Does 'brave marketing' do more harm than good?

Let me start with a confession: I don’t really understand what ‘bravery’ means when it comes to marketing.

And let me follow that confession up with a provocation: I don’t think anyone does.

And now a question: if you're an insightful enough marketer to spot that the world is a bit, well, ‘conflicty’ at the moment, and you reference that in your advertising, and then suggest that your brand might be the solution… Is that brave?

Well, it rather depends.

If you’re a soft drink, then no, that’s not brave at all.

Suggesting a celebrity with a can could calm the rampaging hordes isn’t just not brave, it’s crass. 

It’s stupid. It’s deplorable. You should be ashamed. (And, by the way, you should definitely use an agency next time, because agencies NEVER make mistakes).

Oh, you’re a beer? Oh, that’s TOTALLY different. It probably is true that all the violently opposed people of the 21st century need is to pop the top off a cold one, and all will be right with the world. Top bravery. Have some awards. Be proud. Well done!

No. Sorry. I’m confused.

The truth is, I’ve always struggled with the idea of ‘bravery’ in marketing. I know it sounds glib, but bravery is a really, really big word. I’m not going to list them, but everyone reading this already knows what genuine bravery looks like, and it’s not deciding to forego Link testing to get straight into market.

In fact, I’d argue that when you introduce it into advermarcomms speak, it’s a piece of language that does more harm than good. ‘Brave’ work is work that’s harder to buy; it’s risky. ‘Now’s not the time to be brave’ becomes an excuse for buying work; for not buying GOOD work.

But what’s the alternative? Being safe? Safe’s not good. Safe is expected, and safe is boring, and safe doesn’t get noticed, and no advertising or marketing has ever achieved anything without getting noticed. Truth is, making ‘safe’ advertising is the riskiest thing you can possibly do. Way more risky than trying to make something brilliant and not quite getting there.

Because here’s the thing that really takes guts as a marketer: recognising that nobody’s listening.

Real people aren’t talking about your brand, they’re talking about Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, or the new growth Bordeaux, or #WengerOut, or how Tom Brady can possibly be better now than he was in 2012.

Making safe work doesn’t mitigate risks - it runs right into them. Quietly. And we shouldn’t see NOT doing that as ‘brave’.

We banned the word ‘brave’ in Creature a while ago - using it undermines our expertise. We’re good at this, and when we say ‘this would be the brave thing to do’, it says that we don’t really know, but fuck, it might be fun to try, mightn’t it? And that’s not what we do. We work harder than anyone else to understand our client’s brands and their audiences, so that, inasmuch as is humanly possible, when we present something good that the client wasn’t expecting, buying it isn’t a ‘brave’ move - it’s the only move.

So here’s my plea for 2018: let’s stop trying to be brave.

Let’s stop getting distracted by the idea of a higher cause. Let’s just all try to make stuff that’s fucking great. That’s noticed, and remarked upon, and that changes the way people think, or feel, or behave.

That maybe even changes people’s purchasing behaviour, or voting intention, or charitable giving.

Let’s give our turkeys to the ads that couldn’t be bothered to try, not to the ones that shot for the moon and landed in a puddle somewhere just south of Chichester. Ultimately, I’d rather be there than somewhere ‘safe’.

Dan Cullen-Shute, CEO and founder of Creature of London. Follow him @creature_dan