Over the Edge
Scott Place never thought he'd see a baboon's backside in his conference room. But a primate's posterior made an unexpected appearance during a get-to-know-you meeting that Place, president of Maverick Marketing, held with a new client at his office in Cary, N.C., one day last spring.
The client, a small biotech firm, had hired Place to spruce up its marketing materials. During that initial meeting, Place and his team were shown a PowerPoint presentation the client had designed to show prospective clients. It was your basic technical slide show -- until about three to four slides from the end. And then, there it was: a full-color photo of a baboon's butt. No caption. "The presentation was about trying to find a gene in animals similar to the human gene for male pattern baldness," Place says. (For those not up on their primatology, baboons' nether regions are usually brightly colored and hair-free.)
As the clients guffawed at their joke, Place and his staff exchanged alarmed looks. "Guys, I really don't think this is a good idea," Place finally said. The clients explained that they were looking for a way to end their presentation on a funny, attention-grabbing note. But the presentation, Place reminded them, was targeted at drug company scientists. "We need clean, efficient, no-nonsense professional materials," he said. By tossing in such a juvenile joke, the company would surely harm its credibility.
While the particulars of that meeting were unusual, the sentiment behind it was not, says Place. He works primarily with small and midsize clients and has found that they are invariably drawn to the edgy, wacky, wild, and weird in their marketing. Why? They think it will create name recognition on the cheap. It's not an entirely illogical idea. After all, if you lack the budget for a national television campaign, a full slate of billboards, and full-page magazine or newspaper ads, doesn't it make sense to compensate with an extra dose of audacity?
Perhaps. But in their quest to stand out in an increasingly ad-cluttered world, many marketers forget that not all attention is created equal. What's more, when everyone else is striving to be out of the box, a quiet, attitude-free approach might have more edge than you think. "A lot of ad execs say that it's all about getting noticed, that if customers see your name, that's all that matters," says Samantha Guerry, president and CEO of Sightline Marketing in Washington, D.C. "That's bull. If they see you and they develop a negative association, then that's not a good thing."
Ann Taylor, senior vice president of the Point Group, an ad agency in Dallas, recalls a small cosmetic surgery practice that was requesting an edgy campaign. Their agency delivered a series of ads consisting of photographs of various fruits and vegetables against a stark white backdrop. In one ad, a portrait of two grapes was accompanied by the question, "Are your breasts this small?" Another, featuring a picture of a potato, asked, "Is your behind this lumpy?" The result was not what the doctors, or their agency, had anticipated. "The cosmetic surgeon got very irate phone calls from women who felt like it was demeaning and objectifying," Taylor says. The campaign was quickly abandoned in favor of a more traditional, aspirational campaign featuring soft-focus photographs of models with perfect faces and bodies.
This is not to say that you should never go offbeat in your marketing. You just shouldn't do it gratuitously, says Jeffrey Durgee, a professor of marketing at the Lally School of Management and Technology at Rensselaer, in Troy, N.Y. Are you in a business where people want reliability, credibility, and stability? Or are you selling the fact that you're hip, cool, and edgy, to people that think they are hip, cool, and edgy? If you're selling sneakers to teenagers, edgy, cool, and shocking is important. If you're selling insurance or financial services, your propensity to take risks may not be the message that you want to convey.
It's easy to get confused. ANET Internet Solutions, a 45-employee Internet service provider in Chicago, recently decided to add some shock and awe to its marketing. The company launched an ad that it nicknamed the "Ka-blooey campaign." The ads, which ran on billboards and on the radio, asked customers whether their ISP would go ka-blooey -- that is, go out of business. The implication was that ANET would be around for the long haul. Unfortunately, the short-on-specifics ad failed to deliver on the company's $20,000-a-month investment.
ANET has since changed tactics, says Ben Liggett, vice president of sales and marketing. "We're taking a more direct approach," he says. Today's ads are short on humor and long on details, highlighting ANET's new 10,000-square-foot data and managed server facility, specs on its T1 and VPN services, and so on -- a back-to-basics approach that is working much better. "The question is, what's the message you want to leave the person with?" Liggett says. "You can't use a technique that sends the wrong message."
Of course, sometimes edgy is the right message. Taylor's company, for example, recently designed the invitations to Houston's annual Gridiron Show, a cheeky roast and toast put on by the local press club. The theme of the event was "indecent exposure," paying homage to Janet Jackson's wardrobe stunt at the Super Bowl in Houston last year. (A clear case of edgy gone wrong.) The Point Group designed an invitation in the shape of a black bustier, with one hand over the top. The hand opens up to reveal a breast, bearing information about the event. The project worked, says Taylor, because it was aimed at creative types -- marketing and advertising people. "If you're selling to people who think of themselves as rebels, mavericks, iconoclasts, you can do something that's out there," she says. It also had a logical connection to the Point Group itself -- which is, after all, in the attention-grabbing business.
The bottom line: Edgy can work, if you wield it with care and target the right audience. "To try to be edgy just to be edgy is just an incredibly stupid idea," says Guerry. Your marketing may not win awards for creativity, but if it convinces your customers to buy what you're offering without busting your bottom line, then who really cares? You can be boring all the way to the bank.