Ray Norman

Is your brand camouflaged?

10.06.22 10:10 AM By Ray Norman

Copycat branding: Hard to notice and easy to forget.

Everyone knows the Aflac Duck. The CEO, Dan Amos, took an enormous risk approving the duck for Aflac's advertising. He was even afraid to tell anyone––including Aflac's board of directors––about the Duck when the campaign was developed. He was afraid because, for decades, financial service businesses presented themselves with an air of serious dignity and with pretty much the same look, sound and feel. In fact, most financial and insurance ads looked and sounded nearly the same--as if everyone was working from the same template. Whimsy and comedy and anything weird in advertising was considered out-of-bounds for the financial and insurance industry.

But then the audience got something different––something they'd notice, love and never forget.  Did I mention it was different?

On New Year's Day, 2000, the Aflac Duck commercial ran on CNN, 4 times an hour.

The response was immediate: Aflac received more visitors to it's website that day than it had the entire previous year.

Even though it's known that some members of Aflac's board of directors were annoyed and  embarrassed by the obnoxious duck and his cartoonish utterance of "AFLAAAC"... they gladly accepted the dramatic increase market share.

Science will point out that our brains are wired to notice what's different, not what has already been perceived.

Predictability in life can be good. In branding, it's always bad.

If the audience knows what's coming- they are bored. The element of surprise is the key to grabbing the audience's attention, whether it's in television, radio, or digital marketing. That's because something that is different will grab a human's attention every time.

So, one way to approach branding is to focus on what can be introduced that is clearly different

Although this is making sense to you at this moment, it's rare to actually find examples of original branding. Most branding fits into a style. A style that is determined by looking at what the competition is doing--and doing something very similar--to fit into the cast.

"Fitting well into what's expected is, in fact, camouflage––bad positioning for a brand to be in."

Certain visuals and sounds become associated with certain things.  Take voice-over, for example. Flip the TV to a news channel, and you expect to hear an impossibly deep voice say something like "And now the news the others don't cover".  Flip to a radio station, and you expect to hear another impossibly deep voice say something like "Less talk and more music". Flip to a different radio station. If you expect to hear something almost identical--you won't be disappointed. Radio and TV branding (often referred to as "imaging" is pretty much the same, station-to-station. Everyone knows what radio imaging and TV news bumpers are supposed to sound like, and producers assure that happens.

The catch is this: When what we see and hear is what we expect, the message––and branding––can be meaningless to the audience. Example: Does the audience really believe "more music less talk?" when every music station uses that same line (delivered by similar-sounding deep male voices)?

From songwriting to screenplay development, the element of surprise is essential. The goal is tell a story that contains compelling visuals, and immersive sound. The element of surprise (something unexpected) is Storytelling 101.  Of course, this doesn't mean scrapping the comfort of a familiar storyline, in say, the film industry. It just means that you must insert certain elements that are unconventional and surprising to make a familiar idea pop, and become memorable.

So, what happens when the use of stereotype visual and sound overshadows utilizing unique and unpredictable content?  Basically, you are camouflaging your brand--helping it blend in to the static background of predictable, copy-and-paste content.

This can easily happen if, during the creating and curating of new branding, too much attention is paid to what is popular within a given industry. Simply put, using "popular" ideas (a voice style, musical style or visual) can serve to actually camouflage your brand––the exact opposite of what is intended. When creating a new branding element, it's important to consider what is the popular look and sound––and try heading in the opposite direction. Sure, it seems safer to just imitate what everyone else is doing. As a writer and producer of multimedia, I know that getting client approval is gonna be easier if I create what they expect. And what they expect will be what they are familiar with––what seems like it "fits" the "category" in which their product or service lives. But fitting well into what's expected is, in fact, camouflage––bad positioning for a brand to be in.

Take audio branding––my field. Let's take a specialty within my field: radio imaging. For those who don't know the term, radio imaging refers to the pre-produced elements that brand a radio station, such as: "The greatest hits of all time, WXYZ!"

Read that last line again. What type of voice do you hear in your head?

You don't need to tell me-- I already know the voice you hear. It's deep, raspy, a bit scary. Menacing even. Now, what type of man do you see that voice coming from? (Yes, I said "man", cause I know you heard a man's voice)

You see where I'm going with this, right? I know what you are hearing because I know what you expect to hear.

But, given that you have heard that exact thing a thousand times, in the exact voice I'm describing, does it mean anything to you? Does it help you remember anything compelling?

Chances are, if you do remember some interesting radio imaging––it's for the same reason you remember the Geico Gecko––it's something different.

Predictability. The enemy of getting noticed and remembered.

Dress differently if you want to get noticed.

Take a look at your competitors. How does their branding look and sound? In the radio industry, most branding sounds like most everyone else's branding: a deep, snarky voice reading the same tired positioning statements. In the funeral business, you guessed it: somber-toned voice-over that not only is what you'd expect––making one funeral home brand the same as the next.  Of course, there are limits to breaking the mold, I mean you probably won't do well with a cartoon duck as a spokesperson for a funeral home. But you certainly can assess your competition's branding––and do something unexpected and different with your branding––simply by resisting the urge to "fit in" with your industry.

About Ray Norman

Ray has over 2 decades of experience helping brands sound different.

Ray Norman