Brands can learn from tales of the unexpected

Why do advertisers follow convention when the evidence shows the power of being distinctive, Richard Shotton asks.

Brands can learn from tales of the unexpected

The opening of the 1985 fight between "Marvellous" Marvin Hagler and Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns is, according to boxing magazine The Ring, the best ever. 

Hagler, normally a slow, cautious starter, throws so many punches in the opening minute that one journalist’s hands shook with excitement so much, he couldn’t write. 

But it’s the tactics, not the athleticism, that should interest us. 

Of the top ten male and female badminton players, 26% are left-handers, as are 30% of the top ten bowlers and batsmen in cricket. Differentiation boosts the chance of winning

Most boxers adopt a stance and stick to it their whole career. Not Hagler. In this brawl, he switches at will. Sometimes he fights with a left-handed stance, sometimes a right-handed one. By being unexpected, he confuses Hearns to such a degree that he lands punch after punch. By the third round, Hearns is sprawling, unconscious on the canvas. 

Hagler isn’t the only fighter to benefit from the power of being different. I analysed The Ring’s current list of the best fighters in 17 weight categories. Despite making up only 12% of the population, 24% of the world number ones are left-handed. 

Why this over-representation? Boxers are used to fighting right-handers, so when they face a left-hander they are flummoxed. 

This left-handed advantage occurs in all sports where opponents directly face one another. Of the top ten male and female badminton players, 26% are left-handers, as are 30% of the top ten bowlers and batsmen in cricket. Differentiation boosts the chance of winning. 

Academic evidence shows brands can benefit from subverting expectations too. 

The original evidence comes from the pioneering work of Hedwig von Restorff in 1933. The paediatrician gave participants a list of objects and then, after a short pause, asked them to remember the items. The results showed that items that stood out were most recalled. 

But do the findings still stand more than 80 years later? My colleague Laura Weston and I investigated. We gave 500 nationally representative participants a list of numbers: 15 written in black and one in blue. A short time later, we asked which number they recalled. Respondents were 30 times more likely to recall the outlier than the average number.

The fear about breaking conventions is that if a campaign fails, then you could get fired

We repeated the experiment with brands. Respondents saw a list of logos: 11 car brands and one fast-food brand. Again, after a pause, we asked which brands they could recall. Consumers were four times more likely to mention the fast-food brand than the average car brand. Being distinctive makes ads memorable.

Many categories have norms of behaviour that are slavishly copied in ads: from cars dominated by product shots to comparison sites infatuated with quirky spokespeople.  

So why do few brands break conventions? I spoke to Dave Trott, who said: "Nobody ever explains to clients why the obvious is bad. They think it must be right because everyone in their market is doing it. Which is exactly why creatives think it’s wrong. Creatives want to be different to stand out from the environment. But that looks like flashy pyrotechnics to a client." 

In our rush to promote the latest fad, have we forgotten to emphasise the fundamentals? Media agencies as well as creatives must remember the work of Von Restorff to prove the power of being distinctive.

The fear about breaking conventions is that if a campaign fails, then you could get fired. Perhaps we can remedy this by, as boxing betters say, having more skin in the game.

As for Hagler, his smarts weren’t confined to the ring. Annoyed that commentators weren’t using his moniker, "Marvellous", he changed his name to Marvellous Marvin Hagler. 

For brands, as for boxers, distinctiveness pays.

Richard Shotton is the deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD

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