How to be boring and influence people

16 May 2017  |  Geoff Copps 
How to be boring and influence people

By embracing boringness, brands are able to bring some stability into the lives of consumers beleaguered by everyday forces of change, novelty and uncertainty, writes Geoff Copps

"It's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring" - Marilyn Monroe

I want to talk about boringness - the staid, the dull, the mundane - and why Marilyn was wrong.

Most marketers see it as their job to avoid boringness at all costs. Consumers, the prevailing view goes, are put off by boring brands. They only value and engage with what is entertaining and exciting.

Like all orthodoxy, this view seems like common sense. Often, there appears to be a direct linear relationship between brand excitement and appeal. But this is not always the case. Marketers would do well to observe when the reverse is true.

Consider the current political situation on either side of the Atlantic. Whatever else it signified, Donald Trump’s election last year was a tick in the ‘anti-boredom’ box. He was (and remains) the 'box office' candidate. His every keystroke lights up the internet. As Matthew d'Ancona pointed out in the London Evening Standard, he has effectively "annexed the government of the world’s most powerful nation to the world of showbusiness".

Maybe Brand Trump is the logical consumer choice for our times. We live in a world in which generating excitement of one kind or another is seen to be a key success factor. To quote the cultural commentator Tom Chatfield, today's information environment - media and technology platforms - is more "heavily geared" than ever before towards “impact and sensation”.

Yet in the world of politics we may also observe a counter-current to the Trump phenomenon. Theresa May’s popularity with the UK electorate has nothing to do with excitement. Her pre-election positioning is in one sense the exact the opposite of Trump’s. With the UK facing an uncertain future, May has actively cultivated the virtues of boringness.

She plays her cards close to her chest. She has surrounded herself with foils: Boris Johnson, David Davis and the like. Her mantra ‘strong and stable leadership’ bores in both content and delivery: a claim of solidness and dependability, repeated ad infinitum. Throw in a dose of Thatcher-nostalgia and you’ve got an apparently election-winning formula.

All in all, when Trump and Theresa came together in that awkward hand-grasping episode back in January, the cliché seemed true: overbearing American meets fusty, buttoned-up Brit.

The contrast between the two leaders indicates how in some contexts being boring can be understood as an advantageous trait. This is as true for brands as it is for politicians.

So what is 'boringness'? When we examine the matter up close we see the question is harder to answer than first appears. Boringness is a strange beast, a concept best defined as a cluster of traits. It refers to blandness, confinement, tedium, predictability. But it also stands for sensibleness, straightforwardness, consistency, reliability, familiarity, evenness of response and temper.

Is this second set of values not just the kind of thing we look for in some brand categories? Consider the automotive sector (German family car manufacturers), DIY brands ("It does exactly what it says on the tin" - no more, no less, no surprises), healthcare, financial and insurance, utility and delivery services...

The truth is we can - and do - value brands for their boringness: their humdrum quality, their reassuring ordinariness, their unvarying look and feel and taste. We value brands that become 'part of the furniture', both in the home and in commercial media environments. Such brands feature in our lives in such a way that, having long ago chosen to favour them, we no longer register their presence as a matter to be queried or reconsidered.

This attitude is very different from 'exciting' brands. In human terms, it is rather like the difference between enduring fondness and flash-in-the-plan lust. The latter may be sexier; but the former is for life.

By embracing boringness, brands are able to bring some stability into the lives of consumers beleaguered by everyday forces of change, novelty and uncertainty.

Those that succeed in this endeavour we might call 'Bulwark brands'. Bulwark brands foreground and exploit their boringness. It is not that they are boring per se; more that they have found a way, through judicious use of media and communications, of deploying the positive qualities of boringness to drive affection, nostalgia, habit formation and purchase.

Consider recent Heinz advertising. Created by AMVBBDO and first broadcast back in 2009, their ketchup ads aired again in the first half of 2017.

I am a particular fan of the radio ads. They're clever and they work. They are also, well...boring. They are voiced in dull, homely tones. Stripped of the TV creative's central conceit (in which food only appears once it has been dowsed in the magic red sauce), they are like mini kitchen-sink dramas, without the drama. They end with the tagline "It has to be Heinz", a sign-off that sounds so right and inevitable that you don't notice the work of gentle coercion it performs.

Delivered via a similarly 'inevitable' broadcast media strategy (heavyweight TV, high-frequency radio support), the original campaign did a textbook job at reaffirming the product's Bulwark brand credentials.

Other brands that have flirted with boringness to their advantage include John Lewis and Stella Artois.

Aside from Christmas, John Lewis advertising uses clean lines and muted colour palettes to connote premiumness and respectability. Stella Artois's famous tagline - “reassuringly expensive” - could've been written by an accountant, and in the UK has surely performed valuable work to counter the brand's occasionally less-than-favourable 'Saturday night' image.

Talking of taglines, John Lewis's promise of "Never knowingly undersold", established in the 1920s, is so spectacularly boring that a survey found nearly half of UK shoppers don't know what it means. For this long-running slogan, understanding is almost beside the point: its effect is achieved more through familiarity and association. The line comes across as reassuringly bureaucratic, the sound of good old-fashioned service. (Boringness is also a useful cover for a promise that has become over recent years harder and harder to honour.)

We would do well, then, to revisit assumptions about the primacy of excitement as a driver of brand appeal. Excitement, after all, has its disadvantages: it can be difficult and costly to sustain, and it can impact on message coherence (Brand Trump again provides a decent case study here).

Boringness doesn't suffer in these ways. Granted, things may work better for some audiences than others (age and life-stage are likely to be important). But sometimes boringness is just the ticket.

In one sense, I'm saying nothing new. 'Boringness' connects with various strands of thought that have existed for some time. These include the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute's emphasis on availability and consistency in branding, and on cultural trends such as the ‘Slow Food’ movement and 'National Unplugging Day'.

In short, boringness can act as a foil to a noisy, over-stimulated world. It may be especially attractive when there is a surfeit of change, uncertainty or risk in the market. It is at such times that aspiring to be a 'boring' Bulwark brand may prove as canny a strategy as any.

So marketers: embrace boringness! Stick it in your brand pyramids. Build creative and comms plans on it. Now that really would be bold and exciting.

Geoff Copps is head of research at IPG Mediabrands UK


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