Rule-Breaking Brands

By Bernhard Schaar and Joseph Gelman

We live in a world of political correctness, in which we need to project a neutral image unlikely to cause any controversy. This situation has had a powerful impact on the major Spanish brands, which are genuinely careful in the messages they send out to make sure that they meet with approval and do not cause any offense to any segment of society (regardless of whether or not they are customers). The result is brands that talk of commitment, development, ecology, solidarity, and so on.

Although such corporate stances are necessary and, indeed, ideal for certain brands, their main drawback is that they curtail the creativity of the messages and attitudes that the brand can transmit to its customers, reducing its capacity to stand out and hindering the establishment of a close relationship with the consumers. In sum, they are watered-down, hackneyed brands, all fighting for a healthier, more inclusive, more responsible image, and the values associated with these aspects are repeated time after time.

But this does not have to be the trend moving forward. Some brands have explicitly broken away from this approach. Such brands usually try to “go back to basics,” to the most basic realities of the consumption of their products, to call a spade a spade, with a certain dose of aggressiveness and plenty of humor. Their messages are aimed at their highest value consumer segments, telling them things they know that they like to hear and paying little attention to other segments or interest groups. These are “rule-breaking brands.” 

For years, Burger King was the also-ran of the burger business. Its positioning was entirely functional (based on the supposed higher quality of its product), which fell victim to the entente that McDonald’s was able to establish with its consumers. The company changed hands several times and results were usually disappointing. However, in recent years, Burger King has rapidly become a rule-breaking brand. It went back to the roots of consumers’ relationship with junk food, with messages which seemed to say “we like eating meat, we like eating a lot, we like this food even though it’s not healthy, and we’re going to keep on eating it.” The customers have identified with this brand attitude, feeling that to a certain extent they can challenge social conventions through hamburgers. The result of this was 13 quarters of record-breaking sales, and for the 2007 tax year Burger King is expecting to break new records, with a 9% increase in sales year-on-year.

Rule-breaking brands “return to basics” with clear and humorous messages. Axe, a brand of macho deodorants exemplifies this notion. Its message is incredibly clear, and anyone can understand it: “use Axe and girls will fall at your feet.” To emphasize the message, as well as using humor, the brand employs a certain sexual content to the message—women are powerless to resist “the Axe effect,” with explicit images depicting them fainting, throwing themselves on top of the boy, and becoming objects at his mercy. The global “Bom Chicka Wah Wah” message was launched in 2006 as an international expression of pleasure and lust, a far cry from the “political correctness” of other brands. Thus, Axe created a controversial image, but one that set it apart from the rest, which translated into results: six weeks after Axe was launched onto the Japanese market at the start of this year, it had already achieved a market share of 12 percent.

Brands that break the rules do not necessarily have to be consumer products. In the automobile insurance business, traditionally dominated by large corporate brands, which transmit paternalistic values embodying size and responsibility, there is also a rule-breaking brand. Direct Line brings to the fore an unquestionable reality: for most people, car insurance is a burden, providing no added value, and absolutely all insurance policies are essentially the same, therefore the rational thing to do is to pay as little as possible for one. In fact, some of its messages seem to say to our faces “if you are paying more, then you must be stupid.”

Again, the results are unbeatable—this company has radically shaken up the entire Spanish insurance sector. Other examples of rule-breaking brands are cell phone operator Amena (recently acquired by Orange), Mediamarkt, and even Atlético de Madrid soccer team. They all share this return to basics, clear and direct messages with a large dose of humor, because it is not just what you say, but how you say it.

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