Why we should all love smaller budgets

Constraints can actually stimulate - rather than hinder - a brand and make a big impact, Adam Morgan writes.

Main image: Getty Images; Jarvis Cocker: PA Photos
Main image: Getty Images; Jarvis Cocker: PA Photos

In The Guardian recently, Jarvis Cocker (below) and Iggy Pop discussed, alongside modern French novelists and profanity in rap, the question of money. "Generally speaking," Cocker concluded, "the more money a band has, the worse their records get."

This is the artistic equivalent of what the British economist Richard Auty called the "resource curse" – the tendency for countries rich in natural resources (typically gold or oil) to perform worse than countries that have none. Natural wealth all too often leads to behaviours that in fact limit the growth potential of the country (or individual) rather than accelerate it. Constraints around resources are, far from the hindrance they initially appear, a vital stimulus to finding newer, better, more sustainable ways to grow.

Jim Koch, the founder of Samuel Adams, now a $600 million business, applies the power of these kinds of stimulating resource constraints to his marketers and communicators using what he calls the "string theory".

Koch describes how, during graduate school, he ran an Outward Bound course. He discovered that if he gave his pupils a lot of the cord they needed for basic tasks on their four-week course, they ended up saying they needed more. If, on the other hand, he gave them just three-quarters of what they really needed, they never ran out. Instead, they behaved in very different ways – they would share, reuse, take scraps and splice them together. In the same way, Koch says, the limited budgets of the early days of the company motivated his people to do more with very little and, from that, sprang a real culture of creativity.

Brands that succeed with next to no communications budget behave in different ways to 'wealthier' brands

In the communications business, we understand the power of certain kinds of constraints very well. It is 50 years since David Ogilvy talked about "the freedom of a tight brief" – the recognition that constraints in a brief, if framed well, define the problem and focus one’s energy. Ogilvy defined creativity, in fact, as "latitude within limitations".

What we understand less well, are less muscular at, is the power of different kinds of constraints – those of resource and time. We tend to assume that a smaller communications budget, for instance, must correlate with less impact. But that is only true if one uses that smaller budget in the same way as you used the bigger budget. If you look at brands that succeed with next to no communications budget, for instance, they behave in very different ways to "wealthier" brands. Let’s look at three of those behaviours.

First, they put a premium on creating surprise and drama – using them strategically to make a greater impact with their more finite resources. Research into the effect of surprise on consumer response shows that it creates greater salience, emotional impact and memorability. Small wonder that we have seen Lidl, a challenger brand, explicitly and successfully bake surprise into its communications strategy.

And drama – well, humans are drama junkies: the dramas of our day, big and small, make up much of our social conversation. A brand such as BrewDog feeds that hunger for drama every time it introduces a beer brewed at the bottom of the sea or served in a bottle stuffed in roadkill.

Second, brands with small communications budgets work hard to be "interesting on the inside", as Steven Grasse, the creator of Hendrick’s gin and Sailor Jerry rum describes it. They have an intrinsic story at the heart of the brand that is so interesting that it provokes people to talk about it for you. Look at Betabrand, the US apparel company most famous for its "Cordarounds" – corduroy trousers with ridges running horizontally rather than vertically. Chris Lindland, a founder, describes Betabrand’s DNA as "99 per cent fiction, 1 per cent fashion".

Third, they use other people’s resources to scale. When Virgin America launched in the US, it knew that its purple-lit cabin was a trigger to trial, but it didn’t really have a big enough budget to show it to consumers in mainstream advertising. So, it reasoned, it needed to get other people to show it instead.

Partnering with Victoria’s Secret, the airline introduced an in-flight fashion show of "cabin-appropriate nightwear", using the aisle as a catwalk. The passengers loved it, photographed it and shared it – and the media did the same. Lack of advertising budget drove a more original solution and a greater impact than if it had been resource-rich in the first place. The company made its constraint beautiful.

We’re a creative business in one of the most creative communities in the world. But, when it comes to understanding how to think about constraints, we’re surprisingly limited. And that has to change – resource size is only one of the forces of change we face. The constraints of fast, brief and under-resourced are coming our way, and we’re going to have to get much more muscular at making those constraints beautiful.

Adam Morgan is the founder of Eatbigfish and co-author of A Beautiful Constraint, which was published last month


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