How far does a company need to deviate from its established brand identity to achieve “cut-through” or “stand-out”?
It’s understandable that mature brands feel they have a lot to lose by taking risks with their customers’ expectations and this can result, with brands becoming inherently conservative in their marketing communications; in a competitive B2B or B2C market, brands can begin to look increasingly homogenous.
The challenger or upstart brand, conversely, isn’t inhibited by such mundane considerations.
Take “Brand Quentin Tarantino”…
This weekend his latest film, the violent Western and slavery drama, Django Unchained, opened in the UK, after three weeks in which it became the director’s highest grossing film in the US market ever. And despite high profile criticism from African Americans such as fellow film director, Spike Lee, it appears a large proportion of the US black population is unperturbed by accusations of disrespect for its ancestors, with 30% of the audience coming from that community.
However, 25 years after his first film, Reservoir Dogs, was released – establishing Tarantino as the new “enfant terrible” of independent cinema – the director is no longer the upstart brand, with “Django” placed fourth in the US box office top 10, ahead of blockbusters including Les Miserables and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
I was fortunate enough, in 1993 – as arts reporter for the Nottingham Evening Post – to interview Tarantino as part of the UK premiere of Reservoir Dogs at the city’s Broadway Cinema. The young writer-director was a highly-engaging study in obsessive and infectious enthusiasm for film, and his inaugural piece of work made me walk out of the cinema, mid-film, in disgust. Not that I was afraid of challenging films, but the violence – particularly the infamous ear-slicing scene sound-tracked by the Steeler’s Wheel song, “Stuck in the Middle with You” – seemed like cinematic shock for shock’s sake and neither clever nor innovative.
But Tarantino wasn’t making films typical of the time – Home Alone 3, The Bodyguard or Wayne’s World, for example – and he didn’t need to care about big film studio box office. Of course, my myopic viewpoint on Reservoir Dogs was wrong and Tarantino’s work changed not just independent cinema, but all cinema thereafter.
And while the blood-drenched, Tarantino-esque violence remains an integral part of his cinematic “brand”, his films have clearly extended their appeal to a more mainstream audience since 1993.
But what he’s done to make each successive film continually stand out – while simultaneously broadening his mass appeal and becoming a mature fixture in cinema – is by taking familiar, well-trodden celluloid territory and giving it a fresh and unexpected feel. His Jackie Brown added another shade to crime film noir, the Kill Bills put new kick into the Kung Fu genre and, now, Django Unchained is a brilliant homage to the radically diverse Westerns of John Ford, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. With each new film, the audience isn’t alienated, but reassured, that it’s being led into a world it knows, but then thrilled with Tarantino’s daring take on that world.
And so, a well-established brand needn’t be afraid of taking a previously unheard-of risk in its marketing communications, if the customer or other audience has already a high degree of trust and regard for the quality of what it provides. In fact, taking a calculated risk might be the only way to really stand out during a period of competitive consideration by the customer.
Risk is a relative concept, and only you know how far you need, or should, go to stand out in your business or industry. But Tarantino, 25 years on, is still taking daring risks in his work and attracting flak from some quarters while, at the same time, clowning around as a guest on Graham Norton’s late night light entertainment TV show. You can’t get much cuddlier than that, can you?