Old habits are hard to break

It’s true for people and it’s true for brands. Every category has its habits, or conventions, that permeate the messaging consumers see every day. For instance, when was the last time you saw an ad for pizza that didn’t have a “cheese pull”? Or an ad for laundry detergent that didn’t show a harried mom? Or a car ad that didn’t include a drive on a twisty, empty road?

Some of these conventions make total sense and are necessary inclusions in your communications. Others, however, are just rote and unimaginative. At worst, they can become self-imposed roadblocks to brand differentiation. The truth is, many of these unwritten rules were created by category leaders and typically focus on functional benefits over emotional ones. This tilts the marketing landscape in their favor because if everyone plays by their rules, the rising tide lifts them WAY more. The opportunity for small to medium sized brands is to recognize this, break away and create their own movement in the marketplace. 

What rules to keep, what to break

So how can you tell the must haves from the lazy habits? As they say, knowing is half the battle. The first step is doing a category audit. What are the common themes? Things to look for include everything from messaging similarities to look, tone and feel and even casting. Are the same colors prevalent (eg: blue in healthcare)? Are most brands using humor, or are they more “professional”? What locations do they show? In-store? In office? On a sound stage? Do they tend to use spokespeople or celebrities? The point is, once you start looking, you’ll probably start to make quite a list. 

Beyond an audit, dig into other rules that govern not just communication, but the way clients do busines. While working with a collision repair company, we learned that insurance companies hold all reputable repair companies to similar KPI’s regarding quality of work. This means any collision repair place worth their salt HAS to get the customer’s car back to “like it never happened” or they don’t get recommended or paid. Knowing that quality repairs are mandatory meant spending time advertising an industry standard made no sense. Instead, we used this info to shift the conversation to focus on helping a customer who had just been through a traumatic event navigate the repair process. This shift from car to care help propel a regional organization to one of the big 4 in the industry in just a few years. And during all that time, our work for them never once featured a wrecked car.

Change is hard

Not gonna lie, being strategically “naughty” like this takes courage. Habits and routine behavior are hard to break for a reason; they’re comfortable. In a lot of companies status quo is like a warm snuggie blanket that’s not to be ruffled. But bravery has its rewards. When you break rules and challenge conventions, even unwritten ones, you attract attention. In some categories that alone can be differentiating and extremely valuable. But breaking the right rules consistently can completely change the conversation in a given category. Brands that own the conversation have a disproportionate advantage in the marketplace.

And if that’s not the goal of your marketing dollars, you may just be better off saving your money. Because you’re probably going to need it.