Rules are made to be broken, but in marketing they rarely are. Doing so is risky. Companies, hungry for success, want to point a finger when something doesn't work. And who wants to stand out as having done something everyone knows shouldn't have been done?
"Given the economic challenges of the past several years, there has been a kind of formula that people have tended to follow," said Melanie Steinbach, a managing director for executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, in an interview with CMO.com. "I also think that because there's so much data available, a lot of folks got to similar conclusions because the data looks the same."
Yet slavish rule-following can have predictable, dull results--exactly what marketing shouldn’t be. Done right, breaking the rules can be liberating and successful.
"The CMOs who break the rules are those who take a different approach," MaryLee Sachs, author of The Changing MO of the CMO, told CMO.com. "They drive differentiation in approach and orchestrate greater collaboration among their team--both internally and externally. They pioneer new channels and initiatives. They are not afraid to experiment, and they encourage their teams to do likewise and learn. And, lastly, they define the role of CMO in their organizations."
Here are four stories of companies where a high-level executive broke a rule to succeed. In each case, risk existed. Three times, the risk worked. Once, it didn't—leaving the decision-maker out of a job. But all the examples have something to teach.
Rule: Build The Brand Over Time
Rule Breaker: Joey Bergstein, Senior Vice President, Global Rum
In spirits marketing, as in distilling, there's a rule of thumb: All good things come with time. The longer the liquor is in the barrel, the better the quality. Similarly, branding has been a time-intensive exercise. "You seed a brand with bartenders and influencers before you're able to grow it in significance," said Joey Bergstein, senior vice president, global rum, at drink giant Diageo. TV ads wouldn't start for five to six years.
But Bergstein knew that the Captain Morgan brand was going to be different. Even though it was 25 years old already, it hadn't taken off the way Bergstein knew it could when he came to Diageo. It screamed to be a young brand with a target age of 24 years old. Not only was the rum specially blended to work well with a cola mixer, which should be popular, but the pirate theme should have appealed to the age group.
"A big part of their choice is driven out of choosing something that is socially acceptable," he told CMO.com. "[Captain Morgan is] fun. It doesn't take itself too seriously. It's not a hip, urban, cool brand you find in a nightclub, which is what makes it a cool choice."
The problem was that by the time Diageo seeded influencers, they would have grown out of the target group, leaving the drink always starting but never gaining traction. What the brand needed was a far quicker build-up.
Bergstein built the business case for heavier investment to spread the brand to other countries. It was a dangerous proposition: Fail to make sales, and Bergstein would have been out of a job. But he rolled the dice intelligently, building entrepreneurial marketing teams from residents of the target countries.
The campaign in Germany started with PR and social media campaigns, and then moved to TV ads a year after the introduction. The campaign in Ireland shattered all of the rules—and records. Someone dressed as the Captain figure would be sent out to hijack media opportunities. "It's like candy for TV producers," Bergstein said. Results were fed back into social media. The business grew to 60 percent of German sales, but with only 5 percent of the population size.
"It came down to a real passion for the business and a desire to make the brand work with a more limited budget and operating environment," Bergstein said. And passion just doesn't have time to wait.
Changing the rules.
Rule: Be Sure To Sell The Service
Rule Breaker: Steve Langan, Head Of Marketing
Enter a well-established market dominated by entrenched leaders, and you know you must sell, sell, sell. But when U.K.-based personal and business insurance company Hiscox decided to enter the U.S. market with a Web-based business insurance offering, it did so in a low-key manner.
"Our challenge was a fairly simply one," said Steve Langan, CMO and managing director of the U.K. business, in an interview with CMO.com. "We were absolutely an unknown brand in a dry sector with major players. If we went against them head-to-head, we'd lose in a straight battle. ‘Change the rules’ was the challenge I gave the guys."
Instead of trying to buy its way into American consciousness, Hiscox took some advice from its PR agency, CJP Communications, and opted for social media as its main channel. The company sponsored “Leap Year,” a Web-based comedy series about friends who all became first-time entrepreneurs.
"The other critical thing, as well, is that there's no sales pitch," Langan said. "Our marketing metric world behind the scenes is basically an ABCD model: build awareness, create brand affinity, c is consideration, and d is decision to purchase. People want to get to the D part and sell them quickly. [But in insurance] it's a 12-month process." And business owners weren't going to buy insurance on the spot from a company they had never heard of, even if it had been in business in the U.K for a century.
The company soft-launched in November 2010, focusing at first on search optimization and marketing. "The first few months was learning what would drive response cost-effectively," said Phil Thorn, head of marketing for Hiscox's U.S. direct business. In late spring, the company shifted into some sponsored events, PR, and direct mail. The Leap Year campaign started in June. "We wanted something that would help show that we get what it's like to be a start-up or entrepreneur, but in a fun and exciting way," Thorn told CMO.com.
