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Breaking the rules makes for bigger impact


Lessons learned from brands who aren’t afraid to take smart risks


St. Patrick’s day brings four-leaf clovers, Irish jigs, and poorly executed renditions of the Lucky Charms jingle. Green-washing everything from beer to the Chicago river might be the easiest, most expected way to participate, but in doing so, what bigger, better ideas are we leaving on the table? This St. Patrick’s day, we’re considering how taking smart risks can help brands to make thoughtful, yet surprising moves that pay off.

Here are four ways to step into the world of smart risks, and what we can learn from the brands doing it well.

Break the industry playbook

Even the most time-honored traditions are meant to be broken. In the world of luxury fashion— where trends are in today and out tomorrow—marketing innovations are slow to change. While most high-end players can be found pouring their dollars into glossy print publications, Gucci is going digital, recently taking a chance on an emerging, emoji-based app called Genies.

Within the Genies app (think a bigger, better bitmoji), users can personalize their avatar with 200 pieces of Gucci apparel and interact with a number of Gucci-themed actions, like the shower of Gucci items that fill the screen when fashion-related keywords are triggered.

While Genies is certainly niche (taking the #122 spot in the social networking apps), it indicates nimble shift on behalf of the fashion label to connect to the millenial and Gen Z customers who now make up nearly 50% of total sales.

Lesson learned: Taking risks doesn’t have to mean walking away from what’s worked for your brand, or even your industry. Consider how you might supplement or augment your current mix with something new, rather than starting from ground zero.  

Swim (way) outside your lane

If the best things in life happen outside our comfort zone, it stands to reason that great marketing can happen outside the confines of a brand plan. But if you’re going to jump into something new and unexpected, where do you point the compass? And how do you make sure your big swing yields big impact? For one restaurant chain, the answer was clear: zero in on the people who love you the most.

Earlier this year, Arby’s announced Arby’s of the Month, a monthly subscription box made for super fans and filled with Arby’s swag like a vintage Arby’s tray, winter beanie, bacon scarf and temporary tattoos. Out there, right? They sold out in under an hour. While the boxes aren’t meant to serve as a new profit centera six month subscription has a one-time cost of $25they are fueling brand advocacy, excitement and participation in droves.

Lesson learned: Big swings don’t have to come with a big investment (think about the price to produce and ship limited quantities of swag vs. the price tag of most elements on a media plan). But they do require a powerful idea. Challenge yourself to think outside the boundaries of your brand to uncover unexpected places to play.

Seize the moment

In advertising, as in life, timing is everything. Who can forget the power of Oreo’s “you can still dunk in the dark”not for its superior creative, but for the lightning speed with which it entered (and dominated) the super bowl dialogue. Sometimes, the best risk to take is the one that’s sitting right in front of you. The one that simply requires us to participate when called on.

When John Mayer mentioned Vanity Fair paper goods in Sunday-night IGTV show Current Mood, the brand was quick to answer the call. As a part of his fake Vanity Fair after-party, guests jokingly posed with Vanity Fair paper products and Mayer shared an idea for a commercial featuring Vanity Fair napkins. Rather than merely excite in the callout, Vanity Fair amplified the impact, as well as exposure to their brand, by creating a word-for-word, animated version of the ad. After posting it to their own channels, Mayer picked up as well, posting it to his own page and earning over 100,000 likes and 1,100 comments in the first 12 hours and a pretty sweet shout out to the brand itself.

Lesson learned: When opportunity knocks, be the first to open the door. Whether your brand is called out explicitly or you encounter a conversation your brand is poised to join, finding a smart way jump in can build greater exposure, relevance and positive equity for your brand.

Start small

You don’t have a test and learn culture, you say? Your budgets are set and you can’t fund a pilot, a beta an a/b test? That’s ok! Start small. Build trust within your organization with small-scale, nimble efforts that can move the needle. Social is a perfect testing ground. Experiment with new ad formats, shoot vertical video, target a new conquest audience, weigh in on conversations outside your own pages. Get comfortable with learning what doesn’t work quickly, and pivot.

Lesson learned: It’s easier than you think to start taking small risks. Look, we’re doing it right now with this articlebreaking up your otherwise green newsfeed with something unexpected. Let this small gesture be a reminder that we can all find smart and simple ways to write our own playbook.

Marisa Rondinelli, Associate Director, Strategy

As Associate Director of Strategy at VSA Partners, Marisa helps establish digital and social strategies through in-depth research. In her five year tenure at VSA, she has led strategic initiatives for industry-leading clients such as Nike wearables, AB InBev, Kimberly-Clark and Rust-Oleum, among others. Marisa holds a BA in Marketing from the University of Wisconsin.