see: because it simply doesn’t abide by what ‘should’ be done.

Mischief, conscious rule-breaking, and the concept of anti-best practice are producing some of the most standout creativity of the last few years.

Recently WePresent, WeTransfer's digital arts and editorial platform, explored this subject in a think-piece titled ‘Networked Counterculture’, exploring the tension creatives face with the pressure placed on them to play by the rules in order to please algorithms (versus prioritizing their vision and creative integrity).

The piece spotlighted the likes of MSCHF and Corteiz: modern anarchists with ‘networked counterculture’ in their every move: “By using and abusing the network’s logic as part of their creative output, they show that it’s possible to regain power and agency over the relationship between their work and its audience.”

Subverting the rules to regain power: that’s some chest beating shit.

Rule-breaking, today!

This type of creativity isn’t confined to true challenger brands with counterculture in their DNA; it can be applied to brands of all shapes and sizes.

Here’s a rule: ‘make your TikTok short and sharp’. No! How about Hilton getting people to watch a 10-minute video?

@hilton Unexpected & amazing things can happen when you stay, and we want you to stay with us for 10 minutes. Yup, we made a 10-minute TikTok AND we’re giving away 10M Hilton Honors Points + more. #HiltonStayFor10 #HiltonForTheStay ♬ Hilton’s 10-Minute Stay - Hilton

Or another: ‘the customer is always right’. How about Ryan Air publicly ridiculing its audience?

Or ‘always present the best version of yourself’. Just look at Oatly compiling a micro site of everything people hate about it.

Or ‘don’t air your dirty laundry’: see Aldi taking their M&S lawsuit to Twitter.

Or ‘TikTok is too weird for luxury brands’. Enter Burberry: we made a swan out of rubber gloves.

@burberry #Burberry #FoundObjects ♬ original sound - Burberry

Or ‘brands shouldn’t align with celebrities without permission’. Surprise! Here’s Duolingo talking about Dualipa’s piss…

@duolingo and suddenly an owl can swim. #DuaLipa #Duolingo #DulaPeep #stickyicky #comedy #trend #fanedit ♬ original sound - a

The list goes on.

Mischief for marketers, step by step

To be clear, this is incredibly hard to do. But without it there’s simply no evolution. ‘Anti-best practice’ isn’t just inspiring; it’s essential. If we’re going on historic performance, AI will scrape and apply best practice faster than you can update your LinkedIn profile to ‘looking for work’.

To help, here are a few thoughts on creating counter-creative for brands.

Step 1: Remember, no one cares

Don’t let this cute little marketing bubble make you forget that no real human being is sitting at home after work with a room-temperature cup of noodles and a receding hairline thinking about your hashtag.

You don’t need to increase awareness. You need to decrease indifference.

So start with the premise ‘why the fuck would someone even care?’ and go from there. If the answer is ‘they won’t’, then you need to truly dial-up jeopardy. Here’s a great example of just that.

Step 2: Learn the price of milk

You know when they ask politicians how much a pint of milk is to see if they are in touch with the people they’re in charge of? Well…

To know how to break the rules, first you must know what they are. Before ideating, truly explore what the industry norms, audience expectations, and category cliches are. Then start scoping what you could reasonably rally against.

Step 3: Own it

People are smarter than you think. Before you even try to sell the dream, get your shit together. It’s as simple as that. If you say something false, you will be called a liar, publicly.

Step 4: Have fun

Social media is procrastination. You might (might) be able to validate Twitter as ‘your window into the live political discourse’, or Instagram as ‘a digital cork board for your unbridled ambition’. But it’s also bus journeys and videos of monkeys swearing at kids in zoos.

If you truly appreciate the role social plays in your audiences’ lives, you’ll be much more equipped to fit within it. My favorite people do just this. Take the now superstar, Pablo Rochat. He’s made it to the equivalent of household name status, having a lot of fun, playfully subverting expectations, or delicately ridiculing our funny little lives. He knows this life is a fleeting joke and then you’re dead. So it might as well be a fun one.

Start here and see. Good luck.

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