News & Views

Let Netflix keep the drama - a complex world needs clear and simple brands

by Contagious Contributor

In a complex world, people flock to challenging and dark drama. But brands should stick to offering clarity and guidance, says Flamingo's Hadley Coull and Andy Davidson

Imagine a world that’s brutal and unjust; where good people die and bad people thrive, and surprise events can change the course of the world.

Not that hard to imagine, is it?

But rather than the current political climate, we’re describing HBO’s blockbuster fantasy show Game of Thrones, a similarly complex, difficult drama where power and tragedy are central themes. One of the most popular TV series of all time, it regularly draws in over 10m viewers. Over in the world of teen TV dramas (which have traditionally focused on typical teen angst: rebellion, drugs and sex), some of the most popular recent shows also explore difficult, complicated subject matter, including mental health and suicide, murder, and death.

Would these dark shows have been as popular in more stable times?

Fundamentally, human beings really don’t like complexity or uncertainty; we like things to be simple and clear. Unfortunately, we live in incredibly uncertain times. Our political structures, our environment, our economy, even our identities – all are in a state of upheaval.

But there are some realms, like watching a film or reading a book, where uncertainty is welcome. In the most part, we don’t want to know how a story will end, and the anticipation of finding out is a huge part of our enjoyment. The key to this is that our uncertainty is finite, and we know the parameters in which it exists.

The popularity of Game of Thrones and dark teen dramas is a positive, engaged response to complexity. Now more than ever before, TV, movies, video games, and other forms of play offer us a safe space in which to practise complexity, where we can embrace ambiguity, difficulty and risk without fear or consequence.

But outside the safe space of fiction, as the world gets more complex and uncertain, our responses to it become more simplistic. In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz argued that eliminating consumer choices can reduce anxiety for shoppers. Similarly, in life, modern phenomena like the resurgence of nationalism, the alt-right, and filter bubbles are all examples of human beings seeking the refuge of simplicity in a storm of information.

Brands and organisations looking to thrive in these uncertain times should also seek to provide a degree of stability.

Last year, Flamingo and DDB carried out research that explored the nature of uncertainty today. We spoke to a range of cultural experts, including historians, journalists, economists, anthropologists, meteorologists and a mountaineer, as well as C-suite business leaders.

From these conversations, we uncovered 12 themes for dealing with uncertainty, which were then distilled into a model describing four strategies – guide, translate, create and pivot -- to help brands and businesses chart a path through uncertain times.

Choosing the most appropriate strategy depends on how an organisation fits against two variables; the first is the nature of its values – more specifically, whether it promises change or stability. Brands like Tesla and Apple promise change because they offer difference, adventure and novelty; meanwhile brands like M&S and Heinz promise stability through their heritage, familiarity and simplicity.

The other important variable is whether the source of the uncertainty is external – for example environmental or contextual factors that an organisation can’t control – or internal – like a crisis within its business or industry, or a disruptive new product offering in its space.

The ‘guide’ strategy works when a brand promises stability and its uncertainty is internal. Here the best approach is for the brand to stabilise itself through a deep understanding of whatever issue it’s facing, followed by reframing and offering a clear message to customers. For that reason, focusing on long-term goals and messaging is best. An example of this is diamond brand De Beers and its response to the 2007-8 recession.

During that time, rather than dropping prices, the brand centred its communications around the long-term enduring value of diamonds. Its brand awareness ads shared the message ‘here’s to less’, encouraging people to buy fewer, better things because ‘a diamond is forever’.

By encouraging consumers to look beyond the immediate recession and think, instead, in terms of enduring value, De Beers was able to retain stable prices, and people’s desire to buy diamonds stayed healthy.

Meanwhile the ‘translate’ strategy is best for brands that promise stability but that are facing uncertainty from external factors. McDonald’s is a perfect example of this being done successfully – it has built its brand on consistency but, as notions of convenience change, has evolved its offer to include digital ordering systems and table service. It has kept its core offer the same, but updated it to match consumer expectations.

When a brand is looking to disrupt an industry with a new product or offering, it is promising change and its uncertainty is internal. The best strategy here is to pivot – to keep one foot in place while shifting in another direction. Netflix is a great example of this, having rapidly, and successfully, transitioned from being an aggregator of content to a producer of content.

When Netflix started out, many predicted that its lifetime would be limited by its ad-free model. But now most of Netflix’s revenue comes from original content (shaped largely by the huge amounts of data it holds on its customers’ preferences). Netflix now has more original content than any one network or cable channel in existence and its proportionately lower spend on licensing fees has had a positive effect on its profit margins.

Lastly, when the context is uncertain and your brand promises change (this is effectively a kind of double uncertainty), action will always trump prediction. In short, this means having a sense of direction, even if it’s in an unprecedented direction, is the best way to create stability. A good example of this is Tesla: its fundamental purpose as a business is to disrupt, but having a laser focus on a defined goal effectively offers reassurance.

There aren’t really many simple ways of explaining the world any more. Examples from fiction show our human desire to embrace complexity in a safe space and, in some ways, practise our response to it.

Meanwhile in real life, where escape isn’t an option, brands can guide, translate, create or pivot to offer stability to their customers when uncertainty and complexity prevail.