16th May 2019 Anthony Cospito

WHY WEIRD WORKS : What innovative brands know about the power of peculiarity 

A woman in pink hair rollers gently strokes the cow she is seated next to on the hay covered floor of an old barn. She is dressed to the nines in a pink top coat, green tights, and ruffled silk blouse. Your brain does a double take. What you’re seeing doesn’t make sense, and that’s the point.

On closer inspection you notice it. A Gucci bag. This Instagram post from Gucci’s #GucciGothic campaign is emblematic of digital marketing served up with a curiosity gap. In our over-stimulated, always-on world, brands need to go the extra mile to capture our attention and tell compelling stories.

What slowed our scroll a few years ago doesn’t even get a second glance now. 

With 95 million photos uploaded to Instagram alone every day, our brains are blocking out the banal. We live in an attention economy and brands that get us to look their way, win the day. Of course that’s just the first step in any customer journey down the funnel, but it’s a doozy. Digital has supercharged this challenge making the allure of the odd more important than ever, but the battle for our brain is nothing new. Consider the Hathaway man.

The Hathaway Corporation had been making shirts for years, with hardly any brand recognition to speak of. They hired an agency to launch a new campaign, scheduled the shoot and hoped for the best. The agency showed them 18 concepts, all fell flat. Except for one. As a lark, the creative director (a young upstart named David Ogilvy), had the photographer shoot a few extra frames with the model wearing something he bought on the way to the shoot, an eyepatch.

The Man in the Hathaway Shirt” as the campaign became known was an instant hit. It sparked intrigue. Why was he wearing an eyepatch? Fishing accident? Domestic dispute? A penchant for piracy? As the conversation grew so did sales and a legend was born for Hathaway and Ogilvy alike – along with a powerful insight, weird works. It’s just as true today as it was back in 1951, hence brands like Gucci go for that visceral reaction – and reap the benefits.

Gucci leads as one of the top fashion brands in the world. Kering (Gucci’s parent company) saw sales spike 30% in 2018 led mostly by Gucci products. Millennials have embraced the brand with 50% of sales coming from those 35-year olds and younger. Gartner L2, a data driven analysis firm, ranked Gucci  number one as a top performing digital fashion brand in 2017 and 2018. Under the creative direction of Alessandro Michele, the brand has wielded weird like none other.

From runway models holding their own decapitated heads, to Harry Styles holding a chicken, Gucci gets it. Luxury fashion competitors likeBalenciaga with their floating legs imagery and Thom Brown’s gnomes in the park have also ventured into strange terrain. That said, does weird work outside the innately odd fashion industry?

Enter Dollar Shave Club, the direct-to-consumer darling acquired by Unilever for $1 billion. The brand found a place for the peculiar within the staid men’s razor industry. A special place for men who love their beef jerky – in the bath.

Launched as an April’s Fool’s day joke, the video promoting Dollar Shave Club Bath Jerky was a hit. Being a smart, consumer-centric brand, the marketing team noticed people seriously loved the idea. What if they really launched it? Seven days later they did. No longer do customers have to suffer from soggy bath snacks. Weird? Yes. Effective? Incredibly. Can weird work for any brand? Sure, but you need to know your customers well enough first.

Having a deep understanding of customer values, needs, and passions is mandatory to creating marketing that not only breaks through the clutter but truly resonates. 

The category matters too of course, but there’s always room for an on-brand plot twist to keep things interesting. Consider one of the world’s most luxurious prestige jewelry brands and their elegant example of eccentricity.

Under the leadership of Reed Krakoff, Tiffany & Co. has reinvented itself for the modern age with unexpected offerings like a vending machine in their London store where you could buy the brand’s first fragrance. Fresh faced celebrity clients from Lady Gaga to Kim Kardashian and creative styling of their bespoke jewelry for social media has introduced the brand to Gen Z without alienating their core customer.

One way Tiffany & Co breaks boundaries while staying on-brand is being playful with their product imagery on social. One Instagram post for example, features a stunning green tourmaline ring, with a surprise in the corner – a ladybug. This seemingly odd addition created a curiosity gap that fueled over 3600 comments resulting in one of the highest engaging posts for the brand, proving even at this level of luxury – weird can work.

Given The Atlantic’s cover story about the demise of tired Instagram tropes like pink walls, avocado toast and perfectly shot poolside lifestyles – consumers are clearly ready for something different.

As platforms like Instagram evolve and new ones like TikTok rise to reveal what’s next in youth culture, the ability to craft a compelling narrative will separate the leaders from the laggards.

To truly break out, brands need to double-down on customer-centricity, listen to their ideas and take a chance with marketing that might seem non-traditional, unexpected, or maybe – even a little weird.

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