I recently moved to the leafy realms of Surrey. Having lived most of my life in the London suburbs, my exposure to wild animals had been restricted to foxes, squirrels, mice, rats and birds. Now rubbing shoulders with woodland, I thought the odd bat or owl may broaden my horizons.
Then, on one dusky walk, I received a proper country welcome. Approaching the end of a quiet road, I heard rustling. There was a thick bush ahead of me and it was moving. Probably a standard fox, I thought to myself. Then there was a growl, and this stocky thing came bounding towards me. It was, in fact, a badger. A Badger.
Having read alarming stories about the temperament of badgers, I feared the worst and braced myself for the most surreal of scuffles. Thankfully, however, this bullish badger had no interest in me whatsoever. It charged past with a pant and a grumble; I could only stand dumbfounded as my new acquaintance grunted off into the setting sun.
What does any of this have to do with advertising, you may be wondering? What if I told you that the industry needs to channel its inner Surrey badger? Hear me out.
See, we’ve become too cautious. Unlike the protagonist in my story, many brands and agencies are staying hidden in the shadows. They may peek out to assess the scene, they may even growl a little, but they soon retreat once more into the background in fear of potential hazards. It’s understandable: lurching from one shower of doodah to another, the last thing advertisers want to do is add to the already considerable challenges by coming across as cynical or tone-deaf.
Cowed by the sustainability debate, the cost-of-living crisis and political polarisation, we skulk around in safe, shady spaces, whispering platitudes and cooing schmaltzy slogans we think consumers want to hear. That’s great - if you want to be a nice little dormouse that’s rarely noticed unless in the jaws of a cat.
My black-and-white friend was no dormouse. It saw that open road, brimming with gardens, foliage and potential dangers - and me, a (hugely) intimidating human - and leapt out of the shadows anyway.
Someone who knows anything about badgers will likely tell you that it was trying to get back to its kids or evade a sticky situation I wasn’t privy to. Valid; it most likely wasn’t trying to make a statement. But, from my perspective, this was a bold badger that went for broke. I was engaged and intrigued. It’s something I’ll remember.
Brands and agencies have a similar choice. We can linger in the background and play it safe, focusing our energies on not being exposed. Or we can take a risk, surprise and entertain people wearied by ever-changing “new normals”, do something memorable.
Of course, responding to wider contexts with sensitivity and sincerity is critical to the success of any campaign. But who’s to say you can’t achieve both while taking more risks and making things more interesting? Advertisers who subvert expectations and make us feel something tend to do well for themselves - just ask Nike, Dove and Apple.
Dove stuck its head above the parapet by focusing on an area few other brands would dare to venture: women’s body image. By shining a light on the insecurities felt by millions and featuring real women in its ads instead of models, the “Real Beauty” campaign became an enduringly powerful battlecry that still resonates today. It took a risk - and never looked back.
Nike made a huge statement back in 2019 by releasing the “Dream Crazy” campaign. It featured Colin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback who had been at the centre of frenzied public discourse since taking the knee to protest against racial injustice in the US. The ad attracted scorn from conservative figures including the then-President, Donald Trump, yet Nike resisted the polarisation and saw sales increase by 31%.
And perhaps the most famous “risk” of all was taken by Apple back in the 1980s with its “Think Different” campaign. Up against Microsoft, it was seen as the low-quality alternative. The company was, to quote the late Steve Jobs, “haemorrhaging” money. So, it went for broke in its marketing. Doing away with techie jargon and swapping out images of its products for those of historical figures such as Martin Luther King and Bob Dylan, it repositioned itself as the brand for cool kids who saw themselves as different to the status quo. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, be more badger. Put your brand out there. Be bold and think different. Let your values and authenticity guide you. But, most of all, don’t hide in the bushes where other more timid mammals skulk. Growl and charge onward.