By Carla Dabis, Commercial Director MEA at VICE Media
As a deeply human discipline, brand marketing around the world mostly follows a prescribed range of principles and frameworks that has guaranteed its success for decades.
And that’s where the problems begin.
In an age of information and identity overload and social media meltdowns, the long-held convention of using brands as a reassuring shorthand for products is well past its shelf life.
Today, brands need to stand out and flip long-held beliefs on their head – a task more arduous than ever. That’s why those who dare to defy the conventions of their categories are driving greater equity for their brands and standing out from competitors.
Brands that stake their reputation on breaking the rules are, in fact, far better off than those who pursue the suffocating embrace of the status quo – because a clearly defined and authentic brand is no longer a competitive advantage; it is what companies need to survive and thrive, and often drive some significant social change in the process.
It’s time for brands to take a stand, step outside of their comfort zone, and relate to their audience in a culturally relevant way.
In a culturally and ethnically diverse market such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), breaking the rules is a delicate dance for most brands. But then, there are refreshing campaigns that remind us that if done correctly, it pays off.
The world’s first liquid billboard in Dubai to celebrate Adidas’s Burkini Collection and underscore its commitment to making sport as inclusive as possible; Yoplait’s bold campaign to counter mum-shaming by exposing the common criticisms they constantly face, such as judgement over breastfeeding or going back to work; Mobily’s new headset that protects young gamers from predators by making them sound older, helping stave off potential child abusers in gaming platforms... These are some of the recent efforts that reflect relevance, inclusivity, and authenticity – the key parameters to driving differentiation and making them stand out amid a sea of formulaic content from competitors unwilling to push the boundaries.
Breaking the rules in the region is not about radical posturing but more about addressing the taboos, challenging cultural norms, and giving a voice to the marginalized segments of society – such as advocating mental health, encouraging financial wellness, and driving sexual literacy, to name a few.
The Nike Pro Hijab is a perfect case in point, as is Canon’s ‘Women Who Empower’ campaign.
The Nike Pro Hijab, first tested on female weightlifter Amna Al Haddad and figure skater Zahra Lari from the United Arab Emirates among others, has helped advance the inclusive conversation around hijabs and Muslim women in sports.
It is the brand’s proactive and authentic approach in addressing what has often been a controversial issue in sports that has endeared it to a new generation of loyal followers in the region and around the world. Globally, Nike was one of the first major brands to respond to the unrest in the US and support the Black Lives Matter movement, following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, with its memorably modified slogan, "For Once, Just Don’t Do It."
Canon Middle East’s ‘Women Who Empower’ social media campaign last year similarly invited women in the creative industries across MENA to bring forward their creative works, along with the challenges that they face in taking their initiative, and get the opportunity to take their projects forward.
But how and why does breaking the rules give brands such credibility?
That’s partly down to the intertwining relationship between authenticity and questioning the status quo (aka breaking the rules), and examining the scope for change. After all, controversy creates conversations and conversations ultimately drive change – a construct that reverberates with the cultural revolution playing out in the region.
Brands that can capture and capitalize on this pivotal moment of change will certainly thrive. That’s because audiences are desensitized to brand conformity; so, when a brand does something unexpected and authentic, it creates the momentum for better brand equity and recall.
In my 17 years of industry experience, it has been extremely rare [for me] to see brands that play it safe win the equity race. Whether they have a game-changing product or not, brands must therefore break the barriers and work harder to earn the attention of their audiences. Creating brand narratives is a must, by delicately balancing aspiration and provocation, and communicating brave new ideas in simple and nuanced ways from inside culture.
They can do it by doing their homework. That means not rushing to jump off the conventional bandwagon as it could backfire spectacularly. Instead, assess your risk vs reward, listen to the audience, do the research, analyze the data, and study the insights. And then write your own rules.