Shades of grey

Today’s savvy consumer no longer sees brands in black and white

Today’s savvy consumer no longer sees brands in black and white


Recently I started to watch the original 1970s Battlestar Galactica series. I had been enjoying Ron D Moore’s recent reimagining for the US’s Sci Fi channel: the gritty realism, the shifting alliances, the multiple story arcs, and Cylon Number Six in that red dress. But I found I couldn’t stomach more than a few minutes of the original.

Leaving aside the dated effects, it was the lack of subtlety that I hated—the humans were good, the Cylons bad. I loved this show in the 1970s, so what happened?

Pop culture changed. In Everything Bad is Good for You (Penguin, 2006) Steven Johnson rejects the view that pop culture is lowbrow trash, arguing today’s entertainment is complex, intelligent and demanding.

His one exception to this trend is movies, and I’d note another—branding. For the most part it remains trapped in an outdated mindset. In effect, branding is Lorne Green–era Battlestar Galactica—confident, solid, obvious but boring.

Brand managers focused on communicating a unique selling point to consumers are now irrelevant. Message consistency is just like the story arcs of 1970s hit TV shows with the same story replayed over and over to reinforce viewers’ familiarity. Today’s creatives know consumers are comfortable with shades of grey. They’re sophisticated information users, experts at managing multiple identities and sceptical of authorities.

Designers of World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade re-cast characters such as elves (who were good and pure) as blood-elves that, because of their addiction to magic, were less trustworthy and more selfish. Teenage fans loved such changes because this uncertainty over identity and motives reflected their own situations.

Accepting greyness is necessary because it reflects the reality that consumers and other stakeholders play an enormous role in shaping brand meaning. Take Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty warning mothers of the dangers arising from the stylised body images touted by the beauty industry. “Talk to your daughters before the beauty industry does,” it advised. Strike one for the good guys (or gals), right? Wrong! Greenpeace culture jammed back, warning viewers of the impact of Dove’s reliance on palm oil on the people and wildlife in Indonesia, ending with a play on Dove’s original tagline, “Talk to Dove before it’s too late.” The message was clear: Dove is as exploitative as other firms. This is the grey world facing brands today.

Message consistency is just like the story arcs of 1970s hit TV shows with the same story replayed over and over to reinforce viewers’ familiarity. Although marketers prattle on about the customer being in charge, in reality they believe they are the sole authors of brand meaning

How does one manage in the grey world? First, marketers need to realise they no longer live in a Ptolemaic universe where the world revolves around them. Although marketers and brand writers prattle on about the customer being in charge, in reality they believe they are the sole authors of brand meaning. Second, marketers need to tolerate uncertainty, being prepared to adapt to organic developments and leverage these carefully to build stronger customer bonds. Finally, marketers need to extend their view of meaning creation beyond their departmental boundaries and segmentation studies and immerse themselves in the complex networks of stakeholders that influence consumers.

The revitalisation of the Dunlop Volley brand in Australia provides an example of how to manage greyness. When Pacific Brands decided to refresh the loss-leading iconic sports shoe, they focused on becoming a low-priced version of Nike. The strategy was simple—reinvest in innovation, promotion and distribution. With consumer research revealing most people had a latent fondness for the brand, the case was compelling. Pacific Brands instigated its plans and the initial results were encouraging. Then the grey moment occurred. The marketing team heard rumours that the shoe was the hottest fashion item in Melbourne’s rave scene.

Why? Kids were adopting this shoe as a political statement. Tired of expensive shoes with highly paid spokespeople, these teens were making public displays of individuality by pairing a $1,500 jacket with a tatty pair of Volleys often covered in hand-drawn graffiti. In effect, it was a typically post-modern middle-finger salute to global brands.

There were just two problems: the brand team hadn’t planned for this and they had no idea whether, or how, they should respond. So they did something very smart—they ran with it until they gained more understanding of rave culture. While they resisted the temptation to sponsor Dunlop-themed rave parties, requests for free product from teen artists and advertising in street magazines were taken up.

Over time, the team began to realise that exploiting this new-found cult status was the worse thing they could do—exploitation would lead to mainstreaming, which would destroy the brand’s authenticity among ravers. So they kept listening, and worked with specialist rave retailers to develop unique limited editions and specialised promotions. As a result, the shoe gained subcultural legitimacy, and when the natural cross over to the mainstream occurred the shoe was viewed as a local, edgy icon. All simply by engaging in a genuine conversation with the consumer, without massive sponsorship deals, technology investment or advertising spend.

The Dunlop example provides several lessons for creatives. First, be open to unforeseen opportunities even when the true nature of that opportunity is unclear. Second, don’t be afraid of grey moments because they don’t fit with the plan. Ron Moore created a four-season hit with Galactica even though he only planned to do a telemovie. Third, recognise you’re in a conversation that you don’t control. Thus your main role is to listen, not shout or intrude with unwanted advertising.

Just as everything bad is now good, so rejecting the clear and simple in favour of greyness is good for brands. As Gaius Baltar said in the final episode of Battlestar Galactica, “It requires a leap of faith.”

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