Brands that like to flash their knickers

From Benetton’s campaign of death row images to Barnardo’s cockroach ad, there are always brands that will make an exhibition of themselves, with varying success. By Sonoo Singh

Roxxoff, a herbal “viagra pop” banned by the alcohol industry regulators before it was even launched, announced last week that it will try to re-enter the UK market. This time it will be a non-alcoholic version of the same drink, Roxxon (MW last week).

The manufacturer unashamedly decided to create a controversial buzz around the launch, close to the kind it generated during the intended launch of Roxxoff, with claims that the drink contains energy inducing herbs and will help enhance sexual performance.

Roxxon or Roxxoff are not the first brands to use an exhibitionist approach in their efforts to be noticed. However, few brands are exhibitionists by nature; and they should not be confused with brands that use shock tactics as a quick fix for a deeper problem or to grab some headlines.

The line up of “edgy” brands that have taken a defiantly loud stance from birth include Britvic Soft Drinks’ Tango, Microsoft’s X-Box, television’s Five and sex shop Ann Summers, while Barnardo’s has pursued a strategy of strong imagery for some time – culminating with the campaign produced by Bartle Bogle Hegarty showing a baby with a cockroach crawling out of its mouth. The ad topped the Advertising Standards Authority’s chart of the most complained about press campaigns.

Ann Summers has long courted controversy with its advertising and has just been forced to have all its poster campaigns vetted for the next two years following a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (MW last week). Ann Summers chief executive Jacqueline Gold says she is “furious” with the decision: “I’m consulting my legal team about challenging this ruling.”

By contrast, brands are legion that suddenly switch their marketing strategy in a way that is incompatible with their traditional brand values. Four years ago, Marks & Spencer grabbed more than our attention with a naked size-16 woman running up a hill. It also provoked anger in some Jewish and Muslim communities where posters of the naked woman appeared (MW October 5, 2000).

Chief executive of Yours Alternatively, the Surrey-based manufacturer of Roxxoff, Chris Williams is far from apologetic about his company’s exhibitionism. “It is difficult for small players like us to compete with the big boys. Seeking publicity has always been a conscious decision for us because it gets us noticed without having to spend millions on marketing and advertising,” he says.

A similar strategy has been forced by circumstance on independent tobacconist AE Lloyd, which is planning to launch a brand of cigarettes that will be positioned as a “natural” alternative to additive-filled rivals (MW last week). The tight regulations on cigarette marketing mean that launching new brands is a difficult, if not impossible, challenge. AE Lloyd can only get into the market by taking a stance that gets it noticed. Its portfolio includes “Shag” cigarettes launched last year and, now, the tobacconist has provoked outrage with the “natural” line it is pursuing among anti-tobacco campaigners.

Founder director of The Value Engineers, Graham Harding, says that strong positioning works as a commercial strategy for smaller brands but “the danger is that when some brands try to be exhibitionist for the sake of it they can end up being a one-idea brand only. It can then mean that communications will end up being more important than the product itself.”

He points to the Benetton campaign created by Oliviero Toscani, which used US death row inmates, in the Nineties. The campaign outraged many people and resulted in some retailers deciding not to stock Benetton.

One advertising executive says that in instances such as Benetton or Barnardo’s the risk is that both brand owners and advertising agencies expend their energy on maintaining their reputation for producing memorable advertising. “Over the years, people may remember the images but fail to remember the brands that those images represented,” he says.

But BBH chief executive Gwyn Jones disagrees and says that most charities such as Barnardo’s have a right to shock because of the alarming issues that they are dealing with. “The legitimacy of the Benetton campaign could be questioned, because it was there only to spark debate and controversy. But Barnardo’s was about generating interest in real issues.”

He adds that brands such as Ann Summers will always need to use provocative tactics because of its brand essence. “Ann Summers is trying to sell sexy knickers and so will need to make an exhibition of the brand to generate interest,” says Jones.

Minnie Moll, managing partner of HHCL/Red Cell, the agency that launched Tango and introduced the controversial “slag of all snacks” line to Pot Noodle, concludes that those brands which “not only provoke but also engage” can succeed in the long term.

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