The pitfalls of ‘honesty’

We recently had Mo-Jai in the office on work experience. A talented writer, Mo-Jai is going on to study languages at University and wanted a taste of copywriting to help him find the career for him during his studies. During his week at Digital Glue, Mo-Jai wrote this blog on why he thinks brands are hopping onto the ‘honest’ bandwagon, and what makes it work – or not work. Check it out!


Over the past year or so, posters like this have appeared across the country as part of Oasis’ new ‘O Refreshing Stuff’ campaign. They posit themselves as bracingly honest advertisements, using a meta-textual approach that seemingly strips back any pretence often found in ads by being transparent about the capitalist motives for promotion of the product. As well as the one seen above, the campaign has also featured posters bemoaning increasingly early Christmas ad campaigns as well as the high cost of advertising space.

Advertisers are, of course, now aware of the need to cater to the so-called ‘millennial’ generation. Amongst many characteristics often attributed to this broad group of people, it’s generally held that the internet generation relishes irony and sarcasm, a trait undoubtedly magnified in Britain by the longstanding national tendency to self-depreciate. Thus, it is easy to understand why such a campaign would have been a popular idea; it seems to satire the entire marketing industry, thus establishing a bond with millennial customers by engaging with them in an ironic way – something which may not have occurred with a more earnest approach.

This is indeed the justification of the Senior Brand Manager at Oasis, Natalie Whitehead-Farr, who said, “The campaign is bold and refreshing – using animation to illustrate some of the absurd and funny truths in the everyday life of teens.”Clearly, there is a pertinent desire to establish brand identity and loyalty amongst this new generation of consumers, and for many brands, irony is the way to go.


Brand humanisation

In a sense, this ‘insane truth’ marketing could be seen as a result of another recent trend – that of brand humanisation. It’s undoubtable that the sharp rise in prominence of social media marketing has led to a more human, approachable voice representing brands. Research shows that the top performing social media accounts of brands are those that engage with customers in a recognisably human way, often making jokes or even openly mocking customers who get in touch. Many such exchanges between companies and customers have gone viral, thus allowing millions of internet users to see how relatable and downright ‘human’ their favourite brand is.

Whilst this is an effective strategy on Twitter or Facebook, it often doesn’t work as hoped when the same approach is transplanted into a large scale national ad campaign such as Oasis’. Whilst the ‘O Refreshing Stuff’ campaign has been applauded in some circles, where people haven’t been so receptive, it has been because this ‘bracingly honest’ approach feels like little more than a gimmick. This may be because consumers are distinctly aware of the fact that, behind these relatable brand identities, there often lies a large corporation. Oasis, for example, is owned by Coca-Cola corp. There is therefore something inherently jarring about such a company trying to place itself above other brands through the use of ‘honesty’.

On Twitter, meanwhile, this same tactic is invariably well received. Why is this? Perhaps because consumers are aware that there is often a single individual (or a small team) behind a response to a tweet. Simply put, the posts come across as more believably human because…well, they are.

This is perhaps where the criticism of this particular campaign comes from: the meta cynicism doesn’t connect because it doesn’t feel genuine.


The ‘Innocent’ effect

Of course, Oasis certainly isn’t the only brand to have centred a marketing approach around the desire to appear human and irreverent. The undisputed pioneers of this strategy must be Innocent Smoothies, with all content coming from the brand (whether it be text on packaging, social media posts, or digital billboards) delivered in the same idiosyncratic tone.

In recent years, the term ‘wackaging’ seems to have been accepted into the cultural lexicon, a phrase with clear origins in Innocent’s approach. A brief glance at the packaging on one of their smoothie bottles reveals a cohesive style, unabashedly chatty and friendly, with references to ‘lovely fruit’ and instructions to ‘shake it up, baby.’

Over the years, as brands from Pret to Frijj have mimicked the style, consumers have become increasingly wary of it. On the top of Pret’s iced tea, for example, one can find this:

This style being copied ad infinitum has inevitably diminished its initial power. When Innocent brought this to the table in the late 90s, it was done by a small group of Cambridge graduates with no copywriting experience and a sense of humour. In short, it was authentic.

For the imitators of this style, however, their customers seemed to be increasingly turned off by this shtick, seeing through it as a safe approach approved by a panel of executives who were sure of its success as opposed to a genuine creative decision.

This is where problems can lie: some brands simply tapping into the zeitgeist and borrowing whatever works as the foundation for creative output. Whilst this may work in some instances (and in some settings, i.e. Twitter), in others it can come across as uninspired and downright cynical.

Thus, it seems that creatives need to be more selective when it comes to partaking in trends. In this case, it’s simply impossible to imitate a style which relies upon authenticity.

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