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Analysis: Push The Right Buttons

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When photographer Oliviero Toscani pushed our shock buttons with Benetton advertisements showing babies covered in blood, nuns kissing priests, death row prisoners and dying AIDS patients, their sales really soared. Of late, Benetton has toned down its adverts to actually show their product and you guessed it, the sales have been slipping since. It must be the delivery as nothing else has changed. Did Toscani not shatter every conventional idea within the industry about the role of advertising? For a brand with 7,000-odd stores worldwide, he wanted to grab the viewer's attention and talk about political issues that make us cringe. He used this institutional ‘shockvertising' to communicate the company's core values and promote a brand image. And much like Marmite, love it or hate it, if there is merit in the message, then shock will deliver.

None of my schoolmates has forgotten the nineties advertisement from the British Safety Council that showed a Pope with the slogan ‘The Eleventh Commandment – Thou shalt always wear a condom'. Though teachers and parents detested it, teens my age and over thought it was cool. Understandably, this concept worked well back then. Dushyant will have to work ever so hard to shock a generation now. At the same time, one must argue that he seems to be more in touch with advertising today than Adrian, or for that matter Barrun.

We all know that advertising is not just about storyboards and printed material anymore. It is viral, digital, WOM (word of mouth) and interactive, all of which have time and again shown that the least powerful messages are ‘neutral' —they are not strong influencing factors. If you are the kind who goes to a party, wants to be seen as ‘interesting' and discusses Shah Rukh Khan wearing a luxury watch, perhaps you need to update your conversation.

Norm violation is partly why shock gets its message heard above media din and clutter, especially for brands in a category that has too many ‘me-too' and not enough ‘who-me' options. There is a reason why F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone felt compelled to revive the ‘shock branding' practice in the watch category with an advertisement for Hublot F1 Swiss watch (the first official F1 watch). Advertisements for this premium watch stopped people in their tracks with their bold, though dare I confess, risky advertising. The one advertisement that featured Ecclestone's black-eyed face accompanied by a quote "See what people will do for a Hublot" was like a virtual bomb on the Internet. It garnered four times the value in PR and the sales reportedly more than trebled. Even though the consumers and professionals of the watchmaking industry were rendered speechless in the face of such brazen, code-breaking brand positioning, the fact is, it worked. 

If advertising were a sport, ‘shockvertsing' would be its extreme avatar. Researchers claim that an emotional creative execution is key (the devil is in its detail) for it helps form memory connections just as long as we can ensure that that the advertisement does not disgust enough to activate the ‘reject' button or a flight response.

Hence, if I were Adrian, my dilemma would not centre on the content of the advertisement copy but rather on whether, when the headlines fade, will I have sacrificed the long-term brand value of Frequa for a short-term burst of publicity? Needless to say that this would matter much more if Frequa had huge brand equity, but for a brand that is being revived, any publicity can prove handy and Dushyant seems to intuitively know that.

Did Benetton's kiss-and-makeup campaign showing digitally altered photos of at-odds world leaders/ presidents have anything to do with selling shirts? Hell, no! But it did sell an awful lot more shirts than expected that fall. It ticked all the boxes — recall, reach, frequency and impact. Risky? Sure, which is why a handful of brands come to mind. But again, as Adrian I would be curious to know what prompted Dushyant to put Frequa in that ‘handful of brands' category? If Dushyant understands that consumers will allow a fashion brand to push the limits in a way they will not allow a laundry detergent brand to, why then is Barrun so cagey?

Shock advertising is a great introduction to a  lesser-known brand. However, Adrian must ask, that once they interrupt the audience and get its attention, how to keep it engaged? Frequa must both start and steer the conversation. Additionally, their website, social media and offline strategy should be in sync, so that every single time people see the advertisement, they hit the ‘like' button in their brain.

As Nimki puts it, "if done with taste" the brave shall win. Adrian has nothing but only fear to lose.

Kamal Julka last worked as a brand director for Hewlett-Packard, EMEA at Publicis London. She teaches at ICSC European Retail School. She has recently moved to Chicago.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-04-2012)