When brands cross-dress

To grab consumers’ attention brands need original, eye-catching images, but dressing up won’t work if they don’t get into character as well. By Gerry Moira

As millions of women, and not a few men, will tell you, there’s nothing quite so re-invigorating and confidence-inspiring as a new frock. So it is with brands. We’ve all had experience of a sexy new mission statement teamed with a well-cut communications campaign doing wonders for a brand’s self-esteem and salience.

But what happens when brands re-emerge from the closet with a completely different set of clothes? Is jumping out of someone else’s wardrobe the new quantum leap? Has the paradigm shift become a must-have foundation garment for cutting-edge brands in 2008? As with most trends in fashion, we’ve been here before.

In October 1989 First Direct came out and, to its credit, has stayed out ever since. It doesn’t walk like a bank. It doesn’t talk like a bank. It started dressing like a dotcom/media brand when its rivals were still wearing pin-stripe suits. In the same decade Orange started to preach its gospel of optimism without the de rigueur telecom accessory of a thrusting executive doing executive deals on his mobile. Of such fashion faux pas are legendary brands made.

Like all trends these two were not without their imitators and the bewildered consumer had to endure another decade of playing “guess the product” as brands took to the communications catwalk in ever more obscure couture. Breathe.com anyone? Artfully adopting the clothes, mannerisms and language of an entirely different product category is not to be confused with merely sticking your underpants on your head. Nor is just a matter of commissioning particularly original advertising.

Honda has bought some striking and “brave” TV commercials in the past few years but it unequivocally presents itself as a car company. It has not tried to fundamentally change the way it addresses the consumer the way that, say, American auto-maker Saturn tried to re-invent itself as part of some egalitarian user/worker collective. Honda ads are still about cars. The Saturn campaign was about people and featured the people who make the cars and the people who buy ’em coming together in vast love-in barbecues. Saturn didn’t want to be just another motor manufacturer, it wanted to be a movement.

Closer to home and somewhat fresher in the memory is the life-affirming sight of Cadbury swapping the tank-top of sharing’n’caring for the gorilla suit of anticipated private pleasure. Nearly 1.7 million YouTube hits aside, this inspired costume change not only contemporises a much-loved yet slightly musty brand but repositions it against a competitive set of tired tart-on-a-sofa-cut-to-liquid-pouring-shot-choc-porn cliché.

Sometimes it works the other way around. Sometimes everyone else is wearing fancy dress and you’re the only one in credible street-wear. A couple of years ago Magners gatecrashed a party where all the rival cider brands had come dressed as lager. For decades Strongbow et al had been pretending they had nothing whatever to do with apples when along comes this Irish brand that starts all its commercials in an orchard. The rest is onand off-licence history. Be true to what you are.

My own recent experience in wardrobe management involves Yakult. This brand single-handedly built the pro-biotic market in the UK only to have the dairy boys muscle in with cheaper fruit-flavoured variants. It was time to leave the chiller cabinet and don the white coat of the laboratory. The latest Yakult ads feature the gladiatorial struggle between good and bad bacteria being fought out in the three metre long eco-system that is your intestine. It’s a far cry from the “throw-back-the-duvet-and-laugh-at-the-sky” school of yoghurt advertising, and it’s seen a 15% turnaround in sales.

In common with most social groups, brand managers and the brands they manage are at their most secure when dressed alike. Barclays and NatWest may claim to have very different campaigns but semiotically they wear identical middle management suits. Even Lloyds-TSB with its stylish animation cannot disguise its essential bankness.

Cross-dressing is never merely a matter of new clothes, it’s about behaviour. Yet the rewards for brands that truly and fundamentally differentiate has never been greater.v

Gerry Moira is chairman and director of creativity at Euro RSCG London

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