Comment: ‘Seen one, seen them all’

Colin Nagy, the head of strategy at global advertising agency Fred & Farid, discusses the importance of differentiation for startups in the modern era.

Inspired by a conversation I had with a United Airlines flight attendant reflecting on her 52-year career, I disappeared down a YouTube rabbit hole. Viewing the airline’s advertising from the fifties to the present day, I found an interesting inflection point for the brand. In the mid sixties, United hired the creative agency Leo Burnett in Chicago and sought to break away from a cold and operational offering with something rooted in warmth. The tagline ‘Fly the friendly skies’ was born.

Some of the advertising from that time feels a bit like Mad Men sequel relics: flight attendants fawning over businessmen and men-only flights touting the freedom to smoke a pipe. But a lot of it was great, and what struck me is the sea change that this line brought about for the airline. It created differentiation among industry rivals that were competing to transport passengers around the US and, eventually, the world.

Leo Burnett also pulled off an incredibly smart move a few years later, with the licensing of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue: using nuance and ecstatic bombast to show the tender moments of service and also the scale and scope of the airline’s international reach, somehow encapsulating a range of emotions within one song.

What was clear to me with a lot of the spots in this heyday of United advertising is that they all had a strong business strategy coupled with emotional and differentiated creative. A good example came in the nineties. A CEO paces around a packed conference room and intones how the company had lost a valued client, who said he didn’t know them any more. The CEO then hands out tickets to everyone in the company, imploring them to get on a tour to see their clients and reconnect. The business problem here? The rise of fax and conference calls was a threat for face-to-face connection (and the need to travel by air to see clients). But the creative and emotional film – voiced over by Gene Hackman, no less – was powerful. There was a strong strategy and resonant creative.

As we look at the rise of online retail brands, it’s hard to find depth in their marketing or communications. The strategy too often is: the ‘man’, often an incumbent in an industry that’s been having it too good at your expense, extolling how they’ve done something to the supply chain or invented something radically customer-centric. This is then combined with a palette, font and art direction to suggest a new bright and different world. The trouble is that, with the pace of investment into this online retail sector, things all start looking the same.

A recent piece in Bloomberg eviscerated this movement as ‘blanding’, saying, ‘Although funded by angel investment, venture capital and private equity, blands present as scrappily uncorporate’ and ‘instead they proffer origin stories that mash up indie-movie meet-cutes with aspirational grail quests.’

The article was a sniper shot from 1,000 yards into the heart of lookalike startups trying to cash in on a trend. The common problem is that so many of them lack differentiation.

So, who does it well? Liquid Death leans into a punk-rock attitude to sell, wait for it, canned water. But its boldness and differentiation jumps off the shelf. Taika uses cartoon dolphins and other unexpected elements as an iced-coffee brand to ensure it doesn’t slip into the boring same-sameness as the category as a whole. Ugly Drinks’ art direction is intentionally so over the top that you’re not going to mistake it for another seltzer.

This contrarianism, once you do have your brand codes established, helps make you stand out on the shelf, stick in a consumer’s mind, and not fade away into the bland blur of new brands trying to get bought by a mega-conglomerate.

This article was first published in Courier issue 38, December/January 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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