Why doing the unexpected could be exactly what your customers want

Nowadays, consumers are bombarded with so much messaging that they’ve become highly adept at tuning it out. So, how can you stand out from the crowd and get people to actually listen?

Be unexpected

As marketers, we’re always looking for different, interesting ways to say things. Done right, you can capture people’s attention. And you can create a more meaningful, emotional connection than if you simply list product details or proof points.

A recent ad for Krispy Kreme started with the headline: ‘Donuts are bad for you.’ Not exactly what you’d expect a donut company to say, is it? So, it stands out from the norm. It’s a humorous line which makes you stop and think. Suddenly, Krispy Kreme seem relatable – they can poke fun at themselves. Most of all, it’s not just another donut company selling donuts in the same old way.

Be a little bit wacky

Drinks brand Innocent are masters of doing things differently. Attributed with having created ‘wackaging’ (wacky packaging), they regularly subvert the norms, adding little in-jokes and humorous snippets to their packaging, website or marketing. They feature hidden messages like ‘Stop looking at my bottom’ printed on the underside of cartons. They create interesting, humorous adverts and marketing materials. Pick up one of their products, or look at their Twitter feed, and you’ll find something quirky.

It’s a popular approach adopted by many brands. Sometimes they’re bold and in your face, like coffee retailer Puccino’s branding their free biscuits as ‘Stupid little biscuit’. Sometimes they’re more subtle, hidden in the tiny bits of copy that people rarely glance at – like Pret a Manger serviettes featuring the message: “If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins (which you don’t need or want) please give them the evil eye.”

This kind of messaging can be very impactful. It’s slightly shocking. And it’s like a secret joke between you and your customers. A little reward to them for discovering it. And a small moment of humour to brighten their day. All of which can be great for your brand perception.

The humorous 404

Another area ripe for this approach is the 404 error message. There are only so many ways you can say ‘Sorry, the page you requested can’t be found’. No surprise, then, that web editors around the world have been a bit more creative in the ways they apologise for broken links with everything from Star Wars-based jokes to interactive games and even Lionel Richie asking if it was him you were looking for.

Again, it shows there’s more to your brand than products or services. Your company is made up of creative people and you do things your own way. Who wouldn’t want to engage with that?

When the unexpected goes wrong

Of course, it doesn’t always work. Whatever we write, it always needs to be appropriate – something that cosmetics brand Lush arguably got wrong recently with the packaging of their Snow Fairy shower gel. No doubt, they thought it was cheeky and a little bit different to add the line, “HOW TO USE: If you really don’t know how, then we suggest you find someone you really like and invite them into the shower with you to demonstrate.” Different to standard product messaging? Yes. Cheeky? Certainly. And for a certain segment of their demographic, an ideal message.

Not great, however, for the eight-year-old girl given it as a Christmas present. All of a sudden, it seems inappropriate and the brand is crude, overbearing and confused about who actually uses their products. After all, there’s no age limit on shower gel. So, is it appropriate to discuss it with such sexual connotations? Of course, Lush aren’t the only ones to market products in this way. But in an effort to be different, have they pushed the mark too far?

Similarly, a colleague was recently nonplussed to receive a Mother’s day email from online retailer Very.co.uk, announcing that his ‘mum has got it goin’ on’. A company trying to employ a different tone of voice. And a cheap reference to a song from the mid-2000s, presumably hoping to tap into a vein of nostalgia. But it actually just seems a bit desperate (Mum? Mother’s Day? Get it?) and a little bit confusing. So, while the unexpected can work, you still need to tread lightly.

Can it work for B2B?

As you’ll have noticed, the examples given have all been B2C. And that’s partly because B2C clients are often that little bit braver. B2B marketing is arguably more predictable. We just talk about dry subjects (like data centres, or cost of ownership, or revenue streams) in a dull, dry way, don’t we? Well, no actually.

No matter who you’re talking to, and which service or product you’re talking about, your audience is always a person. Forget B2C and B2B and start thinking H2H (human to human). Talk to them like a person. And if you can surprise them. So much the better.

In 2015, technology company Avaya used the unexpected tactic of gently mocking the very people they were addressing, with a campaign that skewered the way business people speak. It was a clever move as, not only does it engage people with humour, it also taps into something that the audience has likely experienced themselves.

In a recent campaign for one client, we asked people NOT to click on our link. Not exactly Monty Python levels of irreverence, perhaps. But we hoped it would surprise and intrigue people. After all, how often do companies ask you not to click through? And it really did do wonders for our click-through rate.

So, next time you want to connect with customers, ask yourself what they wouldn’t expect to see. It might just be the thing that interests them the most.