Hiscox tracked what people said online about the series, with 99 percent being positive. The company realized a big increase in followers on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. "We've hit 1.2 million video views across all the different channels and 80,000 visits to the microsite," Langan said. "That's not bad for eight or 10 weeks." And the price was a bargain at a $330,000 initial investment. The company's last U.K. commercial cost $450,000 just to produce. "When you look at it rationally, there was tons of upside and very little downside," he added.
Rule: The Stronger The USP, The Better
Rule Breaker: Simon Sproule, Corporate VP Of Global Marketing And Communications
Company: Nissan Motor
Differentiation might not be everything in marketing, but many in the field spend of lot of their time trying to capture or create it. Find a strong unique selling proposition, and you're halfway to giving people a reason to try your product or service, not your competitor’s. But as Nissan Motor corporate vice president of global marketing and communications Simon Sproule learned when the company launched its all-electric Leaf vehicle, too much of a good thing can be a pain in the back seat.
"I must have launched 100 plus cars–Ford, Jauguar, Nissan," Sproule told CMO.com. "This was different because you were launching an idea as much as anything else. It had one giant USP that nobody else could match—it was a mass-market electric car that anyone could use."
But the USP was so big that Nissan actually had to overcome it. It was a first for Sproule. "A vehicle like this was polarizing inside and outside the company," he said. There were no gas or service stations designed to service the Leaf. Consumers would have to buy into a new concept, which required a leap. Nissan made the vast majority of its revenue from regular cars. Many people in the company felt threatened.
The company had to treat the internal and external audiences differently. "[CEO Carlos Ghosn] admitted that this was a push inside the company," Sproule said. "What he saw was an opportunity in the market. It's a long-term play." There was high-level support, which was vital. "A project like this, you're going to carry with you some skeptics. It's the definition of leadership and having a vision," he added.
To reduce tension, Sproule's team introduced a "soft brand" called Pure Drive. It was an umbrella that covered the Leaf, but also hybrid, downsized gasoline engines and diesel. That way, employees working on competing technologies wouldn't feel pushed out. Still, the company didn't coddle anyone. "[You] get to the point where you have to say, ‘If you don't get it, if you're not going to accept this, then work on something else.’"
Externally, Nissan had a team traveling to convince cities and states to build infrastructure. The company sold the car first in areas that made that investment. Then dealerships had to heavily qualify buyers with question after question. Have you researched charging infrastructure? Can you rent or go by train for long trips?
The approach worked. After seven months on the market, Nissan sold its 10,000th unit.
When taking a risk doesn't work.
Rule: Don't Mess With The Logo Or Brand
Rule Breaker: Marka Hansen, President, Gap North America
It's never a good sign when the suffix "gate" is added to a project’s name. At best, you face embarrassment. At worst, heads roll. That's what happened at Gap when the North American division updated the company logo.
Gap sees more than 25 percent of its sales from North America. So when same store sales fell each year from 2004 to 2010, something had to change. Marka Hansen, president of Gap North America, thought it was time to spruce up the logo. And so the company did, moving from all-capital, serif lettering within a blue box to a mixed-case, san-serif logo that intersected a gradated blue box.
Reaction was catastrophic. Consumers protested the change on social networks. One even started a mocking GapLogo Twitter feed. Vanity Fair called the new look a "despised symbol of corporate banality." Slate likened it to an "emblem of some failed, low-fare spinoff of a major airline."
Gap immediately capitulated. Although the company didn't make anyone available for this story, Hansen wrote a piece for The Huffington Post, saying that given the "passionate outpouring from customers that followed," the company decided to "take their feedback on board." Yes, they asked consumers to share their design ideas, as well.
"It was a little bit of a desperate attempt to draw attention to a change," said Heather Evans, president of consulting firm True Color, former managing director at Morgan Stanley, and someone who survived a rebranding there. Consultants often suggest logo changes because the work can be lucrative. "The incentives of being a chief marketing officer don't make it personally that dangerous to change the logo," Evans told CMO.com. "You look at the individual in the seat. It's a big project--it gets corporate attention." And, generally, the CMO is off to another company before the type hits the fan.
Sometimes small changes to a logo can keep it from seeming dated. But Gap had undertaken a complete overhaul. Consumers subconsciously see a logo as a promise. "It said that CEOs may come and go, employees may change, but there is something bigger than us all that we respect," Evans said.
Hansen lost her job, and Gap went back to the old logo with some subtle modifications. See? Sometimes breaking an inviolate rule actually can work—if you do it right.