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Can We Be Subversive In The Age Of Brand Purpose?

There is little doubt that brands must up their marketing game in 2019. This is because grabbing and holding the interest of audiences is harder than ever. People’s attention is pulled in every which way by a bombardment of calls-to-action, images, videos, tweets, posts and other campaigns in the real and digital worlds. Just look at some of the stats:


• YouTube users watch almost 4.15 million videos


• Over 103 million spam emails are sent


• 456,000 tweets are sent

Every minute.

This has led some people to suggest that our attention spans are shrinking. A quick trip down the Google rabbit hole provides a variety of figures on this. We can be captivated for eight seconds, five, three, 1.5 on mobile (because our attention span shrinks when we look at a phone, right)? Obviously, this is largely nonsense. What has actually happened is audiences have become more discerning, quicker to judge and more adept at dismissing irrelevant messages.

Unfortunately, this has coincided with an ever-increasing risk aversion among brands to spend money on unique, untested and subversive campaigns. The infinitely measurable nature of digital has served to multiply this as it sets precedents for success, but also delivers identikit campaigns with diminishing returns. The rise of brand purpose has had, in some people’s opinions, a negative effect on campaign creativity. 



If we’re too busy talking about how socially-minded we are, we can’t very well be subversive, funny or anarchic in the messages we push out. Fair enough, we know audiences are keenly interested in why we exist as organisations. But people still want to see something interesting and they still want to be surprised, amazed and feel like they are not being bombarded with the same old guff, day in, day out.  So does the subversive, innovative never-before-tried campaign still have a place in our strategy?

Yes. More than ever.

Here are a few of my favourites across a variety of channels from the past few years. 

Live: Virtually Dead for HTC VIVE

We tipped up at a derelict part of Hackney Wick and were ushered into a military vehicle by barking army types. Shipped off to an old warehouse, we were put through our paces by drill instructors in the art of fighting zombies. We were given a tour of the lab, where gruesome experiments were underway on the infected. We could all see it was a recipe for disaster and, before long, the zombies broke free. What followed was a live, immersive experience where we even saw an infected soldier saw his own leg off to try and beat the infection. Finally, we entered the virtual reality (VR) simulator, fighting zombies via VIVE.

At the end, we relaxed in a craft beer bar and had a go on other games. It was hugely impressive experience from beginning to end and, if I got a VR headset, the VIVE would be my choice, thanks to this experience.

Immersion is a risky avenue for a lot of brands, but the writing is on the wall with the success of artistic endeavours such as Punch Drunk Theatre and more commercially-minded projects like Secret Cinema. Audiences are seeking these experiences, so the risk really is mitigated. 


Digital: DNA discount for AeroMexico

Digital: DNA discount for AeroMexico

This was an exceptional campaign from concept to delivery. Nor was it afraid to play on the current political climate. Visiting southwestern states in Trump’s America and asking opinions about Mexico could be incendiary; juxtaposed with questions on how much the same crowd also loves tequila and burritos was a funny way of exposing a real double standard. The coup de grâce was using DNA profiling to find out how Mexican these Yankee Doodle Dandies were and offering them the same percentage discount on flights to Mexico as the percentage of their Mexican DNA. Genius.

Social: Skeletor Honda takeover

Social channels offer the ideal platform for subversion and innovation. So, it’s a shame we don’t see more irreverent campaigns like this. In 2014, He-Man’s nemesis, Skeletor, hijacked the Honda twitter account for a day. With posts of Skeletor reclining by the fire, to a plea to team up with internet trolls, the hilarious day was a powerful exercise in creating a picture of the brands’ culture and way of thinking. Gaining scores of new followers and still being referenced four years later, its success is clear to see. But imagine pitching the idea in the marketing meeting? How many brands would have been brave enough to relinquish control to a psychotic space skeleton?


By Callum Gill - Head of Insight and Innovation

"We can be captivated for eight seconds, five, three, 1.5 on mobile (because our attention span shrinks when we look at a phone, right)? Obviously, this is largely nonsense."

Voice Search: OK Google, what is the Whopper Burger?

Multi-award winning, Cannes Lions scooping campaign, already subverting the new voice search model, Burger King really struck gold here. Watching the YouTube video or seeing it pop up anywhere recently meant the Burger King employee advertising the Whopper could interact with your Google Home Hub or Android device. Making a second device part of the campaign, without Google getting a penny, was a lightning bolt moment and already has generated questions about how we think about voice and what we can do with it in future.

Outdoor: survival of the grittiest for Tomb Raider

This was my absolute favourite in recent years. The writing is on the wall for outdoor media, largely ignored by people glued to their phones in transit in cities. But, the rise of augmented reality is going to see this space transformed. So, how do we get people to look up from their devices? How about, as Xbox did for the launch of the Tomb Raider reboot, turn the billboard into a live endurance challenge?

Eight Tomb Raider fans, standing on tiny platforms on the billboard, were subjected to brutal weather conditions, as voted for by followers of Xbox and Tomb Raider’s social accounts. They worked in conjunction with health professionals to get the all-clear and the last person standing walked away with the game and a new console. Capitalising on the public’s desire for Schadenfreude, and simply giving us something different, this campaign won the lot and drove unprecedented interest in this relaunch of an iconic gaming character. Kudos.

Subvert the norm, don’t jump the shark

There are also of course many failed campaigns. Subversion can be controversial, as the brilliant, but highly divisive, Gillette campaign proved. But risk often equals reward. We need to give audiences something different to stay relevant. We want to be talked about not ignored and we have the tools, channels and imaginations to make this work. We just need someone to sign off the budget.