News & Views

Turn to the Dark Side

by Contagious Contributor

Ben Sillence, Path's Director of Strategy, explains how to use shock, provocation and controversy to drive brand relevance

Shock has always been one of the sharpest emotions wielded by brands. It’s often used to create experiences and narratives that edge the consumer into the uncomfortable and the controversial. Using such tactics traditionally required brands to tread carefully, lest they unduly offend or alienate consumers. However, in a marketing landscape where comfort is king, this approach is now becoming increasingly relevant. According to Edelman’s Earned Brand study 2017, 67% of consumers would buy a brand for the first time based solely on the brand’s position on a controversial topic.

The increasing fixation on individuality, and the desire to have every product, service or experience tailored to our specific needs, has led to the rise of the Absolute Self – an uncompromising need to use ever more sophisticated methods to deliver personalisation, even down to the molecular level. Driven by the proliferation of complex algorithms, consumers are exchanging surprising and serendipitous experiences for those that are purely relevant and individualised.

DnaNudge is an example of this algorithm-filled future. The service incorporates DNA-decoding into the decision making process with a wristband that scans food items in the supermarket, identifying if the chosen product suits the wearer’s metabolism. In effect, what you eat will be genetically decided before you’ve even walked into the store.

As appealing as this is, consumers are bound to grow bored in a culture of prophetic convenience and instant gratification. The disquieting, algorithm-dominated world will make them yearn for real human experiences that feel ‘unscripted’ and ‘unfiltered’ and they will crave the inaccessible and forbidden even more. This will empower brands to push the limits and tease beyond the acceptable, tapping into the potential that lies in the darker side of our psyche.

With the landscape becoming so risk-averse and calculated, brands will need to awaken consumers with edgier and transgressive experiences. During last year’s London Design Festival, Bompas and Parr collaborated with the Hotel Mondrian on The Spa of Unconscious Desire. The one-night only event invited visitors to experience ‘dark wellness', through a series of treatments that blurred the lines between comfort, fear and disgust. Such disturbing experiences will become symptomatic of brands that wish to use shock to not only resonate with consumers but also to become memorable.

Sensorial depravation, hedonistic disorientation and even physical pain will become tools for brands to immerse their consumers. The clandestine nature of this approach will provide fertile ground for brands to push people outside of their comfort zones.

Spa of Unconscious Desire

When Nike launched its Craft Mars Yard 2.0 trainers, it asked consumers to complete an extreme physical before being offered the chance to purchase. The tasks were purposely developed to make failure certain, highlighting an intriguing shift in the consumer perception of value. Instead of adhering to the old paradigms of premiumness, with price or scarcity driving the high value, Nike tapped into more visceral emotions through trial, pain and endurance. Owning a pair of these shoes became a sign of status not because you could afford them, but because you earned them through tenacity and gritted teeth. 

Nike Bootcamp

The use of provocative experiences to cut through to consumers is also being matched by campaigns that adopt frank, socially conscious and even controversial narratives. While tapping into ubiquitous statements may mean something to everyone, they’ll struggle to be memorable to anyone. The need for brands to take a stand for something that matters to their consumers has led many to take on controversial topics and express uncomfortable truths.

The Heart Immigration campaign by clothing brand Jigsaw, which met rising anti-immigration sentiment in the UK head on, is one such example of this dogmatic approach to contentious or divisive issues. While this campaign will have been celebrated in some quarters, other sections of society may have felt uncomfortable by, or contested with, the message. And that’s good, because eliciting any clear and discernible emotional reaction creates recognition and aids recall.

Heart Immigration

Ultimately, this is what this approach is aiming to deliver. In a brand landscape that is looking to be as easy, painless and uncontentious as possible, experiences that appeal to the darker side of our psyche, tap into discomfort and provide disorientation will not only slice through into the minds of consumers, but stay lodged there. Delivering campaigns that touch on controversial subjects will reflect the confidence brand’s have in their values and engage consumers looking for substance and meaning in their choices.

3 ways to disturb the market:

1. Subversion Is Rewarded
The algorithm-dominated consumer is trading serendipity for relevance. How can your brand provoke with experiences that will truly get their heart pulsing again, and be unafraid to transgress the limits in order to cut through with the emotional response you need?

2. Go Deeper and Darker
Speak to the darker side of the psyche – all-vanilla brands that only acknowledge the superficial layers of their consumers’ minds will gradually lose appeal. Can your brand embrace a wider spectrum of emotions, becoming memorable through provocation?

3. Risk Shows Confidence
Ask how your brand can meet difficult subjects and issues head on, confronting consumers with a view that they might not agree with, but will respect you for declaring.