Risk-aversion is usually considered a positive trait. Why expose yourself to hazards you can avoid, right? Well unfortunately, sometimes not taking a risk is the surest way to lose out in the long run. All marketing endeavors are about bringing about a change (e.g. a shift in public perception, a rise in market position, exposure to a new audience, etc.), and change never occurs without taking on a certain degree of risk.
If what you’re attempting seems absolutely risk-free, you either haven’t accurately estimated the risk (which also means you’re definitely not properly managing it), or you aren’t doing anything with a real shot of making a difference to your bottom line. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes.
The funny thing is, most marketers are already wise to this reality. According to an Adobe Digital Roadblock report over half of surveyed marketing professionals said ”…the ideal marketer should take more risks, and 45 percent hope to take more risks themselves.”
Same Game, New Rules
Risk has always been inherent to marketing, but it’s especially relevant today. The age of a captive audience is long gone. Modern consumers are inundated by brand communications from too many media channels to count, and thanks to ad-blocking and ad-skipping technologies they have more say than ever over what messages get past their filters. It’s a tough problem. You have increasingly savvy audiences with access to a whole universe of information at their fingertips. How do you keep your message from getting lost in the swarm?
The answer? You stand out. You take risks. You find smart opportunities to go places the other guys are afraid to. Atilla Cansun, head of marketing at pharmaceutical giant Merck, told an audience of CMOs at a panel hosted by “The Economist” that they need to look for ways to take risks and “constantly provoke,” reminding his peers: “You can be overtaken in such a short space of time.”
Playing it too safe is a path towards stagnation and irrelevance where you are lucky to merely maintain the results you’re currently producing, and opportunities for growth go unexploited. Even then, you’re still exposed to greater risk today than in years past. Social media has given all your customers soapboxes and loudspeakers to broadcast their feelings about your brand for all the world to hear. Brand interactions are now both incredibly transparent and influential. A single bad tweet (or a single glowing one) can have tremendous impact.
In a world where we’ve seen just about everything, driving engagement means trying new things, surprising people, being daring… in short, it means taking risks. That can require treading into controversial topics that are normally third rails for marketers, like pressing social issues.
But, going to dangerous places vastly improves your chances of people taking notice and joining in on the discussion. Or, as Wharton marketing professor Jonah A. Berger and University of Miami School of Business professor Zoey Chen put it: “controversy causes conversation.”
“Controversial topics are more interesting to talk about, which — in turn — increases the chance they will be discussed.”
For example, snack maker Mondelez made the decision to risk turning off some of its customers by pursuing a campaign for its Honey Maid brand of graham crackers that featured nontraditional families such as two fathers raising a child, a multiracial family, and a single-parent home. The reaction was immediate, with some customers writing in that they were offended by the ads. But, the positive responses were even more numerous. Mondelez senior marketing director Gary P. Osifchin told reporters: “There were over 10 times as many” positive comments as negative ones.” Jill Baskin, the company’s VP for brand strategy, added:
“While we were fearless, we weren’t stupid.”
Risky Not Reckless
Taking chances with your brand is not an easy decision, or one that should be made lightly. Go too far and you’ll alienate your target audience. Pepsi found itself the butt of a million internet jeers for the ad it released featuring Kendall Jenner a few months back that was widely derided as an attempt to crassly cash in on youth protest movements.
But, don’t go far enough and you’ll have no impact or be accused of not having the courage to go all the way with your idea. The key to taking smart risks is doing your homework beforehand. Everything you do should have your buyer personas in mind. What do they find funny? What do they consider offensive. Testing is your friend here. Don’t just wade right into new territory without first polling for reactions. Run a few minor but provocative ads and gauge the response before initiating a major campaign.
Also, don’t be controversial for controversy’s sake. Your communications should revolve around your brand. Find out what makes your brand unusual or strange or quirky and don’t be afraid to make fun of it in a lighthearted manner. Unless your brand is strictly defined by seriousness and sobriety, there is always something there to be played for a laugh. Take smart risks that attract attention to your product, service, or company in a positive way. Audiences will see through naked grabs for attention and call you out on it.
Traditional marketing is focused on the metrics of exposure such as reach, frequency, and impressions. Modern marketing is pivoting towards a new benchmark, engagement, which is defined instead by attentiveness, receptivity, and sharing behavior.
Formerly, it was enough just to get your message in front of the right ears and eyeballs. Today’s marketing doesn’t just want to reach audiences, it wants to move them, and it takes more than the status quo to do that. If you want to drive engagement, put some skin in the game and take a chance.