The Year of Fearlessness: Brand insights from Y&R’s Sandy Thompson, Part 1

The world of brands is a fascinating and intriguing subject that is constantly finding new ground. The very nature of brands so closely reflects human nature that that it goes without saying that we will constantly adjust and readjust our understanding of the science of brands. This week I am excited to be able to share with you an article written by probably the world’s most esteemed expert on the topic of fast-changing consumer attitudes and how they relate to the brands around us. Written by our very own Young & Rubicam, Global Planning Director, Sandy Thompson in New York. I know you will enjoy this one.

You are at a dinner party, sitting between two people you have never met. They are both lovely but very different. The person on your left talks about only one thing—she is a bit one-dimensional. The person on your right seems comfortable talking about everything. She has got character. Naturally, your attention is drawn to her. In fact, if you get stuck talking to the person on your left, you might look to the one on the right to save you.

The same goes for brands. Many brands used to be like our one-dimensional dinner companion, with marketers pushing a single-minded proposition over and over. Advertisers focused on a couple of touch points (television and maybe some print ads) and would ask themselves: “What is the one thing you want to tell people about your brand?”

That does not work anymore. Now your brand is more important than ever—it is everything! Consumers have short attention spans and more control over the brands they interact with. They tune out anything that bores them. To grab and hold their attention, brands must be the diner on the right—the one with the compelling character and opinions. This requires a certain amount of fearlessness from marketers, and I expect to see more brands adopting a fearless attitude in their marketing strategies.

So, what does it mean for a brand to be fearless? I would say brutal honesty, the ability to harness tensity, speed and the willingness to incorporate the audience.

Brutal honesty

I am loving the retail brand Patagonia right now. It’s all about the outdoors, so it strives to be green and reduce its footprint. But it also does a good job of saying where it is not reducing and, perhaps more importantly, why. Patagonia is not perfect, but it is honest, and I love it for that. Because, guess what? I do not know any person or brand that is perfect. If you are honest, odds are I will like you better despite the imperfections. And dishonesty is much riskier now that just about everything.

I am a big believer that brands can have vulnerabilities—that imperfections lead to depth of character and ultimately make brands more intriguing. At Y&R, we call this “tensity.”


Harness your “tensity”
Tensity is the narrative arc that brands need to be effective storytellers. Take Land Rover, for instance. Its image is rugged and hardworking, yet it is also luxury, giving it an alluring duality. Or Marilyn Monroe. What made her irresistible was the combination of innocence and sex appeal. Depth of character is absolutely counterintuitive for brands, which usually champion one or two attributes and miss out on chances to humanize themselves and captivate consumers.
Some brands are getting it, though. I am a fan of Subway’s “The 4 to 9ers,” a series of original webisodes that definitely have some tensity. A lot of kids’ first jobs cover the after-school work shift (4:00 to 9:00 p.m.) at a mall, so Subway tells their stories. The brand plays a central role, yet the series does not hammer the brand into the storylines, which are more honest and fearless than I would expect from a company describing the joys and drudgery of working at a mall.

There is a lot of missed opportunity in the travel industry. Right now, there is a lot of generic “get this room at this rate” and pictures of horses galloping on beaches. But getting “heads in beds” and showing beautiful imagery does not seem enough anymore. There is a lack of genuine emotional connection. Expedia was getting somewhere with its Find Yours campaign, which urged people to think bigger about their vacation options. It focused on the travellers themselves. It tapped into this whole notion of discovering yourself and changing who you are as opposed to just taking a holiday. I love that idea because it makes me stop and think, and perhaps go on a new type of holiday. Brand promises are always tricky because a brand cannot own a message easily. Moments of fearlessness are nice, but they have to lead to full brand mindset shifts.


We will pick this up again next week….
